River Plate once again demonstrated the good, the bad and the ugly sides to their game as they prevailed over Real Madrid to claim fifth place in a wildly entertaining game that frequently stretched the boundaries of credibility.
Both sides had made several changes, with danger man Franco Lopez back in the Argentines’ starting line-up along with the previously suspended Gianluca Simeone, who was deployed as a makeshift centre forward. Real striker Daniel Alcon also started, with Brian Marino restored as goalkeeper.
At stake was the chance to finish fifth in the tournament, but from the kick-off the intensity of the game suggested that a far greater prize was at stake.
On seven minutes Lopez was set free on goal but shot straight at Moreno when he might have done better. He did the same thing two minutes later after latching on to a superb cross from Mauricio Vera on the left.
River Plate were making the early running and soon fashioned another chance when Lopez intercepted Jose Riol’s risky pass across his own area and played in Diego Amarilla on the right of the box, but he shot wide.
Yet the Argentines’ tendency for unsporting behaviour – so shockingly demonstrated in the shameful scenes at the end of their quarter-final loss to Arsenal – once again began to eclipse their attacking exploits, as captain Kevin Sibille crudely chopped down Alvaro Nogueras to the right of the River Plate area. The referee spotted the offence, but not the stamp that followed. Had he done so, the centre back would surely have been dismissed.
Minutes later Simeone was also involved, needlessly going in late on left back Alejandro Miarnau after losing possession.
But if River Plate’s intention was to unsettle their opponents, the tactic failed. On 25 minutes Real’s Francisco Moscardo let a cross-field ball run across him on the edge of the area before hammering a superb curling drive in off the right-hand post, with keeper Ezequiel Muth reduced to the role of bystander.
Simeone had a great chance to level on the half hour after going one-on-one with Marino, but the keeper got down well to deny him.
Moments later, Sibille was once again extremely fortunate to stay on the pitch after a filthy hack at Real striker Daniel Alcon as they chased a ball through the middle, the foul as unnecessary as it was unwarranted because keeper Muth had already collected. Despite being the last defender, Sibille was only shown yellow.
Justice was instantly served as the imperious Oscar Rodriguez stepped up and dispatched the resulting free kick low into the right-hand corner of the net, putting Real 2-0 in front.
But on the stroke of half-time Lopez halved the deficit, expertly controlling a through ball from Simeone with his chest as he advanced into the area, before firing at the left-hand post, volleying the bouncing rebound home first-time.
The second period got underway and Lopez produced another stunning example of his exceptional talent, latching on to a through ball as he sprinted down the inside left channel before firing a blistering shot into the far corner to level the score.
Real almost restored their advantage moments later, only for Muth to produce a wonderful reaction save to deny Oscar when a goal seemed certain.
Both sides were now creating a host of chances as the game developed into an engrossing spectacle, and on 57 minutes Simeone should have put River Plate ahead when he ran on to a through ball on the edge of the Madrid area, but his scuffed cross-shot clipped the outside of the left-hand post. He was replaced soon after in favour of Enzo Zicarelli, the substitution heralding an extraordinary passage of play in which three goals were scored in less than three minutes.
Zicarelli’s first touch put River Plate ahead, albeit in controversial circumstances when the linesman appeared to flag for offside as the Argentineans broke. The Real defence stopped, expecting a whistle that did not come, and Cristian Yanez collected the ball and squared for the newly introduced striker to slot home with ease.
Madrid won a corner on the right straight from the restart and Ousama Siddiki, having also joined the fray as a recently introduced substitute, slammed a fine header home to equalise.
But Real were on level terms for less than a minute after their defence switched off, allowing Amarilla to collect a loose ball and place his shot through the keeper’s legs to make the score 4-3.
Incredibly, more drama instantly followed when Moscardo planted a powerful header against the River Plate bar, and the Argentines went straight back on the attack, only for Zicarelli to miss a sitter when he fired wide of the right post after being picked out in acres of space in the inside right channel.
After such a frenetic spell there was briefly time to draw breath as Real pressed in search of an equaliser. River Plate defended stoutly, if not always fairly, as Sibille’s central defensive partner Alan Brondino took on the mantle of tormenter-in-chief to the Madrid attackers, using fair means and foul as circumstances demanded to stymy their progress.
In the last minute of added time the Spaniards almost drew level when Moscardo’s poked effort looked to be sneaking inside the right-hand post, only for Muth to once again save the day with a magnificent tip around the post.
On reflection, Real Madrid will rue the defensive naivety which allowed the Argentines to gain an advantage at a crucial point in the proceedings. They will depart the tournament wondering what might have been, having shown rich potential in each of their five games.
River Plate have also demonstrated their rich potential, alongside a penchant for punch-ups. However, they are a fantastic side to watch and this game had everything. It will live long in the memory of all who witnessed it.