By Adam Brandon at the Estadio Monumental David Arellano.
Gustavo Quinteros was not ready to settle for a point. In the 77th minute, the Colo-Colo coach asked young left winger Alexander Oroz to enter the fray and replace hardworking midfielder Leonardo Gil.
Oroz had been the hero of the weekend, scoring a last-minute equalizer to salvage a point against Universidad Católica. Quinteros, and many in the field, felt this could be another chance for Oroz to provide the decisive moment.
And, after waiting two minutes, it only took a few more minutes for Oroz to do just that, but not in the way he and all the other Colo-Colo persuaders had hoped for.
Oroz appeared to be leading a Colo-Colo counterattack until he was aggressively halted by an out of control tackle from Chile international Paulo Diaz. inexplicably, the Venezuelan referee waved play, and within seconds Colo-Colo’s only other substitute (goalkeeper Omar Carabali) was screaming by not sweeping the ball away from trouble with his legs as he was lying on the ground, which allowed Matias Suarez to come in from close range to give River the lead.
The game’s biggest talking point came in the 81st minute and it was the first real moment of second-half goalmouth action in a game that seemed destined to end scoreless. In truth, the game was somewhat disappointing given that the opening minutes of the clash had promised so much.
It had rained heavily in Santiago the day before this game, but the surface was more slippery than wet.
The Estadio Monumental is set against a beautiful backdrop of the Andes, and a heady mix of light and smoke from flares, a light mist from the mountains, and thirty-five thousand bodies leaping up and down gave the night that feeling. Liberators special.
Colo-Colo, buoyed by the fervent atmosphere inside the Estadio Monumental, quickly started playing at high intensity, but just lacked the composure necessary for it to really matter – that lack of composure at a key moment would prove the story of their night.
And despite much of the early run, it was Colo-Colo’s bodies that were thrown in the way of River’s shots to keep the game scoreless in those opening rallies.
Pablo Solari, the exciting Argentinian winger who once had a trail with River Plate, caused a buzz in the crowd every time he received the ball. And it was he who framed Colo-Colo’s first effort, forcing a corner with a shot that nearly caught Armani at his near post just after the first long stoppage had ended on 20 minutes while Solari was receiving treatment for a blow to the face and the referee called Colo-Colo fans down from the fences into the stands.
Another stoppage saw Colo-Colo keeper Bryan Cortes hobble injured and replaced by Ecuadorian-born Carabali, making his Libertadores debut. A blow that seemed significant at the time and unfortunately for the hosts would end up proving seismic.
Minutes before half-time, Solari forced another corner with a low cross shot that couldn’t quite be returned by Colo-Colo number 9 Juan Martín Lucero.
The resulting corner saw Colo-Colo’s first of two penalty appeals dismissed as the referee failed to punish Enzo Perez for dragging eccentric Colo-Colo centre-back Maxi Falcón to the ground.
Moments later Lucero was placed behind River’s defense but failed to create the correct angle of fire so he opted to turn back to be met by a River defender who wiped him out . Home fans screamed for a penalty but the erratic Venezuelan referee didn’t point the spot.
Replays showed there had been contact, but Lucero had exaggerated it – with VAR (not used until the Libertadores round of 16) it’s probably a given. The first half ended with River’s best chance as Ezequiel Barco failed to execute a lob after being crossed by Nicolas de la Cruz.
The second half started with Colo-Colo on the front foot, and a free kick from the edge of the box won by Lucero raised a lot of expectations but was slow to catch on and eventually hit the wall. This eventually led to another free kick wide which Falcon could only head straight into Armani’s arms.
River’s passing in the final third was still sharper than the Chileans, and after Diaz’s controversial tackle on Oroz they assembled a move to grab the opening goal.
When Colo-Colo ran out of ideas, they nearly found a response. Solari played Oscar Opazo in the box and was waiting for the takedown in acres of space, but saw his shot deflected over the corner, many wondering if he could have fired faster.
It proved to be the closest Colo-Colo to an equaliser, as River looked for a second goal to finish it off and got it with a superb strike from Barco, heading home 25 yards out in the corner superior.
A minute into stoppage time, Colo-Colo found a consolation goal with Lucero heading home from close range after a wonderful delivery from Solari. We looked set for a grandstand finish, but River saw it comfortably with a mix of their clever waste of time and over-eagerness from the hosts.
Colo-Colo fans gave their team an enthusiastic welcome at the end despite the loss. Captain Gabriel Suazo was a contender for man of the match while centre-back Falcón had one of his best games in a Colo-Colo jersey.
There were plenty of positives even though they ultimately lacked composure and quality in the final third, but with more experience at this level it could come.
Before the game, most of the songs were about River Plate’s relegation in 2011.”Son of the Bechoed around the floor after the game too.
While many River fans may still feel a sense of shame about it, surely few would trade the journey they’ve been on since. They weren’t at their best tonight but still managed to find a way to win which is usual after all these years under Marcelo Gallardo.
For all the relegation teasing of River Plate, few clubs in South America can match their success in recent years.
They have been regulars in the last four of the Libertadores and are once again among the favorites for the most prestigious title in South America. The win means they top the group with a record 100%, three ahead of the Chileans.
Colo-Colo remain the most likely of the other three teams in the group to join them as they have proved too much for Fortaleza and Alianza Lima so far.
And based on that, they will be confident of finishing the job in the coming weeks and joining River in the last 16.