The Flamengo-Palmeiras clash at the Copa Libertadores shows the dominance of Brazilian superclubs

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In 2018, the final of the South American Copa Libertadores stood between the old Buenos Aires rivals, River Plate and Boca Juniors. At first glance, Saturday’s all-Brazilian final between Flamengo and Palmeiras may not have quite the same glamor – the Argentine sides have more global marketing, whereas Brazilian clubs may be more introverted.

But Saturday’s showdown at Uruguay’s iconic Estadio Centenario in Montevideo can count on more quality. This will be the third Brazilian triumph in a row in South America’s most prestigious club competition. This new era of dominance is based on the emergence of the superclub – teams with pockets deep enough to bring together powerful teams.

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Palmeiras and Flamengo are the first of the superclubs. They have monopolized the big titles. Palmeiras, the team of Sao Paulo’s Italian foreign community, are the reigning champions of the Libertadores. Rio de Janeiro giants Flamengo won it the year before. Flamengo are the defending champions of the Brazilian league. They also won the title the year before, with Palmeiras coming out on top the year before.

In 2021, the pair have joined the super club with free consumption Atletico MIneiro, this season’s likely league winners. Atletico bowed unbeaten in this year’s Libertadores, eliminated on away goals by Palmeiras in the semi-finals. Flamengo is also undefeated. Palmeiras lost a single group game of little relevance as they posed with a sub-force. The truth is that it has become difficult for the rest of Brazil, and even harder for the rest of the continent, to compete with the superclubs. This could be a worrying development for Libertadore’s future.

But compared to Saturday’s grand finale, it offers a potential classic, a clash between big-hitting heavyweights that bring different styles into the ring. Backed by wealthy sponsors and with the most successful of Brazil’s new stadiums, Palmeira’s solid, pragmatic counter-punches are covering up, working behind their jab and looking for the hole to launch a surprise attack. With massive, nationwide support, Flamengo are generally more flashy and less predictable, they swing between the inspired and the chaotic, and they are able to put together a dazzling shower of blows or to drop the guard and fall for the sucking blow .

After spending time getting their finances in order, Flamengo learned how to make money on their support base and came up with a safe strategy. They sell young potential stars to Europe – Vinicius Junior, Lucas Paqueta, Renier – and use the profits to bring two types of players back from across the Atlantic. First veterans who want to return home and win some silverware – goalkeeper Diego Alves, left back Filipe Luiz, midfielder Diego and now central defender David Luiz. Secondly, players in their mid – twenties who have struggled to find a place in the strong European squads – the wonderful attacking pair between Gabriel Barbosa and Bruno Henrique, for example, now with center-forward Pedro and recently the Premiere. League duo by Andreas Pereira and Kenedy.

Portuguese coach Jorge Jesus built the all-conquering team in 2019 and bet on a bold front four. There was agreement in Brazilian football at the time that it would not work, that it would unbalance the side and leave it in front. It now looks like madness. Jorge Jesus left for Benfica, but all subsequent coaches, including current boss Renato Portaluppi, have retained the same front four: Barbosa and Bruno Henrique, provided by the subtle playing talents Everton Ribeiro and Uruguayan Giorgian De Arrascaeta. And since the days of Jorge Jesus, the club has kept adding opportunities.

De Arrascaeta has struggled for fitness. There is no such thing as a replacement, but the difficult little winger Michael has enjoyed a wonderful season and will definitely play a role. Then there’s Pedro, a center-forward who lacks pace but is very technically gifted. The two-legged Vitinho is another in a wide range of options. The other end of the field is more problematic. Ever since the loss of Spanish center-back Pablo Mari to Arsenal, Flamengo has had defensive problems. He was used to playing in a high line so the team could push and stay compact. His successors do not have the same skills. They can fall deeper and stretch the team out.

There is hope that David Luiz can resolve the situation. His time at the club has been interrupted by an injury, but – and this may seem strange – he is a defensive improvement on what came before. And, of course, in ball possession, he is very helpful with his range of passes and capacity to bring the ball out of defense.

There are fewer known names in the Palmeiras team. Center striker Luiz Adriano has considerable European experience but is likely to be left on the bench. And there is also veteran central midfielder Felipe Melo, who started his career with Flamengo. This will be a big decision for Abel Ferreira, the team’s Portuguese coach. Will he join Felipe Melo because of his experience and his reach? Or would the promising, dynamic left-footed Danilo be a better bet on his extra mobility? One thing is certain. Ferreira will go at pace ahead and try to get behind the suspected Flamengo defense. The most potent weapon of attack is the thick little Rony, who is signed as a winger, but who has developed into a fast, gnawing-like attacker who is able to lead the attack.

This year’s key signing has been the return of club hero Dudu, a sharp and subtle support striker who gives the team a larger attacking repertoire than they showed at the start of the year in two heavy, goalless performances in the Club World Cup. And left-footed playmaker Raphael Veiga is expected to continue his latest good form and supply the strikers. Will Abel Ferreira pair him with Gustavo Scarpa, another offensive midfielder? Or can it leave the team too open? He has plenty of fast wingers on the bench to let go against tired defenders, and there is a strong argument for keeping things tight – the latest head-to-head record between the two clubs.

The last time Palmeiras beat Flamengo was back in November 2017. Since then, they have suffered five defeats and won four draws – one of which ended in defeat after penalty shootout. This is definitely more than coincidence. The explanation is simple enough. Palmeiras, who are ruled by Paraguayan center-back Gustavo Gomez, like to sit deep in front of Weverton, their excellent goalkeeper. They can ward off the attack threat from other clubs. But Flamengo comes to them with more talent than anyone else on the continent. There is less margin for error. Abel Ferreira certainly hopes that more time to focus on this one game will help him come up with the answer. His team must never become too passive.

The goal should be to damage Flamengo on the counter-attack as often as possible. And there’s a lesson from 2019 where Flamengo beat River Plate to inaugurate this latest era of Brazilian dominance. The Argentines were ahead for most of the match and were just three innings off the clock away from the title. But mistakes were punished, and by the end of normal time, they had not only lost their lead, but lost the match. Maximum concentration will be needed if Palmeiras are to retain their continental crown and make it lucky for the tenth time against Flamengo.

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