IN THE end, we were spared 30 minutes of what might have been tedious extra time, thanks to a wonderful goal totally out of character with the rest of the Copa Libertadores final in Rio de Janeiro. Palmeiras scored it, clinching their second Libertadores title after 104 minutes of cagey, fractious and largely uninspiring football.
Finals are invariably an anti-climax and in a near-empty Maracanã, in 33 degrees, Palmeiras and Santos could be forgiven for struggling to raise their game. But they both had enough energy and motivation to roll around on the turf whenever they could and also try a little bullying. Some of the challenges were brutal, devoid of subtlety and often rather cynical.
The match even ended with a bad tempered scuffle and very clear time-wasting by both teams who had decided they wanted extra time as they were running out of time to stage a recovery should they go a goal down. Both were playing a calculated gamble, but for Santos, it backfired and Breno Lopes’s header proved enough to win the cup. Their coach, Cuca, who was adorned in a t-shirt of the Madonna and child, was sent off in added time.
The game proved that South America’s top teams are not a patch on their monied cousins in Europe and that without fans, a stadium – however grand and historic – is just a concrete bowl. Fans make finals, their banners, their cheers, their jeers, their emotion all add to the occasion. Actually, they make it an occasion. But Brazil is one of the worst covid-hit countries around the world, so it was what it was. Although fans were banned, the clubs invited around 5,000 to see the final.
Santos tried to slow the game down from the start, largely to prevent Palmeiras from playing their usual style built around pace. Palmeiras were without the sought-after Gabriel Veron, who failed a fitness test, but their other stars, such as Gabriel Menino and Luiz Adriano lined-up from the start. Santos, who included two players surely bound for Europe in Yeferson Soteldo and Kaio Jorge, seemed sluggish up front. Jorge did catch the eye, notably with a late overhead kick that would have been a memorable goal. Neither Menino or Jorge finished the game, both being subbed just before the end, so if extra time had been necessary, they would not have been involved.
The winning goal came nine minutes into added time, Rony’s cross to the far post being nodded home by substitute Lopes in true textbook style. Palmeiras’ victory meant they will play in the FIFA Club World Cup in Qatar in February where, if all goes to plan, they will meet UEFA Champions League winners Bayern Munich in the final. On the evidence of this performance, they will find the German side a big challenge. That aside, it has been a good year for Palmeiras, who won the state championship and they also have a Copa Brasil final to look forward to when they will meet Grêmio over two legs.
Santos, however, have considerable financial issues and will almost certainly lose their best players in order to ease their problems. The impressive Lucas Veríssimo is joining Benfica for around € 6 million. The club has lacked stability over the past year, with political problems and constantly-changing managers (seven in five years). The fact they finished runners-up in the Brazilian league in 2020 and got to the Libertadores final is impressive considering the backdrop of uncertainty.
And so, for the second successive year, the Copa Libertadores ended in dramatic fashion, even if the football didn’t live up to expectations. How a packed Maracanã would have made a difference and maybe livened things up. Perhaps the 2021 competition, which gets underway in a few weeks, will be different.
Photo: PA Images