Return of Boca Juniors vs. River Plate eases pain of delayed World Cup qualifiers

This month's World Cup qualifiers in South America have been postponed. The matches, which include Brazil against Argentina, will have to be rescheduled. But in the absence of such a showpiece event, there is another major attraction. On Sunday Boca Juniors meet River Plate in the famous Buenos Aires Superclasico. It is one of the world's great clashes, and without doubt the biggest in South American club football.

It's a return of the South American showdown that sets hearts racing worldwide, even more so than perennial meetings between other traditional CONMEBOL rivals in Brazil or elsewhere on the continent.

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This has two explanations. One is that Argentina is very centralised around the capital city of Buenos Aires. The other is that these two clubs form a perfect narrative, with a fault line that is easily understood and replicated in many big derbies across the continent -- the haves versus the have-nots. The two Buenos Aires giants between them claim the affections of more than half the Argentine population, and surveys of their fans reveal little difference between them in terms of social status. But on the symbolic level, River and Boca stand for very different things.

Both began life in the city's working class docklands. Boca have defiantly stayed put. River have long since lived out the immigrant dream, moving out to the suburbs. River's neighbourhood has wide, elegant avenues and lots of space -- the corridors in the stadium are broad enough for the United Nations building. Boca's barrio, meanwhile, is cramped. The stadium, where Sunday's game takes place, is known as the Bombonera -- the chocolate box -- precisely because it goes straight up, with one layer almost directly on top of another. It is not for sufferers of vertigo.

Boca, then, have cultivated an ethic of working-class sweat and solidarity. River aspire to something more elegant and cerebral.

Some meetings between the teams live for ever -- River fans, certainly, will never forget their win over Boca in the final of the 2018 Copa Libertadores, a clash so incendiary that it had to be staged in Madrid. Boca fans will never forget it either -- until they can gain revenge in a future final.

But all Boca-River games exist in their own universe. Sunday's fixture comes in the early stages of the current league season. It is the fifth round of an unwieldy campaign, improvised as a consequence of the coronavirus pandemic. The 26 teams are divided into two groups, where they play their group rivals once -- plus one game against a team from the other group. That is the case of these two clubs. River have made a stuttering start in Group A, with two wins and two shock 1-0 defeats. Boca are unbeaten in Group B, with two wins and two draws, and enjoyed the perfect warm up last Sunday with an astonishing 7-1 win away to an attractive and dangerous Velez Sarsfield.

The game marked the return to action of Carlos Tevez, who had taken some time off after the death of his father. Coach Miguel Angel Russo found a blend that worked wonderfully well. Tevez operated as a false No. 9, dropping deep to combine. This opened up space for Colombian left winger Sebastian Villa, as strong as a horse, to cut across into the centre forward position. And in this in turn opened up space for fellow Colombian playmaker Edwin Cardona to work his magic from the left side of the midfield -- and for the forward bursts of yet another Colombian, attacking left-back Frank Fabra. All the parts clicked, and in an extraordinary second half, Velez were swept aside.

The bad news in the build-up to the big one is that Tevez is not at 100% and Cardona may not be fit enough to take the field. He can be frustrating, but he does have quality, and surrounded by the pace of the likes of Fabra and Villa, he can open up opposing defences.

And defence is not River's strong suit -- as seen when they collapsed at home in the first leg of the semifinal of the Copa Libertadores two months ago, losing 3-0 to Palmeiras of Brazil. Rich in attacking resources and a wonderful sight in full flow, coach Marcelo Gallardo's side were unlucky not to save themselves in a memorable second leg, but there is always a shadow of defensive vulnerability about them.

Gallardo may well be dwelling on this as he ponders the shape of his team. Will he go with three strikers or opt for the protection of an extra man in midfield? His instinct is usually to attempt to seize the initiative, which holds out the promise of a thrilling spectacle.

It is still early days in the season. Either side can lose and still have realistic hopes of reaching the knock-out stages of the competition. There is not so much at stake. But it is Boca-River and so there is everything at stake.