It was one of those moments when top class football meets a park kickabout.
River Plate of Argentina were at home to Santa Fe of Colombia in the Copa Libertadores, South America’s Champions League. It was the fifth of six rounds of group games. Places in the knockout phase were up for grabs, and River had just 11 players available. Not only did they have no substitutes, they were also without a specialist goalkeeper.
The Buenos Aires giants have been hit by an outbreak of coronavirus. In a domestic game at the weekend, against historic rivals Boca Juniors, they were forced to give a debut to Leonardo Diaz, the fifth-choice keeper. But he had not been included in the squad for the Libertadores. With the precise aim of covering this situation, CONMEBOL had allowed teams to name a list of 50 players. River refused. They stuck with 32, including four keepers — and then they found themselves with all four, plus 16 others, testing positive for COVID-19.
One more player, 38-year-old centre-back Javier Pinola, is still out of action recovering from a broken forearm. He offered to take a place on the bench, but it was clearly a gamble too far. Eleven River Plate players, then, were left to face Santa Fe, and one of them had to go in goal.
The rationale used was straight off the park, where jumpers are thrown down and used as goalposts. Veteran midfielder Enzo Perez was not 100 percent fit, struggling with a muscular problem. Since he could not run around as much as usual, the green jersey was his, and it was up to Santa Fe to attack him: The Colombians needed a win to stay alive in the competition.
It is possible that they felt the pressure of the unusual occasion, the fear that destiny had reserved for them the fate of being the other team on a heroic night. Anyway, they made a dreadful start. Centre-back Fainer Torijano is usually their Mr Reliable, but he made an appalling mistake, and Federico Angileri gave River the lead. Then the wonderfully classy Julian Alvarez stunned their keeper with a glorious left footed shot on the turn. Just five minutes had elapsed, River were two up, and some of the pressure had been lifted off Perez. He could afford to make a mistake.
But he had few opportunities to make one. River’s three centre-backs formed a formidable block in front of him. There was not the slightest question of indecision about whether or not the keeper would come for crosses. Perez stayed on his line while the defence headed everything away. He had to wait 25 minutes before having a serious shot to save — a long range effort from centre back Jeisson Palacios, which he met with a dive to his left and a tip round the post. In fact, the shot was going well wide, but one of the hardest things for an inexperienced keeper is to know where he is standing in relation to his goal, and Perez was wise to take no chances.
Santa Fe turned the screw in the second half and made some attacking changes. With no fresh legs to introduce, River tired, and in their eagerness to protect their goalkeeper they dropped dangerously deep. Perez was beaten once but had no chance to make the save. Kelvin Osorio slipped Jhon Arias to the left byline and followed the play to steer into the far corner when Arias pulled the ball back. Franco Armani, River’s usual keeper and Argentina’s No. 1, would not have done much better.
There were few alarms in the last 20 minutes, and perhaps even the Santa Fe players found it hard to begrudge Perez his celebrations when the final whistle sounded and River had won 2-1.
He would like to be celebrating again on Tuesday. It is the last round of the group phase, and River could still be knocked out if they lose at home to Fluminense of Brazil and Santa Fe go down to fellow Colombians Junior. River Plate have a few days, then, to get some of their players recovered from COVID-19 — above all, a specialist goalkeeper.