This Wednesday, the 27th, all eyes in Brazil will be locked on the Mineirao Stadium for the final of the Brazilian Cup between Cruzeiro and Flamengo. After a 1-1 draw at Maracana, the two teams arrive in Belo Horizonte on equal terms.
There are a lot of differences between South American and European football. The best players are in Europe, as money tends to increase the quality gap between the continents at the top level, but competitiveness is a different thing. In the last six Champions Leagues, nine different clubs have reached the semi finals, with Real Madrid present in all of them. During the same period, 22 different clubs featured in the semifinals of the Libertadores. Only Boca and Santos did it twice.
Brazilian football is no different. In the last ten years, seven different clubs won the league. In comparison, only six have won the Premier League in 25 seasons. In the Brazilian Cup, 16 teams reached the final in the last ten years and there were 9 different champions. Twelve clubs are considered big in the country and at least another six claim a spot in the list.
With that level of ups-and-downs, only four clubs remain with no unpleasant visits to the second division: Santos, Sao Paulo, Cruzeiro and Flamengo. And for reason, combined of course with the number of trophies each club have, that made Cruzeiro and Flamengo deal with this final in a different way.
The clubs called it a “Big Teams Final”, lifting each other along the way. All promotion to the game is based on both teams not challenging or mocking one another, but rather separating both from the rest. While criticised by part of the media and rival supporters, the atmosphere created was friendly, still giving plenty of reasons for the fans to brag about their clubs – the favourite activity of Brazilian supporters.
It was unprecedented in Brazilian football to treat a game like that, and while most of the fans enjoyed it, they expect to see no friendly hugs after the referee blows the whistle for the first time on Wednesday.
The first feature of this match comes from outside the pitch. Inexplicable rules don’t allow players hired during the mid-season transfer window to play in Cup matches. This means important players from both sides cannot be featured, with special attention lying on Cruzeiro’s striker Sassá and Flamengo’s skilled playmaker Everton Ribeiro and goalkeeper Diego Alves.
Alves was hired as an emergency solution to a chronic problem: Flamengo’s goalies have been struggling this season in an almost comical way. Muralha was the first choice, but after a series of questionable decisions, he was replaced by young Thiago, who also proved to be at a level far below that required. Diego Alves arrived from Valencia and made things better in both the League and Copa Sudamericana (South America’s Europa League equivalent), and Flamengo reached the final of the Brazilian Cup despite having to play either of the other choices at goal.
Muralha had a solid match against Botafogo in the first leg of the semi finals but received a red card in the late stages of the game which gave the chance for Thiago in the second leg. Meanwhile, Flamengo was eliminated from Primeira Liga after another awful game for Muralha. That made Thiago the first choice for the final.
This situation highly influenced Cruzeiro’s choices in the line-up for the first match. Manager Mano Menezes deployed his best players from long-range to exploit the fragility and it worked. Cruzeiro didn’t create a lot of chances during the game and scored their only goal after an unbelievable rebound from Thiago in the 83rd minute.
Thiago then got injured during a training session and a criticised Muralha will play the last match of the competition under extraordinary pressure. It’s like a typical Brazilian soap opera, one that Flamengo fans cannot wait to see the end of.
Both teams play very similarly: four at the back, two holding players at midfield, an old-fashioned number 10, two wide players and one lone striker. 4-2-3-1 is the general rule in Brazil and these sides don’t run from it.
The main characteristic of two 4-2-3-1 formations facing each other is that they mirror each other with one spare man at the back. That means 4-2-3-1 is a perfect formation to stop another 4-2-3-1, which explains how it spread so quickly and consistently. European clubs are already looking for alternatives, with Real Madrid, Monaco, Juventus and Chelsea, winners of their domestic leagues, experimenting with two strikers up-front or three men defences. But this change is very, very far away from Brazilian sides at this point.
The main difference is out wide: while Cruzeiro goes with inverted wingers that usually cut inside and like to link play, Flamengo features two fast and strong vertical players that look to run over their opposition in the search for a cross. This means Flamengo’s Peruvian-star Paolo Guerrero doesn’t get much company inside the box at times, while Cruzeiro’s front line is more fluid.
The number 10 role brings us a clash between Diego and Thiago Neves, two of the most feared playmakers in Brazil. While Diego acts like the brain of Flamengo’s side, looking to build-up play and set the tempo, Thiago Neves is a more vertical player, the leader in assists and (by far) in attempts as well.
With Flamengo’s left winger Everton injured and unsure to start, Reinaldo Rueda has some options that will definitely change his side’s structure. He might play right-footed rising star Vinicius Junior as an inside forward or choose to start left-footed playmaker Lucas Paquetá closer to Guerrero, with Diego dropping deeper. He might even deploy the limited winger Gabriel or the left-back Miguel Trauco to take care of Cruzeiro’s right-back runs.
Flamengo is not willing to change shape, but their game will be forced to adapt to the circumstances and new possibilities will open up. We will only know Rueda’s plan for sure when the teams climb the stairs to enter the pitch.
The final is completely open. Cruzeiro plays at home and has this advantage. Flamengo will have to turn the luck in their favour without three of their most important players, but the remaining ones seem focused to bring the title home. Anything can happen.