In a final that flickered between the chaotic and the dramatic, Fluminense beat Argentina's Boca Juniors 2-1 to win the Copa Libertadores for the first time and register a fifth consecutive triumph for Brazilian clubs -- an unprecedented run of success in the 64 year history of the competition.
Boca and their huge traveling army will make the journey home ruing how close they came to claiming the trophy without winning a single knockout game. After six straight draws and three shootout wins, they took Fluminense into extra time -- and keeper Sergio Romero must surely have been dreaming of more penalty heroics.
A limited Boca side knew that their most likely path to victory was to run, mark, cover and run down the clock on the way to a shootout. They will have been happy with the weather -- a cool and cloudy Rio de Janeiro Spring day meant that they could execute their game plan without being drained by the heat. And the Fluminense line up also pointed towards an early stalemate.
Coach Fernando Diniz left live wire striker John Kennedy on the bench, choosing to strengthen his midfield instead. It made Fluminense less able to stretch the game, and events in the Maracana soon fell into a stalemate, with Boca starting to enjoy the odd breakaway.
O gol que tanto sonhamos saiu dos pés dele! OBRIGADO, JOHN KENNEDY! OBRIGADO!pic.twitter.com/7rW0TXUTrn— Fluminense F.C. (@FluminenseFC) November 4, 2023
But ten minutes before half-time came a moment that sums up the best of Diniz's Fluminense. Centre-back Felipe Melo swung out a long ball to the right flank, where -- so characteristic of the side -- both wingers had linked up, creating a surprise overload. Keno and Jhon Arias worked the one-two, Keno pulled the ball back and Argentine striker German Cano made the perfect movement to meet the ball and with typical first touch efficiency sent it into the far corner.
At this point Cano had scored one more goal in the Libertadores campaign than the entire Boca team. If things were to stay that way then the trophy was Fluminense's. But if the goal was the team at its best, the same could not be said of the second half. Perhaps the tension of the occasion was too much for some of the aging limbs in the team, but Fluminense lost intensity, and when Boca had possession they started to drop worryingly deep.
There was a warning when Boca's Ezequiel Fernandez had space at the edge of the area to let off a fierce shot, saved by veteran keeper Fábio on his 100th Libertadores appearance. The warning was not heeded. Right-back Luis Advincula was given too much space to cut infield and place a left-footed shot past Fabio and into the far corner.
Both sides went to the bench. Some of the big hitters -- Edinson Cavani and Valentin Barco for Boca, Marcelo and Paulo Henrique Ganso for Fluminense -- had not shone on the big occasion, and gave way. The Fluminense bench looked deeper, and with almost the last kick of normal time two of their substitutes combined. Midfielder Lima slipped left-back Diogo Barbosa. He was one on one with the keeper. Glory beckoned. But it was all too much. Unsure of whether to shoot or square the ball, he did neither, and the outcome was an ugly non-shot cum non-cross. Was this the key moment, the one that Fluminense would look back on with bitterness?
Football so often offers a chance for redemption, and it came soon into extra time for Barbosa. Kennedy had by now joined the action. He chested back to Barbosa, who launched forward a clever chip. Keno came up with a subtle layoff and Kennedy blasted the ball into Romero's left-hand corner.
But if it was redemption for Barbosa, for Kennedy the moment of triumph also flirted with tragedy. He overdid the celebrations, running into the crowd. It is a yellow card offence, and as he was already on a yellow he had to go. Boca were a goal down, but a man up. Not for long.
In a flare up, experienced left-back Frank Fabra committed the foolishness of flicking an arm into the face of Nino. It was behind the back of the referee, but it was an easy catch for the all seeing eye of VAR, and Boca's numerical advantage quickly evaporated -- along realistic hopes of a second equaliser. They simply did not have enough to get themselves back on level terms, and though there were plenty of crosses hit into the box -- with Romero coming up to add his presence at the end -- Fluminense were able to hold on with plenty of flutters but no real alarms.