River Plate defender Gabriel Mercado gave thanks to the man he will try to stop in the Copa Libertadores final – Enrique Esqueda – ahead of the first leg against Tigres on Wednesday.
Mercado’s River won through to their fifth final in the continental tournament via knockout-stage victories over Boca Juniors, Cruzeiro and Guarani – but they would not have made it past Group 6 without the help of Tigres striker Esqueda.
Esqueda’s hat-trick in Tigres’ 5-4 win over Juan Aurich on the final group-stage matchday in April helped River qualify second, and now the two clubs will meet in the Copa decider.
“That match and three goals from Esqueda, who is a player very remembered by all fans of River, gave us the chance to advance to the next stage in a very difficult time,” Mercado said on the eve of the first leg in Mexico.
“After that game we held onto a glimmer of hope, and all the talk in the locker room was about it being a sign, and here we are in the final of the cup because he [Esqueda] never gives up for this team.”
A controversial last-16 win over Boca Juniors was followed by 3-1 aggregate wins over Cruzeiro and Guarani to see River into the final, and Mercado said his side will not die wondering at Tigres’ Estadio Universitario in Nuevo Leon.
“We did not come to Mexico to defend, if not to make a good game and try to win, we will push as we always do and it will surely be an entertaining and exciting final,” the 28-year-old said.
He added: “We have to be alert for the first 25 minutes because there they tend to score goals.”
Mercado is in danger of missing the second leg if he is cautioned on Wednesday, but said he is aware of the situation.
“Surely that weighs and I will think hard, but I cannot be so aware of the issue [all the time] because it can be a difficulty. I’m just used to it,” he said.