Football has a way of bringing people back down to earth and Flamengo’s last-gasp 2-1 Copa Libertadores win over River Plate was a case study in that reality.
A year ago striker Lucas Pratto was one of the big heroes of River’s Copa win, scoring in both legs of the final against old rivals Boca Juniors. But on Saturday in Lima he was the villain. The 2019 final was all but won. The Argentines were one minute plus stoppage time away from retaining their title. All they had to do was get behind the ball, keep their defensive shape and block Flamengo of Brazil as they had done all afternoon.
But River had a promising attack and committed men forward. Pratto had the ball and it was essential that he did not lose it. He could pass forward searching for a colleague, play a probing ball into a channel, or blast it into row Z if he wished. Any of those options and River would surely have won a second consecutive continental title. Instead he dwelt on the ball. He almost lost it — a warning he failed to heed. He dwelt once more, lost possession and with River stretched Flamengo launched a desperate 89th minute break that ended with a tap-in equaliser for Gabriel Barbosa.
Like men who had just discovered their pockets had been picked, River were in a daze. Perhaps they could regroup in the break before extra time was played. But they did not have the chance. Flamengo’s star striker Barbosa — known as “Gabigol” — did little of note for 88 minutes and managed to get himself sent off in the 95th. But in between he scored the goals that won the game including a stunning volley for his second to take away from River a title that, without Pratto’s slip up, was destined for Buenos Aires.
The trophy belongs to Rio, to Flamengo and to their bold Portuguese coach Jorge Jesus. But the day, right up until the end, belonged to his opposite number. River Plate boss Marcelo Gallardo had a magnificent afternoon. His tactical planning was perfect. He had worked out how to nullify Flamengo and where to hurt them and followed the lead showed by Flamengo’s local rivals Vasco da Gama, who 10 days earlier held Fla to a pulsating 4-4 draw in a Brazilian league game.
Vasco chose two out-and-out strikers — a formation Flamengo had yet to encounter. It put pressure on their centre-backs and hampered their build up play. It also left the opponents with the chance to break at pace and get behind Flamengo’s high defensive line. River Plate did the same thing with more skill and intensity and Flamengo never got going.
There was little flow about the Brazilians’ play and time and time again they were caught out, losing possession close to their own goal and having to defend against balls carefully slid into the space between the full-backs and the centre-backs.
Gallardo had identified the weakness and come up with a gameplan capable of exploiting it. River took an early lead when Filipe Luis was slack in possession, Enzo Perez slid Nacho Fernandez down the right, and he pulled back across the face of goal. The mobility of the two River strikers was now crucial. Matias Suarez ran to the near post and took three defenders with him, and Rafael Santos Borre popped up in the space to swivel home.
The two strikers were the last line of attack and the first line of defence, working furiously hard to stop Flamengo’s attacks at source and prevent their opponents from establishing a rhythm. It worked so well. Until the 89th minute equaliser, Flamengo had only threatened the River goal on one occasion, and that was controversial. A River Plate player lay injured, but Flamengo refused to kick the ball out of play, and their forward burst ended with Everton Ribeiro forcing a fine save from Franco Armani.
But there were always doubts about the capacity of River’s defenders to cope with the Brazilian attackers in open space. For 89 minutes it was a hint, and nothing more. But then came Pratto’s error. Finally the Flamengo front line combined at pace. Bruno Henrique slipped Giorgian De Arrascaeta down the left channel. Perhaps earlier in the game centre-back Javier Pinola would have got across quicker to snuff out the danger. Until the closing stages he had a fine game. But he is 36, and this time he just failed to get there in time as De Arrascaeta squared for Gabriel to tap in.
Then came the decisive moment, the one that decided the game and confirmed the doubts about the River defence. Diego sent a route punt forward. Pinola and fellow centre-back Lucas Martinez Quarta were two on one against “Gabigol,” but could not deal with the ball, and the striker cut onto his favourite left boot to hook home a remarkable winner and score a goal that may well have huge consequences.
Losing to River would have branded Flamengo as nothing more than a domestic phenomenon, only capable of rolling over other Brazilian sides. Instead, they now march on to the Club World Cup with the chance to establish themselves as a global powerhouse.