On the sunny Sunday afternoon of Jan. 30, 2021, the biggest game in South American club football was underway. The Copa Libertadores, or the South American equivalent of the Champions League in Europe, is the premier club football competition in al Sur del Mundo, setting up all the best teams from each country against each other every year until one is crowned king. Originally supposed to be held on Nov. 20, 2020, the pandemic may have postponed the date, but the fans now had to wait no longer. Hosted in the famous Estadio do Maracana in Rio de Janeiro with partial fan-attendance permitted, the crown of South America was to be contested between the two Brazilian clubs and cross-town rivals from Sao Paulo, Palmeiras and Santos, in the 2020 edition of the Copa Libertadores Final.
The Route to the Final
In the group stage, Palmeiras was drawn into a group with Guarani (Paraguay), Bolivar (Bolivia) and Tigre (Argentina). Palmeiras were virtually perfect in the first round, topping the group after playing six matches, winning five, drawing one and losing none. They also scored a total of 17 goals and only conceded twice. These results also included several statement wins such as a 5-0 demolition of Bolivar and another 5-0 victory over Tigre. Halfway through the group stage back in March, the entire season was put on hold due to the COVID-19 Outbreak, forcing the Copa Libertadores to resume in September. However, this break did not affect Palmeiras — in fact, they got better.
Santos was drawn into a group with Delfin (Ecuador), Defensa y Justicia (Argentina) and Olimpia (Paraguay). While not as dominant early on as Palmeiras, Santos still laid out their claim as a major contender for the cup after topping the group with five wins, one draw and no losses in the six matches, while also scoring 10 goals and conceding five. Like with Palmeiras, the elongated break did not seem to affect Santos that much.
In the Round of 16, Palmeiras were drawn against Delfin (Ecuador) in what would turn out to be a huge mismatch. In the first leg in Ecuador, Palmeiras simply outclassed Delfin in their home turf, winning 3-1. The second leg in Brazil was even worse for Delfin as Palmeiras ran riot, mercilessly winning 5-0, with all five goals being beautiful combinations of great team play and individual talent.
Santos’ opponent in this round was LDU Quito (Ecuador), and unlike their compatriots, Delfin, LDU put up a much better fight. In the Ecuadorian capital city, Santos ended up winning narrowly 2-1, but LDU was an extremely hard opponent leaving much to work to do in the second leg. The return leg back in Sao Paulo was just as nervy, both teams had great chances but LDU would actually end up winning 1-0. However, with the two away goals in the first match, Santos did just enough to secure their victory on aggregate.
By the time the Quarterfinals came, Palmeiras were drawn against Libertad (Paraguay). A decent opponent, Libertad were able to scrape a 1-1 draw with Palmeiras, despite the Brazilian side having the larger share of chances. In the next match, Libertad were spared no sympathy though, as Palmeiras turned it up a notch and brushed aside their opponent 3-0.
In another heavyweight clash, Santos were set to face Gremio (Brazil), the 2017 Copa Libertadores champions, in the quarterfinals. The first leg lived up to the billing as both teams battled valiantly. Santos scored first but Gremio equalized in the last minute, meaning that the second leg in Santos’ home stadium was all to play for. For all the hard work both teams did in the initial match, it was Santos who caught Gremio sleeping and came out swinging. In a statement win for themselves, Santos ended winning the match 4-1.
With only four teams left in the competition, the semifinals were guaranteed to have some eye-catching matchups that were almost certain to set off some fireworks. Palmeiras lined up against River Plate (Argentina) who finished runners-up in 2019 and were champions in 2018. One of, if not the best club team in South America, River Plate served as a litmus test to prove if Palmeiras were truly worthy of the title.
With the first leg in Buenos Aires, it seemed Palmeiras did have that fortitude. Despite River Plate having some great chances early on, Palmeiras waited for their opportunity and capitalized on it after the winger, Rony opened the score following a mistake from River’s goalkeeper, Franco Armani. River Plate were by no means bad, but Palmeiras quickly established their dominance on the match, which was solidified after the veteran striker, Luiz Adriano scored to make it 2-0.
After a red card to River Plate and a third Palmeiras goal from Matias Vina, it looked certain that Palmeiras stamped their spot in the final. However, with a team like River Plate, you can never count them out. This tie was far from over. Back in Sao Paulo, Palmeiras were perhaps a little too complacent, which played perfectly into River’s game plan. River severely pressured Palmeiras and, eventually, this tension paid off when they went 1-0 up after Robert Rojas scored from a corner. Only a few minutes later, Rafael Borre bundled the ball over the line and next thing you know, it was 3-2 on aggregate with River only needing one goal.
Palmeiras were left shell shocked and were forced to hold on for dear life for the rest of the match. Fortunately for the Brazilians, apparently God was a Palmeiras fan on that night as chaotic controversy robbed River Plate of getting that elusive third goal. Firstly, the full-back, Gonzalo Montiel scored, only for it to be disallowed as part of the buildup was offside. Next, Matias Suarez went down in the box in what looked to be a certain penalty for River, but after a Video Assistant Referee check, the officials chalked off the penalty saying Suarez dived. Before the match ended, River had a shot hit the post, a shot cleared off the line and even another possible penalty in the last minute. The complaints fell on deaf ears though, and by the skin of their teeth, Palmeiras were now Copa Libertadores finalists.
The other semifinal matchup, while not as crazy, was still too memorable to overlook. Santos faced Boca Juniors (Argentina) who were semifinalists in 2019 and finalists in 2018. Possibly seeing the chaos that occurred between River and Palmeiras in Buenos Aires, when Boca welcomed Santos to the same city to play the first match of their tie, it was a particularly subdued affair. Both teams decided to put more effort into defending and stopping their opponent from scoring, rather than scoring themselves. Neither side really had any clear chances to score and they both seemed fine with that.
Throughout this season, Boca were known for having an impenetrable defense, so they were used to playing like this. However, given that they settled for a 0-0 drawn at home, it meant that the responsibility to score was now on Boca heading into the return leg in Sao Paulo, which would ultimately be their downfall. As Boca are not used to having to play on the front foot, Santos were able to exploit that weakness and counterattack to devasting effect. In the first half, Diego Pituca was able to poke home a loose ball in the box and at that moment, Boca was chasing the match. Into the second half, the Venezuelan magician, Yeferson Soteldo, was able to dribble into some space before crashing Boca’s net with a fiery near-post shot. Only a few minutes later, Marinho waltzed past the tired Boca defenders before wonderfully setting up Lucas Braga for an easy finish. By the end of the match, Santos had crushed Boca Juniors 3-0 and clinched their spot in the final against their rival, Palmeiras.
While not the level of the River Plate and Boca Juniors rivalry, Palmeiras and Santos, still have a long history of animosity between each other. Often referred to as the “Classico da Saudade,” a meeting between these two rivals with the backdrop of the Copa Libertadores title was nothing short of exciting for ultras and neutrals alike. Heading into the final, all predictions were up in the air as neither team seemed to be a clear favorite.
Then, on a sunny afternoon in Rio de Janeiro, the Copa Libertadores Final was underway. The match quickly evolved into a scrappy, cagey affair as both teams tried to establish physical dominance, but at the same time without exerting themselves too far as to avoid conceding a detrimental early goal. As a result, there were not many scoring chances from either team, but there were definitely a lot of harsh fouls, bone-crunching tackles, yellow cards, injuries and “colorful” language shared between the players and the referees. Neither team had an upper hand in the match, and in all honesty, it was a relatively boring match to watch for neutral fans.
However, as the end of the second half approached, the dull majority of the game would be made up for as the match started to descend into chaos with the players starting to get more tired and more nervous. Rony almost scored a header, and Santos had a close call with a set-piece before Raphael Veiga’s longshot of a freekick just crept over the bar. However, the best chance of the match up until that point came Santos’ way when Pituca tried to curl in a shot from far out. With an unorthodox, volleyball-type save, the Palmeiras goalkeeper, Weverton, parried the ball with his forearms to which it rolled right to the Santos full-back, Felipe Jonatan. With just one touch with the outside of his boot, Jonatan unleashed a tomahawk missile of shot which just narrowly missed the top corner. Shortly after, the Santos’ winger, Marinho, played a dangerous cross. The wunderkind striker, Kaio Jorge, was able to control the ball which had bounced around the box. But with his back to goal, Jorge flicked the ball up until the air and let loose a shot on goal with a beautiful bicycle kick. Unfortunately, Weverton positioned himself perfectly and was able to catch save the shot with ease.
With the plethora of chances going Santos’ way, it looked like only a matter of time before they would score. Heading into the minute 90, it seemed that two periods of extra time were inevitable, and both teams only made a few substitutions. Funnily enough, when the ball rolled out of bounds near the Santos bench, the enigmatic coach of Santos, Cuca, leaned over to slowly pick up the ball and stop Palmeiras from getting the ball back, in an effort of intentional time-wasting. However, this ended up causing a sideline bust-up between the players of each team and the coaching staff. Once the referee broke up the fighting, he gave Cuca a red card and sent him to the stands for his time-wasting.
In a moment of irony, Cuca’s stunt to waste time ended up backfiring. Palmeiras was able to capitalize on this lapse of concentration when Rony collected the ball on the right-wing. Far away from goal, Rony sent a powerful curling cross into the Santos box and out of nowhere came Breno Lopes who outleapt the unsuspecting Santos defenders and headed the ball over the goalkeeper, looping into the net. Breno, who was substituted on, had only arrived at Palmeiras as a new signing in November. While this was only his second goal for the club, it will no doubt be his most important. With virtually no time left on the clock, the referee blew his whistle and Palmeiras were crowned King of South America.
When the captain and veteran midfielder, Felipe Melo lifted the Copa Libertadores, it set plenty of new records. For instance, this was Palmeiras’ first Copa Libertadores win since 1999 and only their second in the club’s history. As for the manager, the Portuguese coach Abel Ferreira who only arrived at Palmeiras in October, became only the third European manager and second Portuguese to win a Copa Libertadores.