Flamengo eye Liverpool rematch, but first must win the Copa Libertadores
Brazil's most popular club were very happy that the Champions League title went to Liverpool. It could be an omen.
Back in 1981, when Rio de Janeiro giants Flamengo won the Copa Libertadores to become the champions of South America, Liverpool were the champions of Europe. The two clubs met in the Intercontinental Cup staged in Japan, and a Zico-inspired Flamengo won 3-0.
It is the finest moment in over a century of club history for the Brazilian side. The year 1981 continues to be the bar for Flamengo, who have never again reached the final of the Libertadores. The competition has provided them with untold frustrations -- three times in the past eight years they have been knocked out in the group stage, and they flirted with disaster this year before booking their place in the knockout rounds.
That drama took place at the start of May. Since then, Liverpool, of course, have been crowned kings of Europe and Flamengo are dreaming of meeting them once more, this time in the final of the Club World Cup. To that end, they have spent some money and brought in a new coach, all the way from Portugal: former Benfica and Sporting Lisbon boss Jorge Jesus.
Over the next two weeks, his team will be strong favourites in the Round of 16 against Emelec of Ecuador, another club with a recently appointed European coach -- the young Spaniard Ismael Rescalvo.
The Flamengo-Emelec matchup highlights two aspects of the 2019 Copa Libertadores. One is that there is a growing consensus that club football in South America is not only suffering from the constant sale of its leading players, but that there is also a dearth of ideas -- hence the decision, especially significant in the case of Flamengo, to look to Europe for guidance.
The second point is that the knockout phase of the Libertadores basically represents a fresh start. Plenty has happened in the two-and-a-half months since the group stage came to a climax. Other clubs also have hired new coaches; San Lorenzo of Argentina have brought in Juan Antonio Pizzi, the one time Barcelona centre-forward who took Chile to triumph three years ago in the Copa America Centenario. Paraguay's Cerro Porteno have traded a European coach -- Fernando Jubero from Spain -- for Miguel Angel Russo, an experienced Argentine.
And there have been changes in the playing staffs. Renan Lodi, a highly exciting young left-back, has swapped Athletico Paranaense in Brazil for Atletico Madrid in Spain. Boca Juniors seem set to lose centre-forward Dario Benedetto, who was on target in last year's controversial final against River Plate.
Big names, though, are also coming in. Flamengo have signed veteran right-back Rafinha from Bayern Munich, and are on the brink of bringing in the current Brazil left-back, Filipe Luis. Another ex-Chelsea Brazil international, Ramires, has joined Palmeiras. Manchester United's Antonio Valencia has gone back to Ecuador to join Liga de Quito. Boca Juniors have signed Argentine international Eduardo Salvio, and could be about to land the veteran World Cup-winning Italy midfielder Daniele De Rossi.
Aside from all of the changes, extra uncertainty is added by another factor -- the differences in the footballing calendar of the competing nations. This is especially true for Argentina, whose season follows the European pattern. Their new league campaign only starts this weekend, which means that the country's four representatives in the last 16 of the Libertadores should be at a disadvantage -- the Argentines are coming into the biggest game of the year so far on the back of either no or very little competitive match practice. This is especially significant because three of them are facing opponents from Brazil, whose league season is in full swing.
Can Cruzeiro profit from this against reigning champions River Plate? Tuesday's opening game looks like the glamour tie of the round. Elsewhere, current Brazilian league leaders Palmeiras are strong favourites against Godoy Cruz, although the form of Luiz Felipe Scolari's men has suffered a wobble in the last few days. Finally, Athletico Paranaense renew a rivalry with Boca Juniors that has already proved intense this year -- the pair met at the group phase, where both teams won in front of their own fans.
The three Paraguayan teams will probably rue the long pause before the knockout phase. They all breezed through the group phase, and may be worried about losing momentum. Olimpia have a tricky first leg at altitude when they face Liga de Quito, Cerro Porteno travel to Argentina to face San Lorenzo and Libertad are in Brazil to play Gremio -- whose great local rivals Internacional are up against Nacional of Uruguay.
And then there is Flamengo against Emelec, with two European coaches dreaming of winning the title and ending the year with a game against Liverpool. For Emelec's Ismael Rescalvo this is unlikely to be anything other than a dream. But for Jorge Jesus of Flamengo, it is almost an obligation. Last week his team were knocked out of the Brazilian Cup in a penalty shootout, which set off a furious reaction from some of the club's fans, who screamed abuse at the players at the local airport. They want titles and they want them now. They want a repeat of 1981. If they are to get it, Flamengo will just need to accomplish the not-so-easy task of winning the Copa Libertadores.