Chaos reigns as River Plate fall to Palmeiras in wild Copa Libertadores semifinal

VAR gives and VAR takes.

In 2018, River Plate made a memorable comeback in Brazil, reaching the final of the Copa Libertadores thanks to a controversial VAR penalty against Gremio. On Tuesday, the video source became the main opponent of the Argentine giants, who made an even more spectacular stop. After losing 3-0 to Brazil’s Palmeiras last week, River won the return leg 2-0 and, given the balance of the game, could not have complained if they had scored enough goals to reach the final.

It is with great relief that Palmeiras can now celebrate as they did in 1999 – the last time they won the competition – while awaiting the winner of the other semi-final between local rivals Santos and Argentine side Boca Juniors.

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Palmeiras was flirting with disaster, and it was largely his fault. Coach Abel Ferreira kept the system he had used in the first half – it worked in Buenos Aires, although his team was lucky in the first half. Still, it wasn’t the right choice for this game. Right-back Marcos Rocha was mainly used as a right centre-back, a role for which he is not exactly suited. Under pressure – and Palmeiras were under pressure for most of the game – he left them five goals behind and relied on their counter-attacking ability, but in reality River wanted to get the ball close to goal again. Palmeira was outnumbered in central midfield, allowing River to set up a quick header. And just like last week, they were outclassed on the right flank, leaving too much space for River’s marauding right winger Gonzalo Montiel.


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Palmeiras strikers Luiz Adriano and Roni were briefly put in danger, but River spent most of the match in the Brazilian midfield and the home defence was wary from the start.

River lost two goals before halftime. Central defender Roberto Rojas shot into a powerful corner and Matias Suarez could only get a cross from Nico de la Cruz for Rafael Santos Borre to head over Rojas and score the second goal.

At halftime, Ferreira brought the attack to midfielder Gustavo Scarpa and sent a clear message to Breno Lopez, who was looking to defend and launch the counter-attack.

But that never happened.

It was one-way and soon after the restart the river moved along the route – or so it seemed. Play turned to the left, where Franco Angileri sent a cross to the far post that Montiel headed back to the back of the net. Then came the VAR show. It took forever, but at the start of the move a tight offside trap was spotted and the goal was denied.

Error! The file name is not specified. An exhausted Rafael Santos Borre sits on the ground after River Plate’s 3-2 defeat by Palmeiras. NELSON ALMEIDA/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

As the pressure of the river increased, Ferreira eventually rearranged his midfield. He brought Gabriel Menino from the right wing onto the middle three and asked Breno Lopez to operate the cross. He turned the tide and it looked like things would finally change for Palmeiras in the last 20 minutes when Rojas was sent off. This is another controversial decision, but it was not made by the video referee. Rojas’ second yellow card was more of a clumsy tackle than a cynical foul, but Uruguayan referee Esteban Ostojic was shown the red card.

Palmeiras collected a lot of cards and some, especially midfielder Danilo, seemed to be treading water. But it was River who turned out to be ten men.

Surprisingly, it made no difference in the course of the game. The Palmeira are more comfortable at the box office – last week they barely used half an hour against ten men when they could have finished the tie – and yet they had to retire. River received a penalty shortly after and Suarez collapsed under Alan Emperer’s shot. Montiel was preparing to fire when VAR looked and decided, probably correctly, that there was little or no contact and that Suarez was already on the field looking for a foul.

And yet River kept rolling. Weverton in the Palmeiras goal had his hands full and was lucky to have a man on the line who came to his rescue when he hit the post.

In the tenth. Another controversy arose over the VAR on the 42nd minute of stoppage time. Santos Borre was behind substitute defender Benjamin Kusevic and fell awkwardly. That was embarrassing. But was that a mistake? The judge went to the screen.

A crucial decision had to be made, but the referee was no doubt relieved to see that another offside position had been called earlier and Palmeiras had been badly beaten but had safely crossed the line. Your chance for glory comes on the 30th. January.

But Tuesday night, most of the glory goes to River Plate. If, as expected, this is the end of coach Marcelo Gallardo’s six-and-a-half-year reign, he leaves on a positive note, complaining that he hasn’t been high enough.


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