Not even at 3-0 with half an hour left did this heavyweight Flamengo team show any signs of letting up. Grêmio were punch-drunk after conceding goals two and three straight after the break and the home team smelled blood.
Renato Gaúcho needed to throw caution to the wind and threw on veteran striker, Diego Tardelli, for midfielder Maicon. It was to no avail as his shell-shocked team conceded another two goals from set pieces.
Giorgian de Arrascaeta’s corner on 66 minutes found the towering Pablo Mari rushing in at the near post and he rose above his opposite number, Pedro Geromel, one of the tournament’s best defenders, with ease and buried it past Paulo Vitor emphatically putting the tie to bed.
Flamengo were not done. Their guests were. Four minutes later Everton Ribeiro took a free kick from the right-hand side of Grêmio’s penalty area and somehow the defence left Rodrigo Caio completely free at the near post but he still had a little work to do. He glanced a fine header into the far side netting and left the entire Gremio backline with their heads in their hands.
From then on it was party time inside the Maracanã. Jorge Jesus and his dynamic young team have lit up this tournament and have allowed the long suffering fans of Rio de Janeiro’s biggest club to once again dream of international success. Grêmio fans started heading for the exit before the 80-minute-mark as by then their team had all but given up chasing the game.
Jesus even found the moment to throw on club captain Diego who has been out injured since June.
The first half however, was a predictably cagey affair for what was the biggest game of the Brazilian footballing calendar so far. Gremio’s marking in the first 45 minutes was much tighter and tougher than in the first leg where Flamengo had given them the runaround. Early aggression from both sides meant we saw two yellow cards, one for Kanneman and one for Rodrigo Caio, before any clear cut chances emerged.
Renato Gaúcho’s side actually had the best of the opening exchanges in the Maracanã and Flamengo fans’ hearts must have been in their mouths when the slippery Everton Cebolinha broke free on the left, managed to dupe Rafinha with a shimmy and put in a dangerous low cross which Diego Alves could only get a fingertip to. The ball fell to Maicon just ten yards from goal, but due either to the pressure of the moment or pressure from Filipe Luis’ sliding challenge, his limp effort rolled straight into the relieved goalkeeper’s arms.
This temporarily silenced the home fans and the away support started to make themselves heard in the cavernous stadium for the first time.
How different the result could have been.
Flamengo rallied however, with Everton Ribeiro leading from the front, starting to find pockets of space in the Gremio midfield.
The captain twice broke free to set up chances for Bruno Henrique and Arrascaeta.
Then, on 42 minutes, in a move we have become accustomed to seeing from Flamengo this season, the home team finally got the opening they had been dreaming of. Arão won the ball in midfield and laid it off to Gerson who quickly stroked it into the path of Bruno Henrique, whose pace took him away from three blue shirts. He laid it off to to Gabriel Barbosa who had run into space on the right, his right footed shot was straight at Paulo Vitor but with enough fizz on it to elude the stopper’s grasp and he could only parry it into the path of Bruno Henrique who had raced to the far post. The lightning-quick forward tucked away his fifth goal of the competition.
💪🔴⚫⚽ Bruno Henrique started the party for @Flamengo, tapping in after Gabriel Barbosa's shot was saved! #Libertadores pic.twitter.com/TZewUru7ws — CONMEBOL Libertadores (@TheLibertadores) October 24, 2019
Flamengo went down the tunnel the happier of the two sides after a tough and even opening 45 minutes.
Whatever Jesus said to his boys at half-time really worked because Flamengo tore out of the blocks and immediately won a corner which was headed straight onto Gabigol’s left foot. The number 9 thundered it into the top corner and wheeled away into the arms of his adoring public.
🤩🔴⚫⚽ Hoje tem gol do Gabigol! The @Flamengo star finished with style to double his side's lead early on in the second half! #Libertadores pic.twitter.com/sTHZ6k08iO — CONMEBOL Libertadores (@TheLibertadores) October 24, 2019
Flamengo won a penalty a few minutes later and Gabriel tucked it away with all the class and confidence of a man who is now the Brasileirão and Copa Libertadores’ top scorer. He sent Paulo Vitor the wrong way to score his seventh of the competition.
Make no mistake, this was an historic victory for Flamengo against a seasoned team who have been at the sharp end of the last three tournaments. Boca Juniors put four past América of Colombia in 2003 but no one has scored five unanswered goals in a Copa Libertadores semi-final before.
The players ushered a reluctant but deserving Jorge Jesus onto the field after the final whistle to lap up the crowd celebrations with his team. The Portuguese coach has done an incredible job since arriving in Rio in June. In just five months he’s taken his team to the top of the Brazilian league and now to their first Copa Libertadores final since 1981. None of the current squad were even born when Zico lifted the trophy 38 years ago in Montevideo. Now this new crop are just one game away from writing themselves into Brazilian footballing history.