By Louis Smith.
After months of compelling action, the 2023 Copa Libertadores boils down to one night in the wonderful Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro, at the Mecca of football, the Estádio Jornalista Mário Filho, better known as the Maracanã.
After three years of all-Brazilian finals, we finally have a battle between two separate countries as Argentina’s Boca Juniors take on Brazil’s Fluminense.
Boca Juniors come into the game having a chance to join Independiente on seven Copa Libertadores titles. Their most recent came way back in 2007 when they defeated Brazilian club Gremio 5-0 over two legs.
Boca’s recent history in the Libertadores hasn’t exactly gone to plan…
In 2012, it was Brazilian side Corinthians, guided by Tite, who broke their hearts in the then two-legged format winning 3-1 over the matches.
In 2018, in one the most chaotic Copa Libertadores finals ever, they were defeated 5-3 on aggregate by rivals River Plate — a rivalry so bitter the second leg had to be played in Madrid due to trouble ahead of the second leg of the final in Buenos Aires.
The cast of 2023 was handed a favourable group and they took full advantage of that winning four, losing one and drawing one, scoring nine and conceding just twice.
The knockout stages have proven to be tricky for Boca.
First up was Nacional, who they edged out on penalties after a 2-2 draw. Then in the quarter-final, the Argentinians were paired up against domestic rivals Racing Club and once again they needed spot kicks to send them through with former Manchester United man Marcos Rojo scoring the decisive penalty.
The semifinals paired them up against 2020 and 2021 champions Palmeiras, and Boca game into the tie as huge underdogs.
After a 0-0 draw in Argentina, it was another former Red Devils man, Edinson Canani, who fired Boca into the lead, but Uruguayan Joaquin Piquerez ensured a third penalty shootout in a row for Boca.
Boca would book their place in Rio de Janeiro with a 4-2 penalty shootout victory.
Manager Jorge Alimron joined the club in 2023 and is yet to win silverware with Boca Juniors, but guided Lanús to three domestic trophies in 2016.
He will be hoping to place himself in Boca history come Saturday evening.
Fluminense have waited 15 years to have another crack at Libertadores glory and have a glorious chance to lift their first-ever Copa with the match being played at their home ground.
Their only final to date saw them suffer penalty shootout heartbreak after a thrilling tie with LDU Quito in 2008, which saw ten goals over two matches.
The man at the helm, Fernando Diniz, is the current interim manager of the Brazil national team and his football, which can be described as organized chaos, has gained many plaudits
He’ll be hoping it can deliver for Fluminense the peak of success in Latin America.
Fluminense don’t have a rich history in the Libertadores, but winning one will go a great way towards changing that.
Their 2023 Libertadores Journey began with a 3-1 win away from home against Peru’s Sporting Cristal, but the first time they showcased their ambitions came in match week three when Flu destroyed Argentine giant River Plate 5-1 at the Maracanã.
They came top of Group D with ten points, ahead of River on the head-to-head record.
The last 16 saw them paired with Argentinos Juniors against whom they enjoyed a 3-1 aggregate win before seeing off Paraguay’s Olimpia 5-1 in the Quarters, setting up an all-Brazilian semifinal affair with Internacional.
The first leg was an entertaining 2-2 draw before Inter took the lead earlier on in Porto Alegre. Goals from John Kennedy and German Cano with ten minutes to spare were enough to give Fluminense a famous 4-3 aggregate victory.
Ones to Watch
All eyes will be on André due to his recent links with a move to Europe. The 22-year-old has been decisive for Flu. Whether it be his tackling or ground-breaking passing, if the high-energy midfielder has a good game, Flu win the title.
The Argentine Fluminense fans have fallen in love with, since joining the club from rivals Vasco da Gama, Cano has been a goal-scoring machine. In 2023 he has 36 goals in 54 matches and is the current top scorer in the Copa Libertadores.
Many South American football fans reading this will question why 40-year-old Felipe Melo is one to watch. The reason is purely that you never know what he is going to do.
He can be a walking red card at times. He has a hot fuse and if there’s a brawl, he’ll likely be at the centre of it. If he doesn’t leave the game with at least a card, something has gone very wrong.
Romero is one of the key reasons Boca are here. His crucial saves and penalty shootout heroics have helped guide Boca’s path to Rio de Janeiro.
It would be foolish to leave out someone who is a serial winner in many countries and a man who helped Uruguay to Copa America success in 2011.
Unlike Felipe Melo, the veteran striker makes this list for the right reasons. He has only played a handful of Libertadores games for Boca, but in a final, his experience could prove vital.
Another player above the age of 30, but despite playing right-back the Peruvian is the current top scorer for Boca in this season’s Copa Libertadores.
Last year, it was a Gabigol solo goal that sent Flamengo fans partying in Guayaquil, what will 2023 bring?