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 By Tim Vickery

River Plate stand in Tigres' way of making Copa Libertadores history

It nearly happened in 2001, when Cruz Azul took Argentina's Boca Juniors all the way to a penalty shootout. There was briefly the threat of it taking place nine years later, when Adolfo Bautista put Chivas Guadalajara ahead in the first leg against Internacional -- only for the Brazilians to hit back and win both games. But now it looks a real possibility. The third Mexican side to reach the final, Tigres could be the first to take the Copa Libertadores trophy out of South America.

It surely has to happen soon. Mexican clubs have been invited to take part in the competition since 1998. Their relative financial strength has seldom been more apparent. In the seven week gap between the quarter and the semifinals, Tigres got the cheque book out. In came a couple of wingers, Javier Aquino and Jurgen Damm, plus, even more intriguingly, French international centre-forward Andre-Pierre Gignac. All were in fine form as the team eliminated Internacional of Brazil. Now, can final opponents River Plate of Argentina cope with the Mexican firepower?

The two teams have already faced each other in the competition. They were together in Group Six, where both clashes ended in a draw. But there was no doubt that Tigres were the better side. In Buenos Aries in early March, the home defence could not cope with the pace of Joffre Guerron -- who cannot even get into the starting line up now -- and had to dig deep to come back and force a 1-1 draw.

River PlateRiver Plate
Leg 1
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In Nuevo Leon just over a month later, Tigres were sitting pretty. They had already qualified for the knockout stage, while River were scrapping for every point they could get. Tigres rested some players, but were still 2-0 up with less than five minutes to go. Once more, River managed to force a draw.

All of this leads to an obvious question; if River were unable to defend against the Tigres attack in the group phase, how will they cope now that Gignac, Damm and Aquino have been brought in?

River, too, have brought in re-enforcements. Veteran striker Javier Saviola has been brought back to the club where his career began, though he has so far had to settle for the place on the bench. Young centre-forward Lucas Alario -- signed from Colon of Santa Fe -- has made a good impression, scoring a vital goal in the second leg of the semifinal against Guarani of Paraguay.

Uruguayan attacking midfielder Tabare Viudez, however, looks the pick of the bunch. River were reeling when he came off the bench in the second half of the second leg against Guarani. Instantly, he changed the game.

New recruit, Andre-Pierre Gignac, starred as Tigres eliminated Internacional in the Copa Libertadores semifinal.

Viudez was something of a child prodigy who got lost along the way. Now 25, he was picked up by AC Milan when still a teenager, but found it hard to make an impression in the big squad of the Italian giant. He spent the last three years with unglamorous Kasimpasa of Turkey. But River Plate coach Marcelo Gallardo had worked with him at his childhood club, Nacional of Uruguay, and knew what he could do. Now there is a new question -- what will Gallardo do with Viudez in the first leg, on Wednesday night in Mexico?

Leo Ponzio is ready to come back after suspension and shore up the centre of midfield alongside Matias Kranevitter. Carlos Sanchez will be the motor of the team on the right of midfield. But who will start on the left? It could be the talent and experience of Luis Gonzalez, another returning hero, or it could be Viudez -- the more adventurous option.

River have a long, tiring journey -- with a dramatic temperature difference at the end of it. Coming out of the bitter cold of the southern hemisphere winter, they must now play 90 minutes in the sapping heat of the northern hemisphere summer. Gallardo could keep things tight, and save Viudez for the later stages when legs are tiring. Or he could come out with all guns blazing and seek the initiative.

Will the fact that the away goals rule is not in operation in the final make the former a more likely scenario? For that, we must wait and see.

Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.


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