Palmeiras-Flamengo grudge match provides preview of likely Copa Libertadores final

Like boxers when the bell sounds for the end of the last round, both Palmeiras and Flamengo were able to raise their arms and claim a kind of victory when the final whistle sounded on Sunday's Brazilian league 1-1 draw in a likely preview of the Copa Libertadores final.

These are the current "Big Two" of Brazilian football, the clubs seeking to monopolise the serious silverware. Last year big spending Atletico Mineiro emerged to form a short-lived "Power Trio" and walked away with both the league and the cup. But they have fallen sharply back this year.

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Normal service has been resumed. The big battle is between Palmeiras of Sao Paulo and Flamengo of Rio de Janeiro. Just as their cities are so different, so are their teams. Flamengo had a magical year in 2019 under Portuguese coach Jorge Jesus, winning both the domestic title and the Copa Libertadores. Jorge Jesus built them from the front, with a bold front four that the local coaches had thought unworkable. He left in 2020, and all subsequent coaches -- there have been four -- have worked in his shadow, with an obligation to come up with something swashbuckling.

Palmeiras have won the following two Libertadores titles with a Portuguese coach of their own -- but one cut from very different cloth from Jorge Jesus. Abel Ferreira is young, ambitious and frighteningly talented. There is something of the young Jose Mourinho about him. By nature his teams are cautious on the big occasions. They can smash through weaker opponents. But against the big teams their "clean sheets first" mentality speaks loudest. Perhaps for that reason so far he has done better in the cup competitions than in the league.

But this year is proving to be different. With Atletico Mineiro's sharp decline, and Flamengo getting off to an appalling start, the way looks open to a Palmeiras triumph. And that would seem all the more true after Sunday's 1-1 draw. Palmeiras have managed to stall the strong recovery Flamengo have mounted under Dorival Junior, who replaced Paulo Sousa.

Flamengo remain in third place and trail Palmeiras by nine points with 15 rounds to go. In second place is this year's surprise side Fluminense, who Palmeiras visit on Saturday. Avoid defeat in that one and Palmeiras can look ahead to the final straight with a healthy lead. The league title will be theirs to lose.

But Flamengo, too, can claim a kind of moral victory from Sunday's draw. The league title might be a lost cause. Time will tell. But there are bigger fish to fry. Last year these two met in the final of the Libertadores, with Palmeiras winning a tight game 2-1. They are on course to meet again in this year's decider. Both are through to the semifinals, where they are the favourites -- Palmeiras against fellow Brazilians Athletico Paranaense, Flamengo against Velez Sarsfield of Argentina.

And from the perspective of the build up to a possible Libertadores final, Flamengo do not come away from Sao Paulo in any way diminished by this 1-1 draw. Palmeiras were at full strength. Flamengo, with one eye on midweek's domestic cup semifinal, rested a number of players. New signing Arturo Vidal was on the bench, as were the glamorous front four -- playmakers Everton Ribeiro and Giorgian de Arrascaeta, plus strikers Gabriel Barbosa and Pedro.

True, their squad has dazzling strength in depth. In came Brazil international winger Everton Soares, signed from Benfica, while on the other wing was Marinho, a big name acquisition from Santos. But the youngsters were also given a run, and one of them, 18-year-old Vitor Hugo, gave Flamengo the lead with a textbook header from a cross from the left.

Palmeiras turned their screw after the interval, and though Flamengo keeper Aderbar Santos was not overburdened with alarms, they deserved their equaliser when playmaker Raphael Veiga curled home a typically well placed shot from outside the area. It was then that Flamengo went to the bench, and soon brought on all five of their famous names. Inevitably, it changed the game -- not least because 1-1 was virtually a victory for Palmeiras and they were content to concede possession and wait for opportunities on the counter-attack.

And there were chances and half-chances at both ends in a pulsating last 20 minutes. It all bodes well for a possible preview of the Libertadores final in Ecuadorian city of Guayaquil on October 29 -- an occasion where whatever happened in the domestic league will likely lack relevance.