Grêmio have eliminated Flamengo from the Copa Libertadores on two occasions, the most recent of those being the rubro-negro’s last visit to a semi-final, back in 1984. If they are to do so again tonight they will need all the experience and nous of their manager, Renato Portaluppi, who was in the Grêmio side at the time.
Grêmio, like River Plate, contest their third Libertadores semi-final in three years, a magnificent achievement which is testament to the way Portaluppi has built his tough, physical side to excel in knockout competitions often, also like River, to the detriment of the league position at home.
All the talk is about the hottest team on the continent right now, but Flamengo fans will do well to remember they are facing a colossus of the competition, with recent experience of high pressure games. Grêmio came back from a 0-1 home defeat to Brazilian champions, Palmeiras, in their quarter-final, beating the São Paulo side 2-1 in the Allianz Parque to progress and they will have no doubts about their ability to do the same in Rio de Janeiro.
The Gaúchos will be looking to keep it a tight game, frustrate Flamengo, and break quickly as they did in the second-half in Porto Alegre, with the intelligent passing of their midfield and the speed and control of Everton Cebolinha proving a headache for the Flamengo defence.
A win for either side will see them through to the final while penalties are only possible if the 1-1 score from the first leg is repeated. 0-0 would see Flamengo progress while a 2-2 draw or higher will be enough for Grêmio.
The home side can feel slightly aggrieved they aren’t going into this game with the advantage though, after having three goals ruled out by VAR in the first leg. But they must also shoulder some of the blame themselves as they had nothing to show for a first half display of total dominance away from home. Gremio were chasing shadows in that opening 45 minutes and Portaluppi admitted as much in his post match interview.
Jorge Jesus’ team is lighter and fleeter of foot and are on a hot streak of form, winning 14 of their last 17 games in all competitions, scoring 36 goals and conceding just 8. The profligate Gabriel Barbosa will need to take his chances and Flamengo will need to make their mobility, confidence and home advantage count early on, as their fans are known for getting on the team’s back if things aren’t going as they expect. It could just as easily all unravel for them on Wednesday night.
The incredible, all-purpose midfielder, Gerson, will be key to Flamengo’s chances of progressing, as will the lightning pace and eye for goal of Bruno Henrique, possibly the most dangerous man in this year’s tournament with four goals and five assists.
It’s all set up to be a fascinating encounter between a group of players who have been there and done it against the best 11 men in South American football right now. The whole of Brazil will be watching, we suggest you do too.