It may not have quite the historical baggage of Real Madrid and Barcelona, but Brazil is developing a tale-of-two-cities rivalry that is becoming more and more interesting.
Flamengo of Rio and Palmeiras of Sao Paulo have divided the spoils recently. Palmeiras are the reigning champions of South America, taking over from Flamengo, who have won the past two Brazilian league titles, taking over from Palmeiras.
The two teams also showcase a fascinating clash of styles. The club of Sao Paulo’s giant Italian community, Palmeiras traditionally have played the kind of free-flowing football that has won them the nickname of “the academy.” The current side, however, base their play on deep defence and the counterattack. When it doesn’t work, as in the recent Club World Cup, it looks ugly and depressingly limited, but it has been hugely successful in South America. Flamengo, meanwhile, can win friends even when they lose games, with a swashbuckling brand of football based on quick exchanges between a fluid front four.
The scene was set, then, for the two to meet in Brasilia with a title at stake: the Supercopa, between league champions Flamengo and domestic cup winners Palmeiras. And despite a punishing kickoff time — 11 o’clock on an early autumn morning — the game lived up to and maybe even exceeded expectations, right from the first minute.
In the absence of centre-forward Luiz Adriano, Palmeiras fielded Rony, normally a winger, up front. And with another pair of wingers, Wesley and Breno Lopes, it was clear that they planned to break at pace against a Flamengo defensive unit that has not been able to replace Pablo Mari, the Spanish centre-back who joined Arsenal in January 2020.
From the opening kickoff, though, Palmeiras did not sit deep. They brought the lines up, and so when they forced a poor kick out from Flamengo keeper Diego Alves, they were in position to take advantage. Felipe Melo won a commanding header, and playmaker Raphael Veiga produced a wonderful moment, flicking the ball round Willian Arao, the midfielder Flamengo are improvising in the heart of the defence, and running round the other side to score with a left-footed blast.
Everything was ready, then, for Palmeiras to play in their preferred style: defending close to their goal and taking advantage of the space to launch their counters. It came very close to bringing them two more first-half goals. Wesley slipped Breno Lopes, the hero of the Copa Libertadores win, behind the defensive line. He beat the keeper, only to see Diego appear from nowhere to clear the ball off the line. And then they thought they had a penalty when Wesley was brought down by Flamengo right-back Mauricio Isla. VAR decided that the contact was just outside the area.
But there is an obvious potential problem with a model of play that rests on defending so close to goal: the slightest error can prove disastrous, and Flamengo have the attacking quality to turn lapses into goals. Palmeiras centre-back Luan failed to clear his lines, Flamengo’s Uruguayan playmaker Giorgian De Arrascaeta slipped the excellent left-back Filipe Luis, who slalomed through the defence and shot against the post. Gabriel Barbosa tapped in the rebound.
Flamengo took the lead just before half-time. De Arrascaeta cut across from the left and was given the space to swivel and cut his shot inside the near post. It was a moment that revealed the defensive weakness of the veteran Felipe Melo, a vastly experienced midfielder of considerable quality but diminishing pace. He should have closed down De Arrascaeta, but was caught on the back foot.
Felipe Melo missed the decisive stages of the Libertadores campaign through injury, and missed the second half, too. He was withdrawn at the interval, replaced by the highly promising Danilo, who did much to win the midfield battle and bring Palmeiras back into the game.
Flamengo were caught in two minds, unsure of whether to maintain their style or save themselves in the gruelling conditions with a more cautious approach. Palmeiras forced their error. Everton Ribeiro lost possession and Rony surged into the penalty area. Centre-back Rodrigo Caio, off balance, panicked and pulled at his shirt, giving away a soft penalty, competently converted by Raphael Veiga.
There were 20 minutes left for someone to find a winner, and Flamengo came closer. Substitute Vitinho had his shot pushed onto the near post by Weverton, who was then nearly beaten at the same post by a Gabriel shot that looped up off his body and was hauled back on the line. Goalkeepers need a little bit of luck, and Weverton deserves his. The Palmeiras keeper has been in such superb form that a lobby is building for him to be first choice for Brazil.
That lobby would probably be bigger still had his teammates not made a mess of the penalty shootout, just as they did two months ago against Al Ahly of Egypt in the third-place match of the Club World Cup. With Weverton excelling, Palmeiras had two opportunities to close the shootout and claim the Supercopa, but Flamengo keeper Diego Alves is also a penalty specialist. He too performed heroics, and in a penalty shootout that went to nine kicks, and almost forced the keepers to take a turn, Rodrigo Caio converted to spark Flamengo’s celebrations.
The new Brazilian Super Classic may not have the history of Real against Barcelona, and Saturday’s match in Madrid had more moments of quality than Sunday morning in Brasilia, but Flamengo against Palmeiras was at least as engrossing a spectacle.