Flamengo's new-look defence will determine club's Recopa, Copa Libertadores fates
It is all square entering the decisive second leg of the Recopa Sudamericana, or South America's Super Cup, the annual challenge between the champions of the Copa Libertadores and the winners of the Copa Sudamericana.
Last week, there was parity on the field between teams with no parity in their purse strings. Brazilian giants Flamengo have a budget this year of $162 million. Meanwhile, Independiente del Valle of Ecuador have a budget of $7 million. At home in Quito for the first leg, Independiente could level the playing field -- because that pitch was some 2,800 metres above sea level. Altitude is a significant obstacle for unacclimatised visitors, so the final score of 2-2 leaves Flamengo as clear favourites at the Maracana.
There is potential history on the line, as Flamengo have never sealed an international title in the Maracana. Some might see the Recopa as more of a glorified friendly than a genuine title, but if the second leg goes their way, try telling that to the red and black masses.
There is no doubt, though, that this game is much more important in terms of the light it sheds on the year ahead -- and especially on the hosts.
Independiente del Valle can be counted on to continue to punch above their weight. They are a remarkably well-run club, who proved their valour with a splendid 3-2 league win at the weekend away to local heavyweights Liga of Quito. But their size inevitably places a ceiling on their ambitions. They are a club much more focused on youth development, and producing and selling players has a higher priority than winning titles.
Flamengo, on the other hand, are an enormous outfit with a nationwide support base. A certain swagger is part of their DNA. They gave Liverpool a game in December's final of the FIFA Club World Cup, and they would love to be back there at the end of this year giving an even better account of themselves and bringing the big prize home.
They have had a wonderful go of it since Portuguese coach Jorge Jesus took over in the middle of last year. In a magical few months, the boundaries of what was thought possible from a South American team were pushed back. They played a swashbuckling brand of football, with a high defensive line and a commitment to taking the initiative at all times. Can they keep it up in Year Two?
Their attacking glitter should be a constant. The club have gone shopping, and there are even more options than last year. Pedro, who scored in the first leg, gives them a target man at centre-forward, and Michael is a viciously dangerous, gnat-like, little winger. On Wednesday, even if the extraordinary Bruno Henrique is forced out by injury, there is the return from suspension of Gabriel "Gabigol" Barbosa to provide the cutting edge.
The question hangs at the other end of the pitch. Last year, Flamengo unearthed a diamond. Jorge Jesus' game plan requires a high defensive line -- something Brazilian centre-backs are not accustomed to playing. A solution was found in Europe, as Spanish centre-back Pablo Mari was signed from Man City and thrown into the deep end. He was an instant hit, organising the line, covering for his more tentative colleague Rodrigo Caio and making the team's central idea workable.
Unfortunately for Flamengo, his contributions did not go unnoticed, as Arsenal, with Brazilian Edu as their director of football, took the player back across the Atlantic after a drawn-out January transfer saga. Can Flamengo replace him? The question becomes more pertinent following the injury suffered last week by his old partner Rodrigo Caio, who might not be fit for Wednesday, leaving Flamengo with a pair of recently acquired centre-backs.
On Saturday, Gustavo Henrique and Leonardo Pereira had a warm-up in a local final against tiny Boavista. Flamengo fielded a largely reserve side, but this pair of centre-backs are suddenly first-choice. Neither of them has looked entirely convincing so far this year, and on Saturday they were especially worrying. The left-footed Pereira, Pablo Mari's direct replacement, had a wretched time. He was so vulnerable in open space that Flamengo's left-back was forced to stay deep and help him, thus reducing opportunities for attacking combinations.
This is where the test offered Wednesday becomes so fascinating. Independiente del Valle will surely place more emphasis on deep defence than they did in the first leg. Last week, the rampaging John Jairo Sanchez played at right-back after making his name last year charging infield from the left wing. It was hardly a surprise that his defending was exposed at times. In the return game, he will surely be freed to surge at the Flamengo defence.
Independiente can cover up and launch rapid attacks down the flanks, too. On the way to winning last year's Sudamericana, they ripped apart Corinthians in Sao Paulo, for instance, playing that very way. Jorge Jesus is wary of the threat they carry but will expect his side to win.
There a more important question as the teams prepare for the group phase of the Libertadores, which kicks off next week and which puts both teams in the same group, alongside tricky opponents Atletico Junior and either Cerro Porteno or Barcelona. Can Flamengo's high-powered attack continue to fire while maintaining the same defensive solidity they managed in the glorious last few months of 2019? We'll have an early idea about the answer to that question late Wednesday at the Maracana.