By Louis Smith.
A packed Maracanã stadium embraced the 2023 Copa Libertadores final between Argentina’s Boca Juniors and Brazil’s Fluminense.
Play began after both country’s national anthems played out and saw tears from not just Fluminense fans, but even from Flu’s ‘Pitbull’ Felipe Melo before a ball was even kicked.
From the get-go, both side’s game plans were clear to see with Fluminense looking to dominate possession with Fernando Diniz’s organized chaos style of play whilst Boca Juniors were looking to frustrate Flu by defending in numbers and trying to hit them on the break.
Peruvian full-back, Luis Advíncula, put in a few tasty challenges early on and avoided picking up a yellow card, something which could have easily been a different case on another day.
The first real chance of the game didn’t come until the 14th minute and stemmed from a wonderful free-kick from Marcelo which saw Germán Cano’s header equally matched by Boca goalkeeper Sergio Romero who made a routine save.
Boca’s first chance came on the break when Miguel Merentiel took the selfish route and fired his effort straight at Fabio who made a simple save.
Another wonderful set piece from Marcelo saw another glorious chance from Nino but his header was well wide of Romero’s goal.
Just moments later, Flu faithful would be sent into delirium when some beautiful play saw Keno tea up Cano who showcased his remarkable finishing ability to fire Flu into the lead and lift the decibel levels at the Maracanã.
The goal from Cano not only gave Fluminsne the lead at half-time but also took his Libertadores goal tally to 13 goals, one more than Boca Juniors.
In the second half, Boca came out of the blocks flying but without really creating anything, however, their high-pressing would finally create chances as Luis Advincula had an effort, but could only find the side netting.
Flu were looking confident in possession but with Boca being more quick in putting them under pressure, something had to give.
The referee was reluctant to give out yellow cards and it was a miracle that in the 63rd minute, Edinson Cavani was shown a yellow card, which began a flurry of cards.
Boca’s persistence would eventually pay off and it came from nowhere, as their top-scorer in this season’s Copa Libertadores Advincula cut inside from the right and hit a lovely left foot strike, leaving Flu keeper Fabio with no chance.
The goal saw Boca have a small boost of confidence but they couldn’t create anything. Flu quickly regained control and were focused on keeping possession, until in the dying embers of the game when Diogo Barbosa had a wonderful opportunity to place himself into South American history, but he fluffed his lines, sending the game into extra time.
The first chance of what would be a chaotic first half of extra time fell to Keno, who had a long-range shot forcing an easy save from Romero.
Despite Boca looking the more lively of the two, it was the side from Rio de Janeiro who retook the lead when substitute John Kennedy played a one-two with Keno before unleashing a rocket into the net, sending him and Fluminense fans wild.
Unfortunately for Kennedy, his celebrations took him into the crowd and having already been booked, Colombian referee Wilmar Roldán gave Kennedy his marching orders, meaning Flu were down to ten men.
Kennedy was bailed out moments later, however, when a stupid slap from Frank Fabra saw Roldán sent to the screen by VAR who correctly sent off his fellow countryman.
In the second half of extra time, as expected, Boca were pushing for an equalizer with Darío Benedetto showing great movement only to hit his shot wide of Fabio’s goal whilst Guillermo Fernandez forced the Flu keeper into a save.
Guga had an opportunity to kill the tie off, but his effort hit the inside of the post and miraculously stayed out giving Boca a glimmer of hope.
Boca failed to break through a dogged Flu in the moments that followed as Fluminense managed to hold out and claim their first-ever Copa Libertadores title, sending manager Diniz into wild celebrations and even seeing serial winner Marcelo burst into tears.
On the whole, words will not do the 2023 Copa Libertadores final justice, but it’s safe to say, it’s a night that Fluminense fans will cherish for a lifetime.