Who is the best club team in the World?
Liverpool face Flamengo this afternoon in the final of the World Club Cup in Doha. The match kicks off at 5.30pm UK time and will be shown live on BBC1.
Flamengo have been incredible this season and their dominance of Brazilian league, which they won by 15 points, is something that hasn’t been seen for a long time. They found it harder to win the Copa Libertadores, but in the end, they were worthy champions in that competition too. The team has legendary status already. A win against Liverpool would make them Gods in the eyes of the millions of Flamengo fans back in Brazil.
Liverpool are taking this competition seriously too, but the reality is that the World Club Cup is just not as big a deal in Europe as it is in South America, a point highlighted by the first five articles on Brazil’s most important sports website (Globoesporte) being about the match this afternoon, compared to none of the top ten on the BBC sport website. An article about darts even appears before the first article on the World Club Cup on the BBC. And that article isn’t even about the game, its about Jurgen Klopp’s comments that ‘most other [European] fans don’t really care’ about the game. Sad.
Yesterday I text my mate Has, who is a big Liverpool fan who lives in Boston. He watches nearly every single Liverpool match and he wants them to win, of course, but he told me that the Patriots game against the Bills was more important. He would not be watching Liverpool, but instead be drinking beer and cooking sausage in a car park ahead of the Pats game.
The resources between South American and European football are massive, which is one of the reasons it feels so good for South American teams for them to get one over their European rivals. The financial differences are highlighted by the fact that most of South America’s best players play their club football in Europe. Also highlighting the point is that Liverpool’s team cost eight times as much to assemble than Flamengo’s.
But the World Club Cup matches are nearly always closer than the financial differences suggest (one exception was Santos’ capitulation against Barcelona in 2011 – see Brazilfooty article on this). South Americans have football in their culture; their fans are passionate; and their players are winners, even if they are not paid as much as their European rivals; those factors inspire to South Americans to lift their game. And at the end of the day its 11 men versus 11 men on the pitch.
The European teams are favourites, but by less than a rational, finance-based thought process might have you believe. Moreover, whatever the gulf in quality, these matches are fascinating tactical, cultural, battles and it will be very interesting to see how Flamengo, and their European coach Jorge Jesus, approach this game.
Flamengo tend to dominate possession and pummel their opponents into submission with high quality passing in the midfield, combined with pace and intensity in attack. They control possession and can, at times, be slow in their build up play. But they also have the ability to change the pace of the game at the drop of a hat and create something out of nothing in the final third. And if Liverpool give Flamengo the space to counter attack, Bruno Henrique and Gabigol will be all over it.
Flamengo struggled against the aggressive pressing and tackling of River Plate in the Copa Liberadores final. And they might struggle against Liverpool if they do the same thing. Liverpool are aggressive in the press and tackle, like River, but they have a lot more quality going forward. Flamengo. Be warned.
After conceding an early goal against River, the onus was on Flamengo to chase the game. And if this happens against Liverpool, they will be in massive trouble. Liverpool will create more chances and be more clinical than River.
To get a result today, Flamengo will need to adjust their way of playing. If they do what they do against their Brazilian rivals, Liverpool, with two of the quickest wingers in world football, will have a field day picking them off on the counter attack. Flamengo’s full backs Rafinha and Felipe Luis (both aged 34) are good, but they cannot do what they normally do against Brazilian sides and leave big spaces at the back.
Jorge Jesus will surely be conscious of this, and it will be interesting to see just how disciplined and restrained Rafinha and Felipe Luis are. He’ll need to find new outlets in attack, and he might even consider changing his formation to do this.
Flamengo normally play a 4-2-3-1 with Gerson and Willian Arao as the two holding midfielders and Bruno Henrique, Arrascaeta and Everton Ribeiro as a trio of attacking midfielders, with Gabigol up front. Sometimes this morphs into a 4-2-2-2 with Bruno Henrique joining Gabigol in attack. To match Liverpool in midfield and make up for the loss of the usual attacking threat of their fullbacks, Flamengo might decide to go with a 4-3-3, providing another man in central midfield and allowing Bruno Henrique and Everton Ribeiro to push further up the pitch.
South America continues to be a conveyor belt of footballing talent, and this is one of the attractions of following the domestic league. But while Flamengo have their own crop of talented youngsters – Reinier, Lincoln and Thuler to name a few – none of them are expected to start. This Flamengo side isn’t built on revelations, it is built on players with a point to prove.
Their two best players are Bruno Henrique and Gabriel Barbosa. Bruno Henrique has been so good this season (21 goals in 29 league starts), aged 28, that people have wondering where he has been for the rest of his career. It has taken him some time, but in this Flamengo side, he has finally found the setting to maximise his confidence and fulfill his potential.
Gabigol meanwhile, with 25 goals in 29 league starts this year, has arguably has more to prove than Bruno Henrique after his failed spells in Europe with Inter Milan and Benfica. It seems like he has been around for ages, but he is still only 23 and while some may have written him off given his failures in Europe, he could yet go on to become a really really top player. His form in Brazil this year shows that he is a really top player – it wouldn’t surprise me if he and showed this in Europe one day too.
What is good about this Flamengo team is that they are not just a collection of promising youngsters and golden oldies. They have a number of players that are either at, or close to, the peak of their career: Arrascaeta (25 years), Rodrigo Caio (26 years), Willian Arao (27 years), Pablo Mari (26 years) and Everton Ribeiro (30 years). They are hungry, have got a lot to prove, and are at the top of their game.
Liverpool had a hard time getting past Monterrey earlier in the week. I didn’t see that game, but I would expect them to be better against Flamengo today: they have had more time to adjust to their surroundings in Doha, they might also have Virgil Van Dijk back in their team and they are likely to start with their favoured trio of Mane, Salah and Firmino in attack (Mane and Firmino were rested against Monterrey).
Having never won the World Club Cup before Liverpool will be desperate to add this trophy to the club’s trophy cabinet. They lost against Sao Paulo in 2005 in Toyko and they were also beaten by 3-0 by Flamengo in the final of the Intercontinental cup 38 years ago. The all-conquering European Champions might be the favourites but they will need to be on top of their game to beat Flamengo today.
On a personal level, I am hoping to see a great game which reinforces my idea that football is not just about the money and we don’t always know what is going to happen. I’m also looking forward to the tactical battle, between two teams that I watch regularly but who know very little about one another. Will Flamengo adjust their instincts and how will Liverpool respond? Whatever happens, it is going to be something different and even if that’s all we get, it should be celebrated and enjoyed.
Flamengo probable line-up: Diego Alves; Rafinha, Pablo Mari, Rodrigo Caio, Felipe Luis; Willian Arao, Gerson; Bruno Henrique, Arrascaeta, Everton Riberio; Gabigol.
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