Prior to Saturday, no team had managed to win consecutive Libertadores titles in 20 years, but Palmeiras have done it the hard way. This second all-Brazilian final was a far stiffer challenge than the previous win over Santos, Palmeiras having to dig deep to overcome Rio de Janeiro giants and 2019 champions Flamengo.
The 2-1 triumph in Montevideo was the first Palmeiras win over Flamengo in four years, a run of 10 games. This is no coincidence. The deep defence and counterattack model of Palmeiras kept coming unstuck against Flamengo’s array of talent. Abel Ferreira, the club’s Portuguese coach, had to think long and hard in a quest to find a different ending.
Ferreira was aware that his team should not defend passively; they could be close to their goal, but they should be on the front foot, snapping into tackles. And he also needed to ensure that his team maximised its attacking threat, so he retained Gustavo Scarpa, his extra attacking midfielder, but with discipline. Scarpa would have to drop back and work the left flank, Dudu would have to do the same on the right and Raphael Veiga was left free to roam behind quick, gnat-like striker Rony.
It brought results quicker than maybe even Ferreira had hoped. Flamengo left-back Filipe Luis was keeping a watch on Dudu, back on the halfway line. Centre-back Gustavo Gomez played long into the space behind him, and roving right-back Mayke collected behind the line. David Luiz did not come across to cover, and Mayke pulled back for Raphael Veiga to slide Palmeiras into the lead before the six-minute mark.
The previous meeting between these two sides came in September. Palmeiras went ahead in the 14th minute, Flamengo were level in the 16th. There would be no repeat.
Ferreira barked out his instructions from the touchline, reminding his players that if their hearts should be warm, their minds needed to be cool. Defending against the individual talent of Flamengo would require intense concentration.
But even with many of the same names, this is not quite the all-conquering Flamengo side of 2019, when Jorge Jesus, their own Portuguese coach, built a machine. The 2021 side has more strength in depth, especially in front positions, but it is less fluid, less collective, more dependent on individual moments of inspiration.
Manager Renato Portaluppi is the latest to struggle to live up to the legacy left by Jorge Jesus, but his record shows an ability to put careers back on track, to give confidence to players who had been lacking in the precious commodity. It is a trick that he has recently performed with winger Michael, the first option off the bench. The fans were calling for him, and just after the hour, he came on for a disappointing Everton Ribeiro.
Although he is right footed, Michael prefers to cut in from the left. This time, though, he started on the other flank. It made sense. Palmeiras left-back Joaquin Piquerez is not the greatest natural defender, and it was worthwhile attacking him.
There was another consequence. Striker Gabriel Barbosa wandered over to the left. Gabriel is a prolific marksman, but he is largely restricted to his left foot. He had missed one opportunity that fell to his right, but now the move across helped him hit the equaliser — though Abel Ferreira could hardly believe his eyes.
Keeper Weverton is one of the outstanding players in his side, maybe even the most outstanding. He had already distinguished himself twice. In the first half, the Flamengo attack suddenly clicked, with Gabriel crossing to the far post. Bruno Henrique nodded across and Giorgian De Arrascaeta guided a left-footed volley across goal, forcing a fine save. And there was another one when David Luiz got behind Piquerez at a free kick, and the keeper blocked with his arm.
But Weverton was badly at fault for the equaliser. Now on the left, Gabriel played a neat exchange with De Arrascaeta and aimed a well-struck shot at the near post. It should have been a routine save, but Weverton had come off his post. He may have lost concentration, believing that he had spotted a handball earlier in the move, but the consequence was that Palmeiras had slipped up where no one could have expected, and Flamengo were level.
At this point Palmeiras may well have settled for penalties, although they have lost all three of their shootouts this year. The tension of the occasion was sapping limbs, and Palmeiras had spent most of the game chasing after the ball. Surely they would tire first.
The big chance in the 90 minutes fell to Flamengo. De Arrascaeta put Michael behind Piquerez, and the little winger had two options: he could shoot, or square for Bruno Henrique at the far post. Perhaps he tried a bit of both, but he misjudged his shot and the ball went harmlessly across the face of goal.
By extra-time, Palmeiras had been forced to replace both their central midfielders. Danilo and Ze Rafael withdrew, exhausted by the task of chasing, harrying, tackling and bursting forward when possible, but it was a tired error from a Flamengo central midfielder that decided the game and the destiny of the title.
On loan from Manchester United, Andreas Pereira momentarily lost control of the ball. He was the last man, so when Palmeiras substitute striker Deyverson nipped in to rob him, only keeper Diego Alves stood between him and the goal. Deyverson shimmed and won the battle of the eyes, sending Diego Alves diving left, and slipping the ball the other side. This time Flamengo could not come back, and for the second year running, Palmeiras had an unlikely hero.
In the 2020 conquest, unheralded substitute Breno Lopes scored the winner. And now the much travelled and frequently controversial Deyverson has decided things with his only goal of the campaign. Known for his hot-headed behaviour — the lanky centre-forward has in the past blamed a chip in his side for occasional excesses — Deyverson has now driven the club of Sao Paulo’s Italian community delirious with joy.