Copa Libertadores is Flamengo's to win but holders River Plate pose tricky challenge
There is one obvious downside with this year's decision to switch the final of the Copa Libertadores to a one-off game at a neutral venue. The traditional, two-legged home and away format gave more fans a chance to be there. Distances are vast in South America, travel is expensive and income is badly distributed, making it very hard for the average fan to make the trip -- especially when the venue is changed at short notice. Instead of Santiago, Chile, the first edition of the new format final takes place this Saturday in Lima, Peru (Estadio Monumental, 3 p.m. ET).
There are, however, two advantages. A one-off game at an attractive timeslot has a much better chance of appealing to a global audience and the hope is that a neutral ground will produce a more attractive spectacle. And the authorities have struck lucky this year with the finalists -- defending champions River Plate of Argentina and Flamengo of Brazil are giant clubs with massive followings, magnificent histories and eye-catching sides.
So what are we in for on Saturday? Glad you asked ...
If Flamengo are so big why is this their first major final since 1981?
A fair question, in part explained by the fact that the Libertadores has not always been the priority of Brazilian clubs as it is today. The Rio giants also spent decades mired in administrative chaos, owing huge sums and chasing their tails.
Earlier this century they even found themselves caught up in relegation danger. In recent times they made a point of getting their finances sorted out, while their giant fanbase understood that results on the field might suffer and showed unusual tolerance.
That task completed, the club went about strengthening their squad, and the masterstroke was the mid-year hiring of Portuguese coach Jorge Jesus. He has given them a tactical edge. Where so many recent Brazilian clubs have displayed excessive caution, relying on deep defence and the counter-attack, Jesus is doing something completely different.
Can River Plate defend well enough to retain their title?
Flamengo come at their opponents from all angles. They often attack with eight players -- both full-backs (Rafinha and Filipe Luis), both central midfielders (Willian Arao and Gerson) and the front four, playmakers Everton Ribeiro and Giorgian De Arrascaeta plus strikers Gabriel Barbosa and Bruno Henrique.
This is more than River had to cope with when they won their fourth title last year against old rivals Boca Juniors. Statistically the River defence has held up well this year, with just eight goals conceded in 12 games. But they could struggle to hold the Brazilian attack. Young centre-back Lucas Martinez Quarta is highly rated and recently made his debut for the national team. But he is worryingly error prone, and alongside him Javier Pinola is 36 and not as quick as he was. Right-back Gonzalo Montiel is more impressive pushing forward than defending.
There will be a huge responsibility on holding midfielder Enzo Perez to protect the back four. River coach Marcelo Gallardo has a wonderfully astute tactical brain, and has the attacking resources to hurt Flamengo, but much will depend on whether his defence can hold the Brazilians at bay.
Are Flamengo a domestic phenomenon?
Another fair question, which will be answered one way or the other in Lima. In Brazil, Flamengo have swept all before them and with five rounds still to go, the league title is all but sewn up. The Libertadores draw pitted them against Brazilian opposition in both the quarter and the semifinals. In the previous round, the debut of Jesus in the competition, they were pushed all the way by Emelec of Ecuador. Beaten 2-0 in Guayaquil, they went through some agonising moments before progressing on a penalty shootout.
Going into the big game, then, there is a case to be argued that Flamengo's advantage has come against the tactical conservatism of Brazilian football. Last week it was noticeable how much they struggled against local rivals Vasco da Gama, who held them to a thrilling 4-4 draw with a gameplan that Flamengo had not previously faced -- two out-and-out strikers to ask questions of that high defensive line.
Gallardo would have watched with interest. He uses a pair of strikers and will trust that Matias Suarez and Rafael Santos Borre will trouble Flamengo with their mobility. But there could be another explanation for that draw with Vasco ...
Are Flamengo tired?
This is a fear which has been expressed in and around the camp and among some of the fans. Flamengo's method of play is all-action, high-octane. The Brazilian season is a draining process -- the games come thick and fast, and some of them entail long journeys in a country the size of a continent. A consensus has been established that a side fighting on two fronts needs to rest players; Jesus does not share this belief.
Before the Libertadores semifinals, the three other teams all fielded reserve sides in their league games; Flamengo were at full strength. Jesus might rest one or two, such as the veteran full-backs that need handling with care, but it was not until last Sunday that he finally gave in and rested wholesale. Only three normal first-teamers lined up for the game away to Gremio -- a concession that Flamengo are concerned about arriving in Lima as the more tired of the two sides.
Could River's match-winner come from the bench?
Last year it was the introduction of Colombian playmaker Juan Fernando Quintero that tipped the balance River's way and helped them beat Boca. Could there be a repeat? Quintero has spent much of this year out with a long-term injury, but he has been easing his way back in recent weeks and, though he has not looked near his best, players of his calibre have a knack of rising to the occasion. He will surely not start, but he may well have a big role to play.
If the game is still tight and if Flamengo are tiring in the closing stages, they will not relish facing a cameo from the Colombian with a golden left foot and the vision and imagination to open up their defence.
Can Flamengo keep their heads?
In the wake of Flamengo's destruction of 2017 champions Gremio in the semifinal, they are widely seen as favourites. An abundance of talent across almost all positions gives them more depth than their opponents. But River Plate have more big game experience. Gallardo is well aware of this and will trust his men to have the edge in terms of focus and concentration. Finals are matches where the emotion of the occasion has to be channelled wisely.
There are some hot heads in the Flamengo side. Star striker Gabriel picks up almost as many cards as he scores goals, and his partner Henrique can fall prey to an excess of enthusiasm. How will they deal with the biggest game of their careers? If it inspires their best without provoking their worst, then Flamengo look like worthy favourites.