The cup final in Brazil is a big deal. There is huge prize money on offer and the local culture loves knockout games — especially when the two most popular clubs in country meet for the most important encounter in their history of rivalry.
A week ago, Corinthians of Sao Paulo were held 0-0 at home by Flamengo of Rio de Janeiro. The return game could have sold out Rio’s Maracana stadium 20 times over. In the hours leading up to kick off there were attempts by ticketless fans to storm their way in. However they got in there, everyone in the ground will carry away memories of an evening of high drama which came to an almost unbearable conclusion when the game went to a penalty shootout.
Bearing in mind the tension of the moment, those brave enough to step forward to the spot kept their nerve well. Flamengo missed first, when former Atletico Madrid and Chelsea left-back Filipe Luis had his kick saved by giant Corinthians keeper Cassio. Corinthians were two kicks away from the title when their right-back Fagner blasted his shot against the bar. Corinthians missed again with their seventh kick, Mateus Vital shooting too high. Another defender, Flamengo right-back Rodinei, made no mistake, and the Rio team could celebrate in front of their own fans.
– Stats: Flamengo 1-1 Corinthians (FLA win 6-5 on pens)
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All of this followed a 1-1 draw that was never less than absorbing. Flamengo were the favourites, but the absence through suspension of midfielder Joao Gomes was a concern. His lung power helps balance out an attacking side, and without him Corinthians thought their midfield maestro Renato Augusto would have more space to pull the strings.
That looked a likely scenario in the first minute, when he had a shot saved. Corinthians had made a change from last week, replacing a winger with Lucas Piton, a more defensive figure to block Flamengo down the right flank. The planning was clear; hold Flamengo at bay, play their way into the game and wait for Renato Augusto to bring the strikers into play.
But plans, as they say, rarely survive first contact with the opposition. Flamengo’s attacking firepower managed to force Corinthians dangerously deep. Playmaker Giorgian de Arrascaeta moved out left to find space, played square to the edge of the area where Everton Ribeiro, the side’s other creative force, laid off a lovely first time ball for centre-forward Pedro to score from a tight angle.
Flamengo could now sit back, deny space to Renato Augusto and wait for the chance to go on the counter-attack. This became the pattern of the game. Corinthians had the ball, and all but two of the game’s 11 corners. But in spasms, Flamengo looked more dangerous, and had two goals ruled out for narrow offsides. Corinthians had to ditch their original plan at the interval, restoring winger Adson in place of Lucas Piton, and as time wore on, Flamengo became too passive.
Just after the hour veteran Chile international Arturo Vidal, who had come in for Joao Gomes, was substituted. With Flamengo light on midfield resources, on came Mateuzinho, normally a right-back, now improvised on the left of a midfield trio. It did not deserve to work, and it didn’t. Vidal’s lucidity with the ball was lost. Flamengo now found themselves pushed ever deeper. Soon they lost another midfielder, Thiago Maia going down with an injury, and were forced to improvise with a centre-back in the holding role. They lost all shape, and Corinthians deserved their equaliser when it came, 10 minutes before the end of regular time.
In three previous knockout games against Flamengo — the first leg of this final plus home and away ties in the Copa Libertadores — Corinthians had come close but had failed to score a goal. They were due one, and it came when Flamengo failed to deal with a Matheus Vital cross from the left. Fabio Santos flicked on, Adson had a shot blocked at the far post and the ball fell for Giuliano to score with a volley from close range.
The momentum seemed to be with Corinthians but, in truth, everyone was mentally and physically exhausted. It was perhaps fortunate that extra time is not played in this competition, because it would have been a very weary affair. Instead, all concerned appeared to settle for the shootout — which, like the game before it, ebbed first one way and then the other, before sparking off Flamengo celebrations that will only be equalled if they can add the Copa Libertadores to their trophy cabinet.
That final, a one off game on a neutral ground, takes place on Saturday week in Guayaquil, Ecuador against fellow Brazilians Athletico Paranaense. Flamengo are clear favourites for that one, and can take the long trip north boosted by the knowledge that they already have one title in the bag, and that they came out on top in the biggest game ever played between Brazil’s most popular clubs.