Twenty years have passed since anyone managed to retain the title of the Copa LIbertadores, South America’s Champions League, but that run could come to an end this year. Reigning champions Palmeiras have booked their place in the 2021 final after winning a clash of Brazilian giants against Atletico MIneiro.
Palmeiras did it the hard way. No fans were allowed in their stadium in Sao Paulo for last week’s first leg, which finished 0-0. Seven days later in Belo Horizonte, Atletico were roared on by some of Brazil‘s most passionate supporters in a Mineirao stadium filled to half its capacity. But there was little chance that the atmosphere would prove too much for Palmeiras.
Atletico have formed a flamboyant attacking team this year, and have a healthy lead at the top of the Brazilian league table. But under Portuguese coach Abel Ferreira, Palmeiras are nothing if not durable. At their best combining deep defence with quick counter attacks, their game is tailor-made for away fixtures. The 1-1 draw that takes them through to the final on the away goals rule stretches their record to 14 consecutive games on the road in the Copa Libertadores without defeat, a competition record.
They knew that if they were happy to bide their time, a key moment would come. And so, much as in the first leg, they were happy while the game was goalless. Ferreira made two changes from last week’s game. The most significant was the decision to leave out centre-forward Luiz Adriano and replace him with Renan, an extra defender. It meant that Palmeiras lined up with three centre-backs, plus the veteran Felipe Melo to sit in front of them to screen the defence. Either side of him, midfielders Raphael Veiga and Danilo tried to close down the space of Atletico’s attacking full-backs, Mariano and Guilherme Arana.
Atletico coach Cuca was forced into a change. Recent signing Diego Costa had pulled up with an injury in the first leg and had not recovered in time. He was replaced by Chilean striker Eduardo Vargas, who often wandered to the left, with Hulk in the centre-forward channel and, behind him, key Argentine playmaker Nacho Fernandez was free to float. Palmeiras based their defensive strategy around neutralising the Hulk-Fernandez partnership, and for the most part were successful. And when Atletico did manage to string their passes together and create space for a shot, Palmeiras could always count on Weverton, their exceptional goalkeeper.
Weverton also doubled as playmaker. Twice his long kicks set up promising counter-attacks. But he was eventually beaten early in the second half.
Atletico had upped the rhythm after the restart, and central midfielder Jair surprised by moving into the right-wing position, outside the Palmeiras back three. His cross to the far post was headed home by Vargas, and after nearly two-and-a-half hours of football, the tie finally had a goal.
The next few minutes were decisive. With confidence flourishing and the passes flowing, Atletico threatened a second. For the only time in the game Atletico were managing to play around Felipe Melo. Vargas and Fernandez played a quick one-two, and the Chilean shot just wide — perhaps with a touch from the keeper that the referee did not see.
Palmeiras could have gone under. But as soon as they conceded, coach Ferreira was calling for calm. He waited until the storm had been weathered and then went to his bench. On came Gabriel Veron, a highly promising teenage winger who has been struck by injuries over the past year. Within a minute, the change paid dividends. Left-sided midfielder Joaquin Piquerez played down the line, Atletico centre-back Nathan Silva seemed happy to let the ball run out of play but Veron nipped past him and squared for Dudu to slide in from close range. Palmeiras had their away goal.
Atletico had around 25 minutes to react. But with the crowd becoming increasingly desperate, Palmeiras were in their element: heading the ball away, running the clock down, looking for the occasional counter-attack. Atletico became so frantic that before the end they had taken off Nacho Fernandez and replaced him with Rever, a gangling centre-back sent up as an improvised centre-forward for a last-gasp aerial assault.
It did not work and probably did not deserve to. The final whistle blew and Atletico, undefeated in the competition, were eliminated. Palmeiras, meanwhile, have nearly two months to dream of the final, to be staged in the Uruguayan capital of Montevideo on Nov. 27. But they have just 24 hours to discover who they will be facing. It could be Barcelona of Ecuador. But, protecting a 2-0 first-leg lead, the strong probability is that it will be Flamengo of Rio de Janeiro, the 2019 champions.