BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) - Boca Juniors meet River Plate in the semi-final of the Copa Libertadores on Tuesday hoping they and Argentina make headlines for all the right reasons less than a year after unsavoury scenes marred last year’s final between the two teams.
All 70,000 tickets have been sold for the first leg at River’s Monumental stadium, where last November fans attacked the Boca team coach as it approached, smashing windows and spraying players with teargas that put some of them in hospital.
The attack forced Argentine authorities to call the game off as police admitted they could not guarantee the safety of fans and players.
It was eventually played two weeks later in Madrid, where River defeated their arch rivals 3-1 to win the Libertadores for a fourth time.
The incidents sullied Argentina’s image and authorities are taking every precaution to ensure there are no repeat incidents, with more than 1,000 police officers expected to be on duty in the Argentine capital.
Around two-thirds of Argentine football fans say they support either Boca or River, giving any encounter between the teams a nationwide significance.
That importance is amplified by the regional reach of the Libertadores, South America’s version of the Champions League, with the South American Football Confederation already making every one of the players registered for the game undergo a drug test.
The teams are taking their own precautions and basing their preparations on the Sept. 1 league meeting between the two sides, the first since Madrid, which passed off without incident.
Boca now use a team bus with vandal-proof windows and they will have no fans at the game due to a ban on away supporters implemented six years ago to try and halt the spiralling violence between club ultras, or barra brava as they are called in Argentina.
The River fans will be kept at least 150 meters away from the Boca coach as it approaches the stadium.
With one eye on Tuesday’s tie, law enforcement officials last week arrested 10 members of River’s most notorious barra brava and seized arms and drugs.
The fixture is a portentous one and not just because of last year’s trouble.
In the 2015 Copa Libertadores, the first leg of last 16 tie between the two clubs was abandoned at half time after Boca fans attacked River players in the tunnel with pepper spray.
Boca were disqualified from the competition and River were awarded the game.
On the playing side this year, there is little to choose between the two teams.
Boca overhauled the squad that got them to the final last year, with forwards Cristian Pavon and Dario Benedetto, centre back Lisandro Magallan and coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto among those who departed.
Carlos Tevez is still there, as is captain Carlos Izquierdoz, and they have been joined by Italian midfielder Daniele De Rossi, who surprised the football world by joining from AS Roma. In goal, Esteban Andrada last weekend set a league record of 1,129 minutes without conceding a goal.
River will be missing captain Leonardo Ponzio as well as Juan Fernando Quintero, the attacking midfielder who scored in the final last year. But talismanic coach Marcelo Gallardo remains at the helm and is aiming for a third Libertadores title in five years.
Boca currently top the Argentine first division and are unbeaten after eight games, with River four points back in seventh place.
However, the game is perhaps best viewed through the goals for and against optic, with River, the highest scoring team in the Superliga so far, playing Boca, the team with the stingiest defence.
“This River is a team characterized by its flair, attacking is in its DNA,” Oscar Cordoba, the former Boca goalkeeper, told Fox Sports. “Boca is more conservative, they are more robust in midfield, they are safe at the back and Andrada looks after the goal very well. So it’s a clash of styles.”
Writing and reporting by Andrew Downie; additional reporting by Ramiro Scandolo