Libertadores final preview

Big Cup South America

Santos and Palmeiras go head-to-head in this year’s Copa Libertadores final in Rio later today. Here’s what you need to know.

It will be one of the strangest Libertadores finals, ever. To be played in the legendary Maracanã in Rio, between two of Brazil’s most traditional teams, both from the state of São Paulo. Normally you would expect thousands of fans, perhaps a hundred thousand or more, to descend on the city for such an occasion. The city with the world’s best carnival would be rocking.

Of course, we are in the middle of this pandemic, so the atmosphere will be subdued, inside the stadium and out. But given these circumstances, it is great that this match is going ahead. Getting the competition finished is an achievement in itself and both teams are heading into the game with a clean bill of health.

Another unusual feature of the game is its timing – i.e. 5pm in the afternoon (8pm UK) and in the middle of the Rio summer. The temperatures is likely to be above 30C for most of the game so don’t expect lung-busting Premier League-style action. A low press and a much slower pace to the game, to be decided perhaps, by a moment of individual skill, is more likely.

Most pundits and fans reckon that both teams are evenly matched and either side could win. In fact, according to the excellent English-language Palmeiras blog Anything Palmeiras, in the last five decisive games involving the two teams – Paulistão of 2013, Paulistão and Brazil Cup of 2015, Paulistão semi-finals of 2016 and 2018 – all have gone to a penalty shootout. For me, Palmeiras are the slight favourites.

On paper, and according to the accountants, Palmeiras have a much stronger squad. Even the most optimistic Santista would deny this. Highlighting this point is Lucas Lima, Santos’ best player of a few years ago, who moved to Palmeiras on a free and is likely to be on Palmeiras’ bench. But such things matter little when both teams cross the white line and in fact, the Santos players seem to thrive in adversity. Fair play to Cuca for doing an excellent job at getting the best out of the players at his disposal and working with a tight budget.

Both teams have struggled for consistency this year and it has been a long, tough season with so many league and cup games to get through, as well as both teams having to deal with sporadic Covid outbreaks in their squads. It has been an especially hard fixture list for Palmeiras, who have also made it to the Brazilian Cup final.

Neutral observers and those interested in the upcoming Brazilian talent should will have plenty to keep an eye on. On the Palmeiras side, Gabriel Menino is one to watch; he’s only 20 years old but has already been called up to the full national team squad. He is a creative midfielder that can also play as a right back. He’s got the personality, skill, maturity and confidence that belies his young age. He is likely to start today’s game in midfield alongside fellow youngster Danilo, who is a year younger, but more defensive.

Also in the Palmeiras squad, although likely to start from the bench, are Gabriel Veron, linked with many of the top sides in Europe, and Patrick de Paula, a defensive midfielder that I really like, who is strong, calm and composed. (He’s been struggling with a few injuries recently – if it wasn’t for them he may well have started.)

Santos have probably the most famous academy in Brazil, having produced the likes of Pele, Robinho, Diego, Neymar and others; they consistently bring through quality players. 19 year old Kaio Jorge is likely to start for them up front, while 18 year old midfielder Sandry could start in midfield. Both are Brazil youth internationals and have the usual levels of skill and quality that you would expect from Seleção players.

It’s not just about the youngsters of course. Marinho is the main man for Santos; he’s a quick, skillful, left-footed, right winger and can score and create goals. On the other side of their front three in attack, they have Soteldo, who is a quick, skilfull, right-footed, left winger. Good players. Lucas Verí­ssimo is the rock in the Santos defence, who plays his last game for the club before moving to Benfica, and they will be captained by midfielder Alison.

The star for Palmeiras is keeper Weverton, who is, at this point in time, most probably the Brazil number 2 behind Alisson, but ahead of Ederson. Gustavo Gomez is an imposing and impressive defender, while Rony is the danger man in attack. He didn’t have the best start at Palmeiras, but hit form in the Libertadores, scoring five goals. As far as I’m concerned, any man that can do this, deserves respect.

A comemoração do gol de Rony, do Palmeiras, contra o River Plate - Foto: Staff Images/Conmebol

As far as the game goes, I would expect it to be tight. Both teams are unlikely to take too many risks and keep it tight at the back. Palmeiras will most probably shade possession, and Santos will look to exploit any spaces they leave by giving the ball to Soteldo and Marinho. In this one, really anything can happen. Likely line-ups for the game are as follows:

Palmeiras: Weverton; Marcos Rocha, Gustavo Gomez, Luan, Viña; Danilo, Zé Rafael, Gabriel Menino, Rafael Veiga; Rony, Luiz Adriano.

Santos: John; Pará, Lucas Verí­ssimo, Luan Peres, Felipe Jonatan; Alison, Diego Pituca, Sandry; Soteldo, Kaio Jorge, Marinho.

For UK viewers keen to watch, it doesn’t seem to be on BBC TV channels, although it will be available on iPlayer, I think.

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