Copa Libertadores final shows Brazilian super-clubs' dominance

In 2018, the final of South America’s Copa Libertadores was between the old Buenos Aires rivals, River Plate and Boca Juniors. On the face of it, Saturday’s all-Brazilian final between Flamengo and Palmeiras may not have quite the same glamour — the Argentine sides have more global marketing, whereas Brazilian clubs can be more inward looking.

But Saturday’s showdown at Uruguay’s iconic Estadio Centenario in Montevideo can count on more quality. This will be the third consecutive Brazilian triumph in South America’s most prestigious club competition. This new era of domination is based on the rise of the super-club — teams with pockets sufficiently deep to assemble powerful squads.

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Palmeiras and Flamengo are the first of the super-clubs. They have been monopolising the major titles. Palmeiras, the team of Sao Paulo’s Italian expatriate community, are the reigning champions of the Libertadores. Rio de Janeiro giants Flamengo won it the year before. Flamengo are the defending champions of the Brazilian league. They also won the title the previous year, with Palmeiras emerging on top the year before that.

In 2021 the pair have been joined in the super-club bracket by free spending Atletico MIneiro, this season’s likely league winners. Atletico bowed out unbeaten in this year’s Libertadores, eliminated on away goals by Palmeiras in the semifinals. Flamengo are also unbeaten. Palmeiras lost a single group game of little relevance when they fielded an understrength side.The truth is that it has become hard for the rest of Brazil, and even harder for the rest of the continent, to compete with the super-clubs. This may be a worrying development for the future of the Libertadores.

But in terms of Saturday’s big final, it makes for a potential classic, a clash of big punching heavyweights who bring different styles into the ring. Backed by wealthy sponsors and with the most successful of Brazil’s new stadiums, Palmeiras are solid, pragmatic counter punchers, covering up, working behind their jab and on looking for the gap to launch a surprise attack. With massive, nationwide support, Flamengo are altogether more flashy and less predictable, oscillating between the inspired and the chaotic, capable of putting together a dazzling flurry of punches or of dropping their guard and falling for the sucker blow.

After spending time getting their finances sorted out, Flamengo learned how to monetize their support base, and emerged with a confident strategy. They sell young potential stars to Europe — Vinicius Junior, Lucas Paqueta, Renier — and use the proceeds to bring back two types of player from the other side of the Atlantic. First, veterans looking to return home and win some silverware — keeper Diego Alves, left back Filipe Luiz, midfielder Diego and now centre back David Luiz. Second, players in their mid-twenties who have found it hard to find space in the strong European squads — the wonderful strike pairing of Gabriel Barbosa and Bruno Henrique, for example, now joined by centre forward Pedro, and more recently by the Premier League duo of Andreas Pereira and Kenedy.

Portuguese coach Jorge Jesus built the all conquering team of 2019, betting on a bold front four. There was a consensus in Brazilian football at the time that it would not work, that it would unbalance the side and leave it front loaded. That now looks like madness. Jorge Jesus took off for Benfica, but all subsequent coaches, including current boss Renato Portaluppi, have kept the same front four: Barbosa and Bruno Henrique , supplied by the subtle playmaking talents of Everton Ribeiro and the Uruguayan Giorgian De Arrascaeta. And since the days of Jorge Jesus, the club have kept adding options.

De Arrascaeta has been struggling for fitness. There is no like for like replacement, but tricky little winger Michael has been enjoying a wonderful season and will surely play some part. Then there is Pedro, a centre-forward lacking in pace but very technically gifted. The two footed Vitinho is another in a long list of possibilities. The other end of the field is more problematic. Ever since the loss of Spanish centre back Pablo Mari to Arsenal, Flamengo have had defensive problems. He was used to playing in a high line, allowing the team to press and stay compact. His replacements do not have the same skill set. They can drop deeper, stretching the team out.

There are hopes that David Luiz might resolve the situation. His time at the club has been interrupted by injury, but — and this may seem strange — he is a defensive improvement on what came before. And, of course, in possession he is very useful with his range of passing and capacity to bring the ball out of defence.

There are fewer household names in the Palmeiras team. Centre forward Luiz Adriano has considerable European experience, but is likely to be left on the bench. And there is also veteran central midfielder Felipe Melo, who started his career with Flamengo. This will be a big decision for Abel Ferreira, the team’s Portuguese coach. Will he go with Felipe Melo, for his experience and his range of passing? Or would the promising, dynamic left footed Danilo be a better bet for his extra mobility? One thing is sure. Ferreira will go with pace up front, seeking to get behind the suspect Flamengo defence. The most potent attacking weapon is the stocky little Rony, signed as a winger but who has developed into a quick, gnat like striker capable of leading the attack.

This year’s key signing has been the return of club hero Dudu, a sharp and subtle support striker who gives the team a greater attacking repertoire than they showed at the start of the year in two stody, goalless displays in the Club World Cup. And left footed playmaker Raphael Veiga will be expected to continue his good recent form and supply the strikers. Will Abel Ferreira pair him with Gustavo Scarpa, another attacking midfielder? Or might that leave the team too open? He has plenty of quick wingers on the bench to unleash against tiring defenders, and there is a powerful argument for keeping things tight — the recent head-to-head record between the two clubs.

The last time Palmeiras beat Flamengo was back in November 2017. Since then they have suffered five defeats and gained four draws — one of which ended in defeat after a penalty shoot out. This is surely more than coincidence. The explanation is simple enough. Marshalled by Paraguayan centre back Gustavo Gomez, Palmeiras like to sit deep in front of Weverton, their outstanding goalkeeper. They can snuff out the attacking threat of other clubs. But Flamengo come at them with more talent than anyone else in the continent. There is less margin for error. Abel Ferreira is certainly hoping that more time to focus on this one game will help him come up with the answer. His team must never become too passive.

The aim should be to harm Flamengo on the counter attack as often as possible. And there is a lesson from 2019, when Flamengo beat River Plate to inaugurate this latest era of Brazilian domination. The Argentines were ahead for most of the game, and were just three laps of the clock away from the title. But mistakes were punished, and by the end of normal time they had not only lost their lead,but lost the match. Maximum concentration will be needed if Palmeiras are to retain their continental crown and make it tenth time lucky against Flamengo.

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