Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 16 December 2019

Copa Libertadores final: Flamengo face uphill battle against heavyweights River Plate

Clash between Brazilian and Argentine teams in Peru likely to attract global attention

Flamengo, Brazil’s most popular yet perennially underachieving club, meet reigning South American champions River Plate in Saturday’s Copa Libertadores final in Lima, Peru. The winner advances to next month’s Fifa Club World Cup in Qatar, where Champions League winners Liverpool will likely await.

Normally played as a two-legged home and away affair, the Libertadores final to decide the continent’s champion was switched to a single game at a neutral venue for the first time since the competition’s inception 58 years ago.

That venue was supposed to be Chile’s national stadium, a place considered a safe bet in one of the most stable South American countries, but it was moved after safety concerns following the on-going civil protests in Chile.

Last season’s postponed final between River Plate and Boca Juniors inadvertently raised the profile of the game globally. Conmebol, the South American confederation, are keen for more international exposure and the one-off afternoon kick-off time will certainly help boost global television viewing, as will a Brazilian team being pitted against an Argentinian one.

River Plate boast a settled side, experience and winning six continental trophies since Marcelo Gallardo took charge in 2014 including the 2015 and 2018 Libertadores.

Brazilian sides have underperformed in the competition and for a country renowned for their attacking players, too many sides played dull defensive football. Four Argentinian teams have lifted the Libertadores trophy four times or more, not one Brazilian team has won it more than three times.

Recently, the 2017 winners Gremio became the only Brazilian team to make the final in the last five years. Gremio reached the semi-finals this year, drawing 1-1 with Flamengo in Porto Alegre before losing 5-0 in the second leg in the Maracana.

It was a stunning performance by Flamengo as they achieved their first Libertadores final since their only other appearance in 1981. With Zico as their star, Flamengo went on to defeat Liverpool in the Intercontinental Cup that year.

Flamengo’s turnaround in fortunes can be attributed to their Portuguese boss Jorge Jesus, formerly of Benfica and Sporting Lisbon, who arrived in June and changed the way their playing style. Flamengo had not even impressed in the Libertadores prior to that and only won their group on goal difference above two other sides to qualify. They progressed from the last 16 on penalties over Emelec before beating Internacional, the other giant from Porto Alegre in the last eight.

Flamengo are now 25 games unbeaten in league and cup, with striker Gabriel Barbosa, 23, the leading goalscorer in the competition with seven. He came on loan from Inter Milan in January and is now known as ‘Gabighol’. No player has made more assists than Bruno Henrique, who arrived in April. They’re close to winning their first league title in a decade

Jesus has woken the sleeping giant through a mixture of bringing in players from abroad who would normally not consider a move to South America. Filipe Luis, Gerson and Rafinha have worked wonders. Full back Luis, 34, had 18 mostly good years at Atletico Madrid as a winner. Full back Rafinha, 34, had eight successful years at Bayern Munich.

Flamengo attack, they play a high line at the back and four up front. In midfield William Arao and Gerson have impressed. Spanish centre back Pablo Mari is interesting. He was at Manchester City and went on loan to Girona and Deportivo La Coruna. Few Spaniards move to South America but Mari, 31, fancied it and is thriving in a team riding high.

Flamengo also boast tens of millions of fans spread across Brazil, the self styled club of the people. Thousands are crossing the Andes to see the final. Last year’s match between Boca and River Plate was hugely anticipated and expectations for this one are very high.

Updated: November 21, 2019 04:59 PM

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