All-Brazilian affair for Copa Libertadores final at empty Maracana

Rio de Janeiro (AFP) – Palmeiras and Santos, Brazil’s two most successful clubs, go head to head at an empty Maracana stadium on Saturday in a Copa Libertadores final delayed more than two months by the coronavirus pandemic.

For the third time in four editions the trophy will return to Brazil, as Palmeiras target a second title while Santos hope to add to their collection of three — the last coming in 2011 when a teenaged Neymar scored in a 2-1 victory over Penarol.

Veteran defender Para, at 34 an elder statesman in a youthful Santos squad, was part of the team that triumphed a decade ago, ending nearly 50 years of frustration in a competition Pele won with the club in 1962 and 1963.

“I’m very happy. I can win my third Libertadores and we’re going to fight hard for it. The game will be very difficult,” said Para, who rejoined Santos after helping Flamengo win South America’s premier club competition in 2019.

“Palmeiras are a great team, with international players. There is no favourite. It’s two heavyweights of Brazilian and world football.”

The hiring of Portuguese boss Abel Ferreira, appointed following the dismissal of former Real Madrid coach Vanderlei Luxemburgo in October, has transformed Palmeiras, adding structure and clarity to a talented group.

“He’s a very intelligent coach, very clever. He really helped us to become a family. His arrival was key for us reaching two finals,” the 20-year-old Gabriel Menino, a revelation this season for Palmeiras, told AFP. Palmeiras also face Gremio next month in the Brazilian Cup final.

Ferreira, 42, cut his teeth managing Sporting Lisbon’s junior and reserve teams before taking over at Braga. He spent a year at Greek club PAOK before touching down in Sao Paulo.

He is aiming to become just the third European manager to win the Copa Libertadores. Croatia’s Mirko Jozic won with Colo Colo in 1991 while Ferreira’s countryman Jorge Jesus masterminded Flamengo’s 2019 success.

– Buenos Aires foes vanquished –

Palmeiras will be appearing in a fifth final, with their sole victory in 1999 when they overcame Colombia’s Deportivo Cali on penalties.

They held on to overcome River Plate 3-2 on aggregate in the semi-finals despite losing the second leg 2-0 at home. Santos defeated River’s sworn Buenos Aires enemies Boca Juniors 3-0 on aggregate to reach the final.

Leading the Palmeiras attack is ex-Shakhtar Donetsk forward Luiz Adriano while captain Felipe Melo, formerly of Juventus and Inter Milan, has recovered from an ankle injury after missing the previous knockout rounds.

Luiz Adriano and Rony Barbosa have both scored five goals in the tournament, matching the tally of 19-year-old Santos marksman Kaio Jorge, who has paired up effectively with ex-Changchun Yatai forward Marinho.

Palmeiras winger Gabriel Veron, 18, has reportedly attracted interest from Manchester City, Manchester United and Barcelona, and the club could listen to offers at the end of the season.

This weekend’s showpiece is just the third Copa Libertadores final featuring two Brazilian clubs. Sao Paulo defeated Athletico Paranaense in 2005, and Internacional beat Sao Paulo the following year.

Santos boss Alexi Stival, often known as Cuca, hopes to emulate Brazil’s 2002 World Cup-winning coach Luiz Felipe Scolari and become the fifth Brazilian coach to win the Copa Libertadores twice, having guided Atletico Mineiro to glory in 2013.

The winners will also jet off to Qatar to take part in the FIFA Club World Cup, with a semi-final on February 7 against either Tigres of Mexico or Asian champions Ulsan Hyundai before a potential final against European champions Bayern Munich.

Traditionally decided over two legs, the final between the Sao Paulo rivals will again be played as a one-off contest in a country among the worst-affected by Covid-19.

The iconic 80,000-capacity Maracana stadium has served as the site of one of Rio de Janeiro’s coronavirus field hospitals, as part of Brazil’s effort to stem the health crisis.

Brazil has recorded more than 218,000 coronavirus deaths — a toll second only to that of the United States. 

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