Copa Libertadores final: what you need to know

and . Nov 22, 2019
libertadores Photo: Agustin Marcarian/Reuters 

Leading up to the Copa Libertadores final (Flamengo v. River Plate), we are sending out this special issue of the Brazil Sports newsletter with everything you need to know about Saturday’s big game. Happy reading!

The Grand Finale

While not as glamorous as Europe’s Champions League and lacking a wealth of world-class players, the Copa Libertadores final is the most anticipated sporting event of the year in South America. On Saturday, November 23, Brazilian champions-in-waiting Flamengo will take on current holders River Plate in Lima to battle for the South American crown.

What’s special about it? For the first time ever, the Copa Libertadores will be decided in a single game instead of over two legs, in an attempt to turn the game into more of a global event. The strategy might just have worked, as it was announced on Thursday that the match will be broadcast live on BBC 2 in the UK. Moreover, the game will see the continent’s two best sides face off against one another—a stroke of fortune which is no guarantee in knockout tournaments.

When and where. Initially scheduled to take place in Santiago, the game was moved to the Peruvian capital of Lima, due to the wave of street protests which have engulfed Chile for weeks now. Kickoff is at 5 pm, Brasília time (3 pm U.S. EST).

How to watch. You can watch a Flamengo v. River Plate free live stream in either English or Spanish on FuboTV. Sign up now for a free 24-hour trial.

How did they get here?

The two teams’ preparation has been similar. Both flew to Lima on Wednesday, and are staying in hotels just 500 meters apart. That should prevent a classic ploy of South American fans: setting off fireworks next to their rivals’ hotel to keep them from sleeping the night before the match. 

Flamengo. The soon-to-be-crowned Brazilian national champions are enjoying tremendous momentum: they are undefeated in their last 25 games (20 wins, five draws). But the team wasn’t always this strong. It qualified from the group stage after many lackluster performances, before Jorge Jesus was brought in as coach. One important take: Flamengo’s last game outside of Brazil was a 2-0 defeat to Emelec in Ecuador.

River. The Argentinian side comes to its third Copa Libertadores final in five years. While having  strong 2019, their form hasn’t been quite as imperious as Flamengo’s. Saying that, they managed to see off their bitter rivals Boca Juniors in the semifinals and remain in the leading pack of the Argentinian championship.

The managers

Jorge Jesus flamengo libertadores
Jorge Jesus. Photo: CP DC Press

Jorge Jesus. Flamengo have quickly transformed their Portuguese coach into something of a demigod. His team’s imperious performances, his wild gesticulations on the touchline and his atypical looks—think aging rock guitarist in a blazer—have earned him a place in the hearts of the Flamengo support. If he were to bring back the Libertadores trophy on Saturday, he will surely go down as one of the club’s all-time great managers, after less than half a year in charge.

Marcelo Gallardo. Photo: CP DC Press
Marcelo Gallardo. Photo: CP DC Press

Marcelo Gallardo. On the opposing bench is perhaps the most promising coach to come out of South America in some time. A former playmaker for River and Monaco in the 1990s and 2000s, Gallardo went straight into management after hanging up his boots and is already the most successful coach in River Plate’s history, with two Copa Libertadores titles (2015 and 2018), one Sudamericana (2014), and three South American Super Cups. Rumor has it that Barcelona are looking to tap him up as their next coach.

Key players

Bruno Henrique flamengo libertadores
Bruno Henrique. Photo: A.Ricardo

Bruno Henrique. Much has been made of the goalscoring exploits of Gabriel Barbosa, returning to form after flopping at Internazionale and Benfica, but the true standout of this Flamengo team is his 28-year-old strike partner Bruno Henrique. With 23 goals and 10 assists in the league and Libertadores this year, he is absolutely crucial to the success of the side, often coming up with crucial deadlock-breaking goals. Mind-blowingly quick, with superb tight dribbling and an insatiable eye for goal, he is often unstoppable.

Ignacio "Nacho" Fernández
Ignacio “Nacho” Fernández. Photo: River

Fernández. For River Plate, their creative brain is left-footed playmaker Ignacio “Nacho” Fernández, a crucial part of Marcelo Gallardo’s resolute 4-1-3-2 system. Often floating infield from the right flank, the 29-year-old Fernández helps link up the play between midfield and attack, forging the bullets for River’s attacking sharpshooters Matías Suárez and Santos Borré.

What to expect

Flamengo have a distinct high-intensity style that they have used to steamroller their opposition in Brazil, and will be looking for more of the same against River Plate. Their quick passing exchanges and immense individual quality have been enough for them so far this season, so expect few deviations. River, on the other hand, are a much more reactive and adaptable side. Marcelo Gallardo’s teams are better equipped to alter their standard game to neutralize opposition threats, and this could make life difficult for Flamengo. Recent domestic performances have shown that the Brazilians are less comfortable in physical confrontations, which is an approach River may look to utilize. 

Our hunch

The Brazilian media has all but crowned Flamengo champions. But Jorge Jesus’ side haven’t performed particularly well in their few tests against clubs from other South American nations, and they are about to come up against an extremely experienced Libertadores side. Flamengo are the favorites, but it’s too close to call one way or the other. Here are the hunches of The Brazilian Report‘s team:

  • Flamengo 2-0 River (Lucas Berti)
  • Flamengo 0-1 River (Gustavo Ribeiro)
  • Flamengo 3-2 River (Laura Quirin)
  • Flamengo 2-1 River (Euan Marshall, Natália Scalzaretto, Salomé Gloanec, Brenno Grillo)

The last time they reached the Libertadores final

River. The final stage is nothing new for River Plate. The team already has four Copa Libertadores trophies, two of them coming in 2015 and 2018 under Marcelo Gallardo and with a good number of their current squad. Their last win was a rocky one. River faced archrivals Boca Juniors and things turned violent. Before the second leg at River’s Monumental stadium, supporters threw rocks at the Boca team bus, injuring one player. The match was suspended and eventually moved to Madrid, where River won 3-1. The chosen venue was much criticized—the tournament named after the liberators of the continent from Spanish rule was decided in the old colonizer’s capital.

Flamengo. Not a single member of Flamengo’s current squad had been born the last time the club reached the Copa Libertadores final. Despite being South America’s largest club in terms of support size, the last time Flamengo made the continental final was in 1981, when they were crowned champions after three matches against Chilean side Cobreloa. Later that year, they went on to crush Bob Paisley’s legendary Liverpool side in the Intercontinental Cup final. Curiously, were Flamengo to win on Saturday and make it to the World Club Cup final in December, they would almost certainly come up against Champions League holders Liverpool once more.

The world in 1981. The year Flamengo were crowned South American champions saw the death of Bob Marley, assassination attempts against then-U.S. President Ronald Reagan and then-Pope John Paul II—and the DeLorean automobile (a.k.a. Doc Brown’s time machine) was first rolled off the production line in Northern Ireland.

Euan Marshall

Originally from Scotland, Euan Marshall is a journalist who ditched his kilt and bagpipes for a caipirinha and a football in 2011, when he traded Glasgow for São Paulo. Specializing in Brazilian soccer, politics and the connection between the two, he authored a comprehensive history of Brazilian soccer entitled “A to Zico: An Alphabet of Brazilian Football.”

Gustavo Ribeiro

An award-winning journalist, Gustavo has extensive experience covering Brazilian politics and international affairs. He has been featured across Brazilian and French media outlets and founded The Brazilian Report in 2017. He holds a master’s degree in Political Science and Latin American studies from Panthéon-Sorbonne University in Paris.

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