Libertadores: Flamengo look to race past Athletico Paranaense once more in all-Brazilian final

The finalists might come from the same country, but they have different resources, have had different campaigns and have different chances of victory on Saturday, when for the third consecutive time the Copa Libertadores has boiled down to a decider between two clubs from Brazil.

In a one-off final in Guayaquil, Ecuador, Flamengo of Rio de Janeiro are firm favourites to overcome Athletico Paranaense, from the southern city of Curitiba.

Athletico have had to battle their way through every stage. Their place in the knock-out stages was in doubt until a win in the last round. The next two rounds, against Libertad of Paraguay and Estudiantes of Argentina, seemed destined for a shoot-out until both times Athletico struck in stoppage time. And then, in an epic semifinal, they squeezed past defending champions Palmeiras. In their 12 games they have won six, drawn four and lost two, scoring 15 goals and conceding 11. Contrast that with Flamengo, with 11 wins and a single draw, 32 goals for and just eight against.

On Saturday, as they have done throughout the competition, Flamengo will unleash the full force of their fearsome front four. Three of them have been firing together since their current cycle of success began in 2019, and have been mainstays in a side which will be appearing in its third Libertadores final in four years. There is subtle left-footed attacking midfielder Everton Ribeiro -- in with a chance of going to the World Cup -- and playmaker Giorgian De Arrascaeta, who will certainly be in Qatar with the Uruguay national team.

There is explosive left-footed striker Gabriel "Gabigol" Barbosa, the two-goal hero of the remarkable title winning comeback against River Plate three years ago. His traditional attack partner is the talented and versatile Bruno Henrique, the one player to trouble Liverpool in the Club World Cup final at the end of 2019. But he has sustained a long term injury -- and his absence has not been a problem. It has created space for centre forward Pedro, not blessed with much pace but technically excellent, proficient in front of goal and with wonderful awareness of options around him.

Pedro has scored more goals than the entire Athletico team in this Libertadores campaign, and would seem to be a certainty for Brazil's World Cup squad. So will this fine collection of attacking talent prove to be the four horsemen of Athletico's apocalypse? Much of the story of Saturday's game will surely depend on the strategy adopted by Athletico coach, former Brazil and Chelsea boss Luiz Felipe Scolari, who could well be in the last few weeks of a notable career.

How will Scolari play it? His Athletico have come up against Flamengo three times in the last few months. One meeting can probably be discounted -- the 5-0 Flamengo triumph in the league in the middle of August. Both clubs were fielding greatly weakened sides -- although the worrying aspect from Athletico's point of view was the number of goals they conceded from set pieces. This has been a recurrent recent problem -- especially disappointing for a side with plenty of defensive height.

Either side of that game, the teams met twice in the domestic cup. Flamengo progressed after winning 1-0 away. First, almost exactly four months ago, Athletico came back from Rio with a 0-0 draw. Scolari selected three centre backs and a midfield quintet, with former Manchester City stalwart Fernandinho orchestrating play from the middle.

This could be the template for Saturday, but there will need to be adjustments. That night late in July Athletico did little other than hang on. They rode their luck a little, and produced almost no attacking threat of their own. This time they would have to do it not just for 90 minutes, but for a full 120 before having a chance to win on penalties.

Scolari could choose to take more risks. He can choose two from three wingers -- Vitinho, the Uruguayan Agustin Canobbio and the Argentine Tomas Cuello. And up front he has the option of quick and talented teenage striker Vitor Roque. Might Athletico be bold enough to leave some of these speed merchants high enough up the pitch to trouble the Flamengo defence.

As well as reaching the Libertadores final, Flamengo last week also won the domestic Brazilian cup. In the big games of these knock-out competitions, not once have Flamengo been behind on aggregate, and forced to chase the game. They have had several first half defensive scares, but always weathered the storm before stamping their authority on the match.

The most fascinating scenario for Saturday, then, is one in which Athletico open the scoring, and make Flamengo run the risk of having their lack of defensive pace exposed. The more predictable scenario is one in which Flamengo score first and can then administer the match as they choose.

"Big Phil" Scolari, then, is confronted by a dilemma. There is a wise old Brazilian saying that explains the predicament of the coach; trying to get the balance of a side right is like having a small blanket on a bitter night. Cover your neck and your feet freeze, pull it over your feet and your neck gets cold.

Athletico will hope to use the blanket to smother Flamengo at one end while still retaining the power to cause them defensive problems at the other. If they can do it they will win the trophy for the first time. Flamengo, though, are more likely to chalk up their third Libertadores title.