Football, the most beloved sport around the world, and some of the reasons for this are its unpredictability and its ability to surprise its viewers. Today, we will continue our series that recounts historic comebacks, aiming to demonstrate intrinsically that there is no lost or won game, as this is not mathematics but rather the interplay of various factors and individuals that make football something unique.
Today marks the beginning of the semifinal stage of the 2023 Libertadores, and therefore, we couldn’t help but recount a historic comeback from the most competitive tournament on the planet. It’s the 2019 final between Flamengo and River Plate, a match filled with tension, surprises, clashes, and passion—a beautiful portrayal of what the Copa Libertadores is all about.
Predictions for Flamengo and River Plate Before the Final
In 2019, River Plate entered the Libertadores with the aim of defending their historic title from the previous season, which they had won against their biggest rival, Boca Juniors. That final became a historic milestone for several reasons.
It was the first time two Argentine teams faced each other in a Libertadores final, and as we know, the rivalry between these two clubs is immense and captivates all of Argentina and nearly the entire continent. In the first leg held at La Bombonera, River managed to secure a 2-2 draw. However, the second leg, scheduled to take place at River’s Monumental stadium, was marred by an attack on Boca’s team bus by River’s supporters, and the match didn’t happen as planned. CONMEBOL acted swiftly and relocated the final to Madrid, Spain.
In Europe, River Plate displayed excellent football and clinched the 2018 Libertadores title with a 3-1 victory over their arch-rivals.
The 2019 Libertadores campaign started decently but without any outstanding results. River Plate had a modest group stage but secured a spot in the knockout rounds after finishing with 10 points in 6 games. At home, River Plate drew 2-2 with Internacional from Porto Alegre, defeated Peru’s Alianza Lima 3-0, and played a goalless draw against Chile’s Palestino. Away from home, River Plate drew 1-1 with Alianza Lima, drew 2-2 with Internacional, and secured a 2-0 victory against Palestino, ultimately finishing 2nd in their group.
In the Round of 16, River Plate faced Cruzeiro, and the matches were more gritty and physical than free-flowing, resulting in two goalless draws and River advancing on penalties at the Mineirão stadium. In the quarterfinals, River Plate took on Cerro Porteño and had a comfortable 2-0 lead at home, which they defended with a 1-1 draw in the second leg in Paraguay.
In the semifinals, fate had it that River and Boca would face each other once again in a decisive phase of the Libertadores. It was the perfect opportunity for revenge for Boca Juniors, but River, which had been the reigning best club in South America, played two excellent matches and easily qualified for the final, winning 2-0 at home and 1-0 away. This marked their second consecutive appearance in the Libertadores final.
This didn’t come as a surprise to anyone, given that River Plate was the defending champion, had the best coach in the Americas, Rafael Gallardo, and boasted an extremely cohesive and talented squad, featuring top names like Armani, Enzo Pérez, Montiel, Nacho Fernández, De la Cruz, Borré, and the young Julian Alvarez at the beginning of his career, among others.
Meanwhile, Flamengo started the 2019 season aggressively in the transfer market. Since 2015, the club had been coming close to winning titles of great significance in Brazilian football but falling short. They spared no effort and brought in the highly decorated Abel Braga as their head coach. Alongside the coach, they also signed top-notch players such as Gabriel Barbosa, Bruno Henrique, Rodrigo Caio, and Arrascaeta in the first window, and Rafinha, Filipe Luís, Gerson, and Pablo Marí in the second.
Flamengo began the season on fire and immediately won the Campeonato Carioca, showcasing excellent football and proving that their signings were of paramount importance to the team. However, as we know, Flamengo has the largest fan base in Brazil, which places extreme pressure on the club for immediate results.
In the Libertadores, things started to get a bit complicated as the team seemed unable to reach its full potential. Nonetheless, they managed to top their group, securing first place with 10 points in six matches. An interesting fact about this group was that Flamengo, LDU, and Peñarol all had 10 points, and the spots for the round of 16 were decided on goal difference, with Flamengo coming out on top and LDU in second place.
Despite their Libertadores qualification and strong performances in the Brazilian league, coach Abel Braga decided to step down from his position at Flamengo due to personal reasons. The club’s management swiftly moved in the market in search of a worthy replacement, and they found more than just a good name. They found a Portuguese “Mister” who would transform this Flamengo team into one of the best in the world.
It’s true that Jorge Jesus initially struggled to find the best lineup and playing style for Flamengo. An example of this was their hard-fought qualification for the quarterfinals of the Libertadores against Emelec. They advanced on penalties after a 2-0 loss in Ecuador and a challenging 2-0 victory at Maracanã.
However, as they progressed to the quarterfinals, the atmosphere became more relaxed, and the players embraced Jorge Jesus and his tactical ideas, which perfectly complemented the individual talents within the squad. Flamengo began playing magnificent football with an all-out attacking style and started accumulating points in the Brazilian league.
In the quarterfinals, the Rubro-Negro faced Internacional from Porto Alegre, winning 2-0 at home and drawing 1-1 away to secure a spot in the semifinals. The semifinal opponent was also a team from the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul, the highly touted Grêmio, led by coach Renato Gaúcho. Despite some media expectations that Grêmio could halt Flamengo’s momentum, it didn’t happen.
The first leg was played at Grêmio’s Arena, ending in a good 1-1 draw, setting high expectations for the return leg at Maracanã. Those expectations were fully met by Flamengo, who delivered a resounding 5-0 victory over Grêmio, leaving the visitors unable to compete that night due to the intensity of Jorge Jesus’ team. Thus, Flamengo earned their spot in the final and demonstrated their capability to dethrone River Plate.
Final: Flamengo 2×1 River
It was the final everyone had been waiting for: the reigning South American champion, River Plate, a well-coordinated team accustomed to big moments, with incredible tactical discipline and individual skill among its players. It was a battle-hardened team where everything seemed to fall into place. On the other side was Flamengo, a daring team that had not only captured the hearts of its fans but also of all football enthusiasts. It was all-out attack, beautiful goals, and the wisdom that came from the bench with Mister Jorge Jesus.
For the first time in the competition’s history, the final would be played as a single game on neutral ground. The chosen city to host this grand spectacle was beautiful Santiago, Chile. However, due to the strong protests against Chilean President Sebastián Piñera happening throughout the country, CONMEBOL decided to change the location, and the chosen city was Lima, Peru, at the magnificent Monumental Stadium.
With nearly 60,000 spectators in the Peruvian capital and a fantastic opening show featuring Anitta, Chilean referee Roberto Tobar blew the whistle to kick off one of the most unforgettable matches in South American football.
The high-profile Flamengo took to the field in JJ’s traditional 4-3-3 formation, with Diego Alves in goal; Rafinha, Rodrigo Caio, Pablo Marí, and Filipe Luís in defense; Willian Arão, Gerson, and Arrascaeta in midfield; and Everton Ribeiro, Gabigol, and Bruno Henrique in attack.
On the other hand, the sturdy River Plate lined up in a 4-4-2 formation, with Armani in goal; Montiel, Martínez Quarta, Pinola, and Casco in defense; Pérez, Palacios, De la Cruz, and Nacho Fernández in midfield; and Borré and Matías Suárez up front.
The game started with River dominating the attacking zone, while Flamengo struggled to execute their trademark quick passes. This was because River, with their four midfielders, managed to control this part of the field and maintain possession.
River Plate capitalized on Flamengo’s vulnerability and went on the offensive. At the 13th minute, Flamengo’s defense attempted to clear the ball, but Enzo Pérez intercepted it quickly. The midfielder tried a low cross for Nacho, who controlled it, advanced from the left side of the box, and delivered a low cross backward. The ball passed through Arão and reached Borré, who finished it precisely with a first-time shot, leaving no chance for Diego Alves. River led 1-0.
After the goal, River slowed down their offensive pace a bit but continued to maintain a strong midfield presence, especially to prevent Gabigol and Bruno Henrique from infiltrating. The Millionaires’ strategy was effective, and at the 35th minute, they nearly extended their lead after a powerful long-range shot from Palacios, which narrowly missed the right post.
Before the end of the first half, River had another good chance with Borré, who entered the box alone from the left side but failed to convert the opportunity, shooting it straight at Diego Alves. The first half ended, and Flamengo struggled to create offensive opportunities, showing vulnerability when River played through the flanks.
In the second half, Flamengo improved significantly, mainly because Arrascaeta and Everton Ribeiro managed to hold onto the ball more and began delivering excellent passes to Bruno Henrique and Gabigol. Just one minute into the second half, Arrascaeta received the ball behind River’s midfield, advanced towards the box, and passed it to Gabigol, who dribbled and took a left-footed shot, but it lacked power and went straight to the goalkeeper.
Five minutes later, River responded with a similar approach, with Palacios taking a fantastic shot from outside the box, aiming for the top corner, but once again, the ball narrowly missed the target. The second half featured a much-improved game, especially as Flamengo started finding the spaces they needed to play.
At the 11th minute, Flamengo came close to equalizing the game. It’s still a mystery how this ball didn’t find the back of the net. Gerson delivered a beautiful pass to Everton Ribeiro on the left-wing, and the left-footed player dribbled close to his foot and delivered a perfect pass to Gabigol. Gabigol, at the edge of the box, executed a beautiful pivot and set up Bruno Henrique, who entered the box, moved towards the goal, and sent a cross. The ball went past Arrascaeta and ended up at Gabigol’s feet, who shot it into the defense. The ball then fell to Everton Ribeiro, who fired it fiercely, leading to a miraculous save by Armani.
From that moment on, Flamengo continued to push forward, applying constant pressure. Their persistence paid off at the 44th minute. Diego stole the ball from Lucas Pratto, who had just entered the game. The play continued, and the ball reached Bruno Henrique on the left flank. The speedster dribbled towards the center until he saw Arrascaeta’s run from the midfield towards the right side of the box. Bruno Henrique made a precise pass, and the Uruguayan, in a duel with Pinola, managed to execute a precise slide to deliver a cross to Gabigol. Gabigol then finished it confidently to level the score at 1-1.
Flamengo players celebrated wildly, and it seemed to give them an extra boost for the final moments of regular time. Just two minutes after the goal, Jorge Jesus substituted Diego Ribas into the game. The excellent midfielder improved Flamengo’s midfield control, allowing them to retain more possession and suffer less from River’s attacks.
However, at the 34th minute, it was River’s turn to create a chance to increase their lead. Suárez received the ball almost at the byline from the right side, executed a beautiful chip over the Flamengo defender, and delivered a precise pass to Palacios, who took a first-time shot. Once again, the ball missed the target narrowly, creating a tense moment.
It was clear that Flamengo was not giving up, but River was playing a tough game, trying to minimize any chances for Flamengo. However, time was running out, and if it wasn’t through quality, it would be through quantity that Flamengo would make the difference. Starting from the 80th minute, Flamengo threw everything forward and applied constant pressure. Their persistence paid off at the 44th minute.
Diego Ribas intercepted the ball from Lucas Pratto, who had just entered the game. The play continued, and the ball reached Bruno Henrique on the left flank. The speedster dribbled towards the center until he saw Arrascaeta making a run from midfield towards the right side of the box. Bruno Henrique executed a precise pass, and the Uruguayan, in a duel with Pinola, managed to make a precise sliding pass to deliver a cross to Gabigol. Gabigol then finished it confidently into the goal, sealing the fate of one of the greatest teams South American football has ever seen.
Flamengo crowned champions of the 2019 Libertadores in a heroic and historic comeback, with a hero named Gabriel Barbosa, or better known as Gabigol, the hero of the Rubro-Negra nation. This victory marked an assertive team that played a unique style of football, one we are unlikely to see again.
Written by João Felipe Miller