Flamengo make light work of Velez Sarsfield, ensure all-Brazilian Copa Libertadores final

On Tuesday night Brazilian giants Palmeiras fell short in their bid to qualify for three consecutive finals of the Copa Libertadores, South America's Champions League.

Twenty four hours later their domestic rivals Flamengo made sure of their third final in the last four years.

After winning the first leg of their semi final 4-0 away to Velez Sarsfield of Argentina, Flamengo's place in the decider was never seriously in doubt. They went into the return match, in front of a packed crowd in the Maracana, unbeaten in 16 games in all competitions. Velez, meanwhile, lay 27th of 28 in the Argentine first division, with just one victory in 17 rounds.

Flamengo, then, could hardly have been stronger favourites. They made four changes from the first leg line up. Centre-backs David Luiz and Leo Pereira were both suspended, and holding midfielder Thiago Maia and striker Gabriel Barbosa, a yellow card away from missing the final, were rested.

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But this did not mean the team would be taking the game lightly. There is a painful memory from 14 years ago, when Flamengo won a first leg 4-2 away to America of Mexico. With the away goals rule then in effect, they were seen as home and dry. The return match was treated as a party more than a serious fixture, and, bundled out of the competition 3-0, they paid the price for losing focus. There could be no repeat performance against Velez. A couple of players might be rested, but to replace them in came Chilean legend Arturo Vidal and winger Everton Soares, the hero of Brazil's 2019 Copa America win who failed to settle in Portugal.

But this was a different Velez from the first leg. In Buenos Aires, coach Alexander Medina embarked on a suicidal selection policy of fielding two wingers plus two strikers, with just two in the centre of midfield. This time he dropped a striker, brought in a third central midfielder and could watch his side, much more compact and competitive, briefly silence the stadium by taking the lead. Veteran striker Lucas Pratto started the counter-attack and ended the move, moving the ball left for Nicolas Garayalde, who fed winger Lucas Janson. His low cross was then met by a sliding finish from Pratto, intelligently bursting in front of his marker.

Pratto moved quickly to grab the ball out of the back of the net and run with it back to the half-way line. Did Velez really believe that they could score another three and force a shootout? True, they were giving Flamengo some problems, moving the ball outside the midfield diamond of the hosts, but there was no real tension in the air. A clear chance for a second did not emerge, and Flamengo's depth of attacking brilliance soon asserted itself.

Playmaker Everton Ribeiro hit in a left footed cross from deep on the right, and in-form centre-forward Pedro met it with a magnificent glanced header that went in off the crossbar. It was his 12th goal of the competition. He is not quick, but his range of penalty area abilities is eye catching,and he would seem a certainty to be named on Friday in Brazil's squad for this month's FIFA dates.

He also had a hand in the winning goal half-way through the second half, nutmegging a defender and slipping a pass for second-half substitute Marinho to lash home left-footed from the edge of the area, completing a 2-1 win on the night and a 6-1 triumph on aggregate.

A glamorous recent signing from Santos -- he was the star man on that team's route to the 2020 Libertadores final -- the presence of Marinho on the bench is an indication of the depth of the Flamengo squad. This in turn helps explain the team's extraordinary record in this year's Libertadores: 11 wins and a draw, with 33 goals scored and 8 conceded. They will be clear favourites on Oct. 29 when they take on Athletico Paranaense -- the third consecutive all Brazilian final of the Libertadores.

It is not too long ago that Flamengo struggled to qualify for the competition, and then frequently struggled to make it out of the group phase. The change has a couple of explanations.

One is that the club has sorted out its finances, and has learned how to leverage its giant support into financial strength. The model is also in line with trends in the global market. Flamengo produce and sell youngsters to top European clubs -- Vinicius Junior, Lucas Paqueta, Reinier. And they use the proceeds to invest in two types of players from Europe; veterans looking to move back home, and those in their mid-20s who have failed to meet expectations on the other side of the Atlantic but still have plenty to offer.

Meanwhile, the overall standard elsewhere in the continent has fallen. Brazil is scouting better, and taking players from other South American countries. Major League Soccer has also become a key player. Wary of Brazil because of higher price tags, MLS has bought widely and wisely from around the continent, and the consequence is that as the big Brazilian clubs have become stronger, their opponents have tended to move in the other direction.

A third consecutive all Brazilian final may well be something of a cause for concern for the administrators, but for the next few weeks it is the cause of celebration for fans of Flamengo and of Athletico Paranaense.