Matches in the early rounds of the Copa Libertadores are notoriously hard to predict. Running against the schedule of the European leagues and their transfer windows, the South Americans (no matter the size of the club) often are completely changed due to their inability to keep hold of their best players. Because of this, the so-called “favourites” from last season or the qualifying stages can often be shocked by smaller, provincial clubs, and enables an incredibly open field as the tournament progresses. In recent seasons teams such as Independiente del Valle and Club Olimpia, clubs which are somewhat unknown quantities to those outside the continent, have made it to the finals of the Libertadores. Nonetheless, Boca Juniors, playing their first home game in the tournament since the dramatic first-leg of last season’s competition, were firm favourites against Deportes Tolima of Colombia.
Boca Juniors and their new manager Gustavo Alfaro had a strong team to choose from despite the flurry of transfer activity over the winter period. The Argentine giants have been relativity stable in regards to tactics, Los Xeneizes opting to use a 4-2-3-1 shape. Boca is without a doubt strongest in the attacking areas of the pitch, and with Carlos Tevez sitting underneath #9 Dario Benedetto, as well as Sebastian Villa (against his old side) and Mauro Zarate providing width, they carried a considerable threat.
Despite their status as rank outsiders, Tolima possessed a number of players capable of causing a threat in direct attacks off of counters. Marco Perez is a tall and athletic centre forward who lined up front in his sides 4-3-3 shape and enabled supporting players the platform behind him to link-up play. Playing wide left, Omar Albornoz was his side’s primary outlet whenever they regained possession: his dribbling ability and directness with the ball a match for any club in the Libertadores this season. Without the ball, the Tolima manager Alberto Gamero set the team up to stay compact and utilize quick transitions to create chances on the break, as shown by the players at their disposal.
Tolima settle into the match quickly, Boca frustrated
If Boca Juniors ever thought that this would be an easy match, Tolima quickly made them rethink this notion. The home team dominated possession throughout the match, and Tolima was more than happy for them to do so. Defending in a relatively deep defensive line (confronting only when Boca reached their half), Tolima hassled and harried Boca restricting them to simply play in areas of the pitch which were comfortable. Benedetto and Tevez often swapped and rotated positions, coming deep to receive between lines but Tolima midfielder Carlos Robles did an admirable job of screening to deny passing lanes.
With this strategy, combined with an incredibly high line, and the lack of pace of Lopez and Izquierdoz in the centre of the home side’s defence, Tolima had the better of the chances in the first half. Boca was only able to muster shots on goal through a cut-backed effort from Benedetto and potshots from thirty plus yards. Tolima was able to create these dangerous scenarios thanks to the positioning of their wingers without the ball. Whenever an opportunity to move forward was sensed, Luis Gonzalez and the aforementioned Albornoz, “cheated” high up the pitch and stretched the Boca line early and often. Perez up front did a good job of occupying the defenders off the last man’s shoulder and while unable to muster a goal for their efforts, the Colombians should have been very happy for their display.
Boca Settle into a Rhythm and Settle the Match.
Both sides began the second half employing the same selections which began the match, and while Gustavo Alfaro in the Boca Juniors technical area would have wanted more from his team, he was comfortable that quality would prevail. With the benefit of hindsight, this decision would prove correct, albeit, fortunately. Three minutes into the second half, a desperately unlucky Marco Perez would head an in-swinging free kick taken by Mauro Zarate into his own net. From here on out, Boca Juniors nervy start was forgotten and they would take the rest by the scruff of the neck.
Emboldened by the goal, Boca moved the ball noticeably quicker than they had done previously through the likes of Nahitan Nandez and Ivan Marcone in the centre of the pitch. As well, the fullbacks of Boca were emboldened to get forward and overlap more than they had done due to the threat Tolima possessed on the break. Contrary to the first half, Tolima was stretched and unable to stay compact as much as they were comfortable with.
The big-name attacking players in the shape of Carlos Tevez and Benedetto, as a result, found more and more space in the final third. Due to their ability on the ball, Tolima was noticeably nervier than they had been previously and began tactical fouling to try and slow the rhythm. The second goal, coming ten minutes after the first, was a result of changes in the flow of the match: Benedetto blasting a header in the net thanks to a pinpoint cross from Emmanuel Mas down the left.
Tolima’s gameplan was essentially thrown out the window from here on out, and they were forced to take on the role of protagonist with 30 minutes remaining: a role they were desperately uncomfortable with. Committing bodies forward for a corner, it was Boca Juniors this time who played the role of counter-attacker and Mauro Zarate ended the match as a contest with a fine finish into the far corner.
The Colombian team had little choice but to continue attacking and threw another forward up front in the shape of Luis Caballero to partner Marco Perez and provide more options in the penalty area but to no avail. To make matters worse for Tolima, holding midfielder Carlos Robles was sent off late on and their fate was sealed.
Going forward the rest of the Copa Libertadores campaign, Boca will remain strong favourites to reach the latter stages of the competition. While, as noted previously, players will come and go, The Argentine side remains one of the classiest teams in South America. New manager Gustavo Alfaro has a tough job on his hands to replace the departed Guillermo Baros Schelotto but early signs show that he could replicate the success seen at La Bombanera. Tactically, they may need to be more flexible in matches where the other team will not seek to keep possession: Tevez, Benedetto, Zarate, etc. may not be enough on their own.
Tolima, despite the result, can take lots of heart from their first-half performance away from home. While they may not have the big names of other sides, they have a clear playing style/ethos which will threaten the best of sides they could potentially face. The other two teams in their group: Jorge Wilstermann and Atletico Paranaense are sides which Tolima should target to beat both home and away: they certainly can do so based off of their showing in this match.