Flamengo are underdogs but have a chance to shock Liverpool in Club World Cup final
For the next few hours, at least, Flamengo are living the dream.
The Brazilian giants are preparing for the final of the FIFA Club World Cup -- against opponents that, given the choice, they would have handpicked.
On Tuesday night, following their 3-1 semi-final win over Al Hilal of Saudi Arabia, I was on a Brazilian TV show that asked the following question to Flamengo fans; would you prefer Monterrey or Liverpool in the final? In theory, Monterrey would be easier, boosting Flamengo's chances of rounding off a magical year with the world title. But the answer was overwhelming. From the South American point of view, the charm and (immense) appeal of the Club World Cup is the opportunity to have a crack at the European champions.
To Flamengo it is even more appealing when that European opponent is Liverpool. The greatest moment in Flamengo's history was a Zico-inspired 3-0 win over the Reds in 1981 at the old Intercontinental Cup. That was 38 years ago now -- and Flamengo fans are still singing about it. A repeat result on Saturday and the singing will last forever.
In potentially the best Club World Cup final since the current format was introduced in 2005, Flamengo have a chance. The Rubro-Negro are the best -- and the most attractive -- side to come out of South America in a while. Unlike so many, especially recent Brazilian clubs, they are built to attack.
Portuguese coach Jorge Jesus has implemented a revolution since arriving in June. In a country and league where nearly everyone defends deep and looks to break on the counter-attack, his side seek to impose themselves on the game. They play with a high defensive line, allowing the team to stay compact in the opposition's half, permitting the front four to combine and make the ball fly -- as seen in their memorable equalising goal on Tuesday, a flowing four-man move that showed off the team at their best.
Full-backs Rafinha and Filipe Luis are intelligent and constructive, Willian Arao and Gerson are dynamic in the centre of midfield, playmakers Everton Ribeiro and Giorgian De Arrascaeta are talented and subtle, striker Gabriel Barbosa is full of goals and then there is Bruno Henrique, with the dribbling skills of a winger and the penalty area presence of a centre-forward. Involved in all three goals against Al Hilal, Bruno Henrique is probably the main threat to Liverpool -- and it was noticeable how he grew in Tuesday's game after the introduction of Flamengo's 12th man, veteran playmaker Diego, who once again came off the bench and found space against tiring opponents.
The Brazilians can also draw hope from the way that Liverpool defended a day later against Monterrey. In the absence of Virgil van Dijk, the Reds' backline often looked shambolic. If the Dutchman is still unwell, or nowhere near full fitness, then Flamengo's chances on Saturday are greatly boosted.
But the even bigger question is at the other end. Flamengo have rolled over plenty of deep-lying Brazilian teams. On the other hand, they have struggled against sides who have been bolder, pushing up, preventing them from finding their rhythm, winning the ball high and slipping passes inside and behind their defensive line. This was part of the story against Argentina's River Plate in the final of the Copa Libertadores, and again on Tuesday against Al Hilal, especially in the first half-hour. And they have never faced anything like the skill, pace and intensity that a full-strength Liverpool side can throw against them.
There are grounds for concern. Over recent months the weaker side of the Flamengo defence has been down their right, in the space between and behind full-back Rafinha and centre-back Rodrigo Caio, but now the other flank looks vulnerable. Filipe Luis and left-sided centre-back Pablo Mari both appear to be feeling the strain of a long season. On Saturday, they will be asked questions much more difficult than those posed by River Plate or Al Hilal.
They, and the rest of the team, will have to dig deep and maintain maximum concentration to see off the threat of Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino. But if they can hold firm, and especially if Van Dijk is missing, then they just might give their fans something to sing about.