It would be fair to say that there has been an underlying element of farce to Carlos Bianchi’s return to Boca Juniors, the club with which he won everything there was to be won between 1998-2001 and 2003-04. Early into his return, footage emerged of him being struck clean in the head by a misplaced pass in training, while his defenders, perhaps egged on by his physical resemblance to the comedian Larry David, appear to have initiated a sweepstake to see which of them can give away a goal in the most comical fashion.

With this in mind, the assignment of Chilean referee Enrique Osses to the club’s Copa Libertadores last 16 tie at home to the holders Corinthians seemed an apt choice. Osses, in addition to being card happy, perpetually carries the expression of a senile old man, unsure of where he is or how he got there. When he was forced to stop play just two minutes into Wednesday night’s tie after injuring himself, apparently by running into the back of a player, it appeared the slapstick was set to continue.

But despite the circumstances being propitious to comedy, Boca Juniors straightened themselves and gave perhaps their best display since Bianchi’s reappearance in the Bombonera dugout. They played with great intensity, putting good pressure on the Corinthians defence, closing down space in midfield and defending proactively, stepping forward to see off attacks with strong tackles. It was a hard-working performance of mutual sacrifice in which each and every player played their part.

Corinthians, shackled by the efforts of their hosts, lacked zip in attack and struggled to fashion clear cut openings. Paulo Guerrero was often isolated up front and only able to escape the close attentions of the Boca Juniors defenders a couple of times, striking the post with an excellent curled effort on one such occasion. Paulinho really should have converted the rebound to that shot, instead firing over, but it was otherwise a disappointing display from the holders, who will need to be far sharper in the return leg.

Boca Juniors were not particularly fluent going forwards themselves, although there were periods of nice play, mainly revolving around Walter Erviti and the talented left midfielder Juan Sanchez Mino. They rarely troubled the Corinthians goalkeeper Cassio, but did manage to create the goal that edged them to victory: Nicolas Blandi finding space between two defenders to convert a half-volleyed cross from Cristian Erbes just before the hour mark.

It was a win achieved without the club’s talisman Juan Roman Riquelme, who has only appeared sporadically since himself returning in February. In July last year he had announced his retirement following Boca Juniors’ defeat to the same opposition in the Copa Libertadores final; on Wednesday he watched from the stands as his team-mates went some way towards providing revenge for that defeat.

Riquelme is expected to take his place in the starting eleven for the second leg in Sao Paulo, with Bianchi suggesting that he will be rested from the Superclasico against River Plate to ensure he is ready for the challenge. Riquelme made key contributions in the away legs of Boca Juniors’ victories over Union Espanola and Fluminense in the knockout stages of last year’s competition and his ability to keep the ball and help alleviate pressure on the defence could be a vital attribute in what is sure to be a keenly contested return leg.

Bianchi and Riquelme won two Copa Libertadores titles together in the early part of the millennium and it is clear that there is still a great deal of mutual trust and respect. Bianchi’s sides have always been strong, hard-working outfits illuminated by the ability of a star talent, first Riquelme, and then, in the 2003 Copa Libertadores success, the young Carlos Tevez. Present day Riquelme may not be at that same level, but he is still by some distance Boca Juniors’ most talented player and is likely to play a key role in any further progression.

On a night of positives for Bianchi there was one negative, brought about by the resurrection of the farcical occurrences that have threatened to blight his return. 

In the 83rd minute Pablo Ledesma thought he had doubled Boca Juniors’ lead when he tapped in the rebound from a Sanchez Mino shot, removing his shirt in celebration. Long after it had become apparent to most of the stadium that the goal had been disallowed, Ledesma was still running, bare-chested, along the touchline, only halted by the referee’s whistle and the subsequent issuing of a yellow card. A minute later he received a second booking, followed by a red, following an innocuous challenge on Ralf.

As Bianchi watched on, exasperated, from the sidelines, it was impossible not to imagine Luciano Michelini’s ‘Frolic’ striking up in the background.

Goal of the Week

Wagner (28) – Emelec vs Fluminense

Fluminense went down 2-1 to Emelec in Guayaquil, but the away goal they obtained through Wagner’s superb strike on the stroke of half time gives them a decent chance of progressing. Picking up Carlinhos’ cutback, he took one touch on his right foot before unleashing an unstoppable left foot drive that flew into the far corner of the net.

Player of the Week

Guillermo Burdisso (24) – Boca Juniors

Burdisso has rightly been criticised for some very lapse displays this year, but he was excellent against Corinthians on Wednesday, stepping forward authoritatively to make a number of strong, well-timed tackles and doing a good job dealing with any aerial threat. He will have to repeat his fine performance in the Pacaembu if Boca Juniors are to have a chance of reaching the last eight.

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