Flamengo loss to Liverpool stings, but won't diminish golden season
Plenty of goals had been predicted. They did not come. Even so, Liverpool's 1-0 win over Flamengo did not disappoint. It was a fine game, by far the best Club World Cup final since the current format was adopted in 2005 -- and for that, Flamengo deserve enormous credit.
True, it was not exactly a game of equals. Flamengo -- winners of the Copa Libertadores and the Brazilian league -- rode their luck a little. They could have been steamrolled in the opening five minutes. After 40 seconds Roberto Firmino wasted one chance, shooting over the bar. Soon afterwards, Naby Keita also struck over when well placed. At the start of the second half, Firmino's volley hit the post and rolled across the line. Liverpool could have had a penalty when Rodrigo Caio hauled down Jordan Henderson in the area. And there was the bizarre incident in the last minute of normal time, when Rafinha slid through Sadio Mane and the ref pointed to the spot. It may well have been outside the area -- in which case a free kick and a red card would have been appropriate. But on consulting the video evidence the Qatari referee decided it was not even a foul.
Flamengo's defeat could have been heavier. Bur we are not talking about equal forces. The financial power of European football means that the best Brazilians -- such as keeper Alisson Becker and match-winner Firmino -- are lining up for Liverpool, as well as wonderfully talented players from all over the planet. And they deserved their fortune because they pushed Liverpool hard -- with a bold model of play that should serve as a lesson to other clubs in South America, and especially Brazil.
Once they had weathered the initial storm, Flamengo settled into the groove that has so delighted their fans over the last few months. They took the game to their opponents, advanced up the pitch as a group, enjoyed plenty of controlled possession and set about probing the Liverpool defence. The outstanding figure was Bruno Henrique. Coach Jorge Jesus likes to vary the position of his front four, and he cunningly used Bruno Henrique wide on the right -- attacking the defensive deficiencies of Trent Alexander-Arnold, and limiting the forward bursts of the dangerous Liverpool right-back. From start to finish, Bruno Henrique carried the biggest threat to Jurgen Klopp's defence. For all his efforts, though, it was hard to see where a goal would come from. Much vaunted striker Gabriel Barbosa forced a couple of smart saves from Alisson, but gave few problems to Virgil van Dijk. The doubt remains over the Flamengo striker -- is he too one-footed to become a world class performer? And so there was only one moment when Flamengo had a real chance -- the agonizing miss right at the end by substitute centre-forward Lincoln, who shot over from a Vitinho cross.
In short bursts, Liverpool were far more dangerous. And Jorge Jesus appeared to accept that he would not outplay his opponents with his second half substitutions. He removed Everton Ribeiro and Giorgian de Arrascaeta, his two playmakers. From that point there would be no more extended spells of controlled possession from the South American champions. Jesus hoped that his side could win the game on the break -- instead they ended up themselves being caught out by a quick counter attack.
The decisive moment came eight minutes into extra-time, when a clever long ball from Henderson cut out Rodrigo Caio, and Mane swiveled to play an intelligent pass into the path of Firmino, who cut inside and made no mistake. It was a goal that meant a great deal to the scorer. Firmino has been misused in recent times by the national team, and has not been able to show his best. He was clearly thrilled at finding the net and showing off his value to a Brazilian audience.
The goal was one of those moments when Flamengo's high defensive line was caught out. It is a method of play that carries obvious risks. But it has been fundamental foundation of the Flamengo success story, and is one of the foremost explanations for this magical few months they have enjoyed.
Most South American sides defend deep and look to counter. This applies especially in Brazil, where the big clubs have the resources to do something more expansive. Jorge Jesus has made this abundantly clear. He faced considerable resistance from the local coaching fraternity when he took over. But he has convincingly won the argument - and despite the 1-0 loss to Liverpool, Flamengo fans will be fiercely proud of their team.