Over the last few years, two teams have battled for supremacy in Brazilian football and -- with the way South Americas's game has gone -- continental bragging rights as well.
Palmeiras of Sao Paulo and Flamengo of Rio de Janeiro have enjoyed a near monopoly on the serious silverware. Palmeiras won the Brazilian league title in 2018, followed by triumphs for Flamengo in the next two years. True, there was an interruption last year, with Atletico Mineiro spending big and winning the league, but they have since fallen back. With around two thirds of this year's season played, Palmeiras have a seven point lead at the top of the table, with Flamengo, recovering strongly after an awful start, in second place.
Flamengo won the Copa Libertadores, South America's Champions League, in 2019. The subsequent two years, though, have both ended with Palmeiras winning the trophy -- last year when they beat Flamengo in the final.
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And there is the chance of a replay this time. The 2022 final will be played on October 29 in Guayaquil, Ecuador, and the two contestants will be defined this week.
Flamengo will surely be one of them. In last week's semifinal first leg, they won 4-0 away to Velez Sarsfield of Argentina, with centre-forward Pedro helping himself to a hat trick. In truth, the margin of victory hardly came as a surprise. Flamengo have a dazzling collection of attacking talent, and Velez currently lie second from bottom in the 28-team Argentine league, with just one win in 17 rounds. True, the Flamengo goal has led something of a charmed life. Their defensive work does not always match the quality of their attacking play, and just one goal conceded in the five games of the knock out phase does flatter them a little. But things would have to go disastrously, inexplicably wrong in the Maracana stadium on Wednesday night for the evening to contain even the barest hint of tension. The crowd will go along for a party and a victory parade.
The big question that remains surrounds the identity of their opponents -- they will certainly be from Brazil. But will it be a rematch with Palmeiras? Or might Athletico Paranaense be the surprise finalists?
From the southern city of Curitiba, last week Athletico used home advantage to help them establish a 1-0 lead. They are notoriously strong at home, with five wins and a draw and just two goals conceded in this year's competition. Form on the road has been less convincing, with just one win -- and that achieved in highly controversial circumstances in the previous round, when Estudiantes of Argentina had a goal disallowed on a flimsy premise.
But Athletico do not have to win in Sao Paulo on Tuesday night, merely avoid defeat. The team commanded by veteran coach Luiz Felipe Scolari are happiest on the counter-attack, though this time they will have to do it without the presence of Scolari on the touchline. He was sent off in the course of a predictably feisty first game.
His opposite number is a fascinating figure. Abel Ferreira, the Portuguese boss of Palmeiras, is a highly gifted coach. He has made many of his players better on an individual basis, and he is also a master of collective organisation. His players remark that he always has a plan for every situation, and that most of the time it turns out to be the right one. But there is little joy about him, and a touch of the tortured soul. His side can be free scoring. In the big games, though, he has a tendency to keep things tight, to risk as little as necessary, and it will be intriguing to discover what strategy he will adopt for this occasion when he is in the rare position of having to chase the game.
Central midfielder Danilo, linked with Arsenal midweek, is still out suspended. His dynamism was badly missed in the first leg, and, it seems, cannot be replaced. Gustavo Scarpa, the Nottingham Forest-bound left-footed set-piece specialist, is once more available for selection and will be welcomed back, especially if playmaker Raphael Veiga fails to recover from an ankle injury.
Athletico have plenty of defensive height, and will surely prepare to deal with high crosses or the dangerous long throws of right-back Marcos Rocha. But Palmeiras might be able to do some damage with their quick, little strikers -- experienced winger Dudu or, most of all, Rony, a wonderfully talented livewire striker who Abel Ferreira has done much to develop.
Palmeiras probably still start the second leg as narrow favourites, but they will need to raise their game. With just one win from their last six matches, there is a suggestion that they are running out of steam. Their lead at the top of the domestic league was bigger a few rounds ago. More than anything else, though, Abel Ferreira's Palmeiras are a cup side, fiercely proud of their two Libertadores wins, and looking forward to setting up a final with Flamengo and bidding to make it three in a row.