Flamengo-Palmeiras clash at Copa Libertadores shows dominance of Brazilian super-clubs

In 2018, the South America final Liberators cup was between the old rivals of Buenos Aires, River plate and Boca Juniors. At first glance, Saturday’s 100% Brazilian final between Flamengo and Palm trees may not have quite the same glamor – Argentine teams have more global marketing, while Brazilian clubs may be more introverted.

But Saturday’s confrontation at the iconic Estadio Centenario de Montevideo can count on more quality. This will be Brazil’s third consecutive 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 deep enough to assemble powerful squads.

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Palmeiras and Flamengo are the first of the super clubs. They monopolized the headlines. Palmeiras, the team of the Italian expatriate community in Sao Paulo, is the reigning champion of the Libertadores. The Rio de Janeiro giants Flamengo won the previous year. Flamengo is the reigning Brazilian league champion. They also won the title the year before, with Palmeiras coming out on top the year before.

In 2021, the pair were joined in the super-club slice by Atletico MIneiro, the likely league winner this season. Atletico fell undefeated in this year’s Libertadores, eliminated on away goals by Palmeiras in the semi-finals. Flamengo is also undefeated. Palmeiras lost just one insignificant group game when they fielded an understaffed team. The truth is that it has become difficult for the rest of Brazil, and even more so for the rest of the continent, to compete with the super clubs. This can be a worrying development for the future of the Libertadores.

But as for Saturday’s grand final, this is a potential classic, a big heavyweight clash that brings different styles to the ring. Backed by wealthy sponsors and with Brazil’s most successful new stadium, the Palmeiras are solid and pragmatic counter-punches, covering, working behind their jab and looking for the gap to launch a surprise attack. With massive support nationwide, Flamengo is overall flashier and less predictable, oscillating between the inspired and the chaotic, able to assemble a dazzling flurry of punches or let their guard down and fall for the trap.

After spending time sorting out their finances, Flamengo learned to monetize their support base and came out with a confident strategy. They sell potential young stars to Europe – Vinicius Junior, Lucas Paqueta, Renier – and use the profits to bring two types of players back across the Atlantic. First, the veterans looking to get home and earn silverware – goalkeeper Diego Alves, left-back Filipe Luiz, midfielder Diego and now center-back David Luiz. Second, players in their mid-twenties who struggled to find a place in the strong European teams – the wonderful attacking duo of Gabriel Barbosa and Bruno Henri, for example, now joined by the center-forward Pedro, and more recently by the Premier League duo of Andreas Pereira and Kenedy.

Portuguese coach Jorge Jesus built the 2019 conquering squad, betting on a daring four front. There was a consensus in Brazilian football at the time that it wouldn’t work, that it would throw the team off balance and leave them loaded before. It now looks like madness. Jorge Jesus took off for Benfica, but all subsequent coaches, including current boss Renato Portaluppi, have kept the same top four: Barbosa and Bruno Henrique, provided by the subtle playmaking skills of Everton Ribeiro and Uruguayan Giorgian De Arrascaeta. And since the days of Jorge Jesus, the club have not stopped adding options.

De Arrascaeta fought for his physical form. There is no comparable replacement, but delicate little winger Michael has had a wonderful season and is sure to play a role. Then there is Pedro, a center forward lacking rhythm but very talented technically. The two-legged Vitinho is another in a long list of possibilities. The other end of the field is more problematic. Since the loss of the Spanish central defender Pablo Mari To Arsenal, Flamengo had some defensive problems. He used to play in a high line, allowing the team to squeeze and stay compact. His replacements do not have the same skills. They can descend deeper, stretching the team.

We hope that David Luiz will resolve the situation. His time at the club was cut short by injury, but – and it may seem odd – he represents a defensive improvement over what came before him. And, of course, in possession he is very useful with his range of passing and ability to get the ball out of defense.

There are fewer known names in the Palmeiras team. Center forward Luiz Adriano has considerable European experience, but he is likely to be left on the bench. And there’s also veteran central midfielder Felipe Melo, who started his career with Flamengo. It will be an important decision for Abel Ferreira, the Portuguese coach of the team. Will he go with Felipe Melo, for his experience and his range of passes? Or the dynamic and promising left foot Danilo be a better bet for its extra mobility? One thing is certain. Ferreira will go with the pace up front, looking to get behind Flamengo’s suspicious defense. The most powerful attack weapon is the stocky little Rony, signed as a winger but who has grown into a midge-like swift attacker capable of leading the attack.

Key signing this year has been the return of club hero Dudu, a sharp and subtle supportive striker who gives the team a greater offensive repertoire than he showed at the start of the year during two scoreless matches in the Club World Cup. And left-footed playmaker Raphael Veiga is expected to continue on his recent good form and provide forwards. Will Abel Ferreira associate him with Gustavo Scarpa, another attacking midfielder? Or could it leave the team too open? He has plenty of quick wingers on the bench to unleash against tired defenders, and there is a powerful argument for keeping things tight – the recent record of showdowns between the two clubs.

The last time Palmeiras beat Flamengo was in November 2017. Since then they have suffered five losses and won four draws, one of which ended in a loss after a penalty shootout. It is surely more than a coincidence. The explanation is quite simple. Scored by the Paraguayan central defender Gustavo Gomez, Palmeiras likes to sit deep in front Weverton, their exceptional guardian. They can stifle the offensive threat from other clubs. But Flamengo attacks them with more skill than anyone else on the continent. There is less room for error. Abel Ferreira is certainly hoping that more time to focus on this one game alone will help him find the answer. His team should never become too passive.

The goal should be to hurt Flamengo on the counterattack as often as possible. And there is a lesson to be learned from 2019, when Flamengo defeated River Plate to usher in this latest era of Brazilian domination. The Argentines were ahead for most of the game and were only three laps off the title clock. But mistakes were punished and by the end of regulation time they had not only lost their lead, but had lost the game. Maximum concentration will be needed if Palmeiras is to retain his continental crown and win his tenth chance against Flamengo.

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