By Louis Smith.
After 154 games and 420 goals, the 2021 Copa Libertadores comes to a conclusion on Saturday evening as holders Palmeiras take on 2019 winners Flamengo in Montevideo.
The expectation levels at Flamengo compared to the majority of clubs in Brazil are on another level. The Rubro Negro are the most supported team in the country and with this comes huge pressure and a demand for silverware.
In the last few years, they have managed to live up to the billing, starting with a Libertadores victory in 2019.
Jorge Jesus was brought in in June of 2019, tasked with bringing back joy to the Flamengo fans. They hadn’t seen their side win a domestic trophy (excluding state championships) since the Copa do Brasil in 2013 and it had been ten years since they lifted the Brasileirão.
After seeing off Emelec, Internacional and Grêmio, Flamengo set up a tie with the then-holders, River Plate of Argentina, to determine the South American champions.
After going a goal down early into the first half, Flamengo turned the tie around in the game’s dying embers, thanks to two goals from fan-favourite Gabriel Barbosa, whose stoppage-time winner ended Flamengo’s wait for a domestic trophy as well as their 38-year hiatus without a Libertadores title.
Just 24 hours later, whilst partying on their arrival in Rio de Janeiro, Flamengo were crowned Brasileirão [domestic league] champions after title rivals Palmeiras suffered a 2-1 loss to Grêmio.
Jesus left in 2020 to join Benfica, but the silverware didn’t stop. Rogério Ceni came in and just about helped steer the Rio club to a second successive league title in dramatic circumstances.
In July of this year, Ceni was shown the door after a 2-1 loss to Atlético Mineiro and replaced by current manager, Renato Gaúcho.
Gaúcho has led Flamengo to the final in an impressive fashion, with seven wins from seven in the Libertadores.
He will now be hoping he can lead them over the line as they seek a second title in three years. The 59-year-old also led Grêmio to Libertadores glory back in 2017.
Ones to watch
The majority of Flamengo’s Libertadores winning squad in 2019 still remain and that includes the attacking quartet of Everton Ribeiro, Bruno Henrique, Gabriel Barbosa and Giorgian De Arrascaeta, who when in full flow, take some stopping.
David Luiz will be a part of Flamengo’s back line and will hope to join a list of players who have won both the Champions League and Copa Libertadores.
Manchester United loanee Andreas Pereira is also one to keep an eye on, especially from a dead ball situation.
Not a bad free-kick from Andreas Pereira.
— Louis Smith (@louissmith22) October 13, 2021
Hoping to become the first side since Boca Juniors in 2001 to retain their status as South American Champions, are Palmeiras.
Palmeiras ended a 21-year wait for a Libertadores title thanks to a stoppage-time winner from Breno Lopes in a 1-0 victory over state rivals Santos in the competition’s 2020 edition.
Like Flamengo, Palmeiras hired coach Abel Ferreira midway through the season in an attempt to help change the club’s fortunes. He did just that by making his side hard to beat but strong on the counter-attack.
Not only did Ferreira lead Verdão to Libertadores glory but also did so in the Copa do Brasil. Because of this, Palmeiras went into the 2021 campaign full of confidence and excitement that they could achieve something special again.
However, defeat to São Paulo in the State Championship final, a shock third-round loss to Serie B side CRB in the Copa do Brasil and inconsistency in the league means Saturday’s final is their only hope of silverware this year.
Palmeiras have lost their last four matches heading into the final, but that will not faze them. Before their semi-final against Atlético Mineiro, they were going through a tough spell and no one fancied them to win.
Ferreira set up his Palmeiras side to sit in and soak up pressure and hit Galo on the break. They did just that, sneaking through on the away goals rule (which will be no longer next season).
Ones to Watch
When you have a game plan to soak up pressure, you need the correct tools in your arsenal and Ferreira has that.
Captain Gustavo Gomez is a true Paraguayan warrior at the back and often saves his best moments for this competition.
Add to that, Weverton between the sticks who has earned himself caps for Brazil in the past year, after making several remarkable saves, which are one of the main reasons Palmeiras are at this stage of the competition.
He also has a phenomenal kick on him which becomes a weapon for setting up counterattacks.
The skill and quick turn of pace from attackers Dudu and Rony will be something Flamengo’s back line will have to watch out for. Both players like putting defenders on the back foot with their remarkable dribbling ability.