For analysis of Exequiel Palacios first leg performance—click here
The history books can finally be written, River Plate are the Copa Libertadores champions. They have beaten their eternal rivals, Boca Juniors, in their first ever meeting for the CONEMBOL championship. Fan violence and riots in the streets of Buenos Aires postponed the second leg. Ultimately, River Plate’s monumental stadium was ill-prepared to host such an event after all the violence, thus Florentino Perez pounced. The Santiago Bernabeu and Madrid, Spain was the venue for one of the biggest matches in football history.
For 20-year-old Exequiel Palacios, who is reported to have agreed terms with Real Madrid , it was an opportunity to strut his talent in his likely future stomping grounds, the Santiago Bernabeu. The eyes of the world were upon him, his future teammates were watching, the board was watching, Florentino Perez was watching—a match that was already bursting at the seems with pressure, was even more so for young Palacios. He left the match a champion, but only showed a few glimpses of his talent as he was forced into a tactical role, for the sake of the team, that did not get the best out of him.
Gallardo Positions Palacios ‘Between the Lines’
Right from the start of the match, there was a clear change in position for Exequiel Palacios compared to the first leg. Marcelo Gallardo, a well respected tactician within the South American game, opted to put Palacios on the left of a midfield three (rather than the right like in the first leg) and pushed him higher up the pitch, looking to find his lynchpin between the lines of Boca’s midfield and defense. Gallardo’s decision actually hindered Palacios influence rather than helped, as River Plate did not have the quality to pass the ball through Boca Juniors first phase of defense. As evidenced by the clips below, Palacios would hang in good pockets of space, but was dependent upon him teammates getting him the ball, something they failed to do time and time again.
Those who are familiar with Exequiel Palacios game know he operates best as a pure central midfielder, and arguably would be better deeper rather than higher up the pitch. He has an engine much like Angel Di Maria and works hard defensively, something that was sacrificed in the first 45 minutes by Gallardo. In contrast, the first leg of this tie saw Palacios overworked defensively, but in the second Gallardo wanted to relieve him of those duties and utilize his attributes in the attack. There were flashes of the Argentine’s talent, but the opening 45 minutes overall was poor from Palacios and from River Plate.
Momentum Shifts—Palacios Involvement Increases
There were indeed flashes in the first half of the quick thinking, direct passing midfielder:
But it would be in the second half, when slotted back into his more natural position— a “#8” box to box midfielder who can build from deep and make late surging runs into the box— that Palacios rediscovered some of his better form. The best way to describe Palacios is as a mix of three or four players: the engine and Argentine grit of Angel Di Maria, the “arrival” and attacking sense as well as dribbling technique of Paulinho, and an overall central midfield position like Saul Niguez. Arturo Vidal would also be a good player comparison. He’s not at the level of the professionals listed above, but his game closely reflects bits and pieces of their play.
Overall, the game was an up and down affair which would be routinely stopped by fouls to break up any sort of rhythm. While the first half was dominated mostly by Boca, the second half would be all River. The equalizer from Pratto in the 68th minute was a beautiful attacking sequence which included a deft and subtle one time touch from Palacios to set free Ignacio Fernandez for the assist:
On top of his offensive contribution, Palacios game improved because he was able to use more of his defensive prowess. He had four tackles, the second most on the team and the most for a midfielder, including a crucial interception in the 87th minute:
Once extra time rolled around, Palacios was substituted in the 97th minute. Prior to his substitution, it was Palacios who was fouled by Wilmar, resulting in his second yellow and eventual sending off.
Passing: 54 with 87% PA
Key Passes: 0
Shots: 1 (1 OT)
Tackles: 4 (2nd highest on team)
Palacios was far from a stand out performer in this match, but he did show flashes of his talent. River Plate’s manager, Marcelo Gallardo, pushed the Argentine higher up the pitch in the opening 45 minutes, but that hurt his game rather than helped. River were unable to beat the first wave of Boca’s defense and could not slip the ball through to Palacios who was starved of touches. Pushed back to his natural pure center midfield role in the second half, Palacios was involved in the equalizing goal and did a tremendous amount of defensive work to keep the momentum with River. Both sets of players were nervous and struggled to impose any sort of rhythm, Palacios fell victim to the nerves as well. Despite the challenges, the 20 year old is now a Copa Libertadores champion and has already played in the famed Santiago Bernabeu. He may have the chance to play against his future employers and teammates in the Club World Cup later this month. Even with his skillset, there is a plethora of central midfield talent currently at the club and Palacios would be well advised to stay on loan at River for another year or be farmed out to another European club. When the time comes, that will ultimately be a decision for the player and the club. In the meantime, Palacios should be celebrating long into the night—he now becomes a part of River Plate folklore.