Football

Atletico Mineiro triumph, but Flamengo can take heart from Brazil’s season opener

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Winners of the Brazilian league and cup last year, Atletico Mineiro have now got their hands on the Super Copa after Sunday’s penalty shootout win over Flamengo.

The shootout was epic, and its consequences will rumble on for a while. It stretched to 12 kicks each, with Atletico winning 8-7. Flamengo had four « match points » — one of them when Atletico goalkeeper Everson confidently stepped up to take his side’s eighth kick and skied over the bar. He fixed the problem by getting a foot to a low shot from Mateusinho and sending the ball up onto the crossbar.

Flamengo keeper Hugo Souza had an unlikely chance to be a hero when he was the last of the Flamengo XI to step up, but he too shot over. And so we went back to the start. Atletico sent up their main penalty taker, veteran striker Hulk, and he made no mistake. But Flamengo did not respond with their specialist, Gabriel « Gabigol » Barbosa, who has an extraordinary variety of penalties in his repertoire. Surprisingly, it was substitute forward Vitinho who walked forward, and had his shot saved.

– Match Stats: Atletico-MG 2-2 Flamengo; think 8-7
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It was all over. There was no second chance, no opportunity for Flamengo to use their best man from the spot. So why did Gabigol not take penalty number 12? The debate will rage for days, especially in Rio, Flamengo’s home town.

In Belo Horizonte, meanwhile, the focus will be on celebrating yet another title. This one is nowhere near as important as the triumphs of last year. The main function of the Super Copa — like England’s Community Shield — is to give a kickstart to the season. The serious stuff — the Brazilian championship and the group phase of the Copa Libertadores — kicks off in April. And once the ripples of this game have died down, both teams have something to celebrate — and not just because their 2-2 draw in the afternoon heat of Cuiaba was a pulsating affair.

Both clubs have new foreign coaches who are taking their first tentative steps in Brazilian football. Atletico were surprised by the sudden resignation of Cuca, and have brought in Antonio Mohamed from Argentina, a coach who has most of his success in Mexico. Flamengo, meanwhile, responded to a disappointing 2021 by going Portuguese, appointing Paulo Sousa.

Paulo Sousa’s task is bigger. In the case of Atlético, continuity is fine. There have been few changes — the biggest is veteran Uruguay centre-back Diego Godin coming in for Paraguay’s Junior Alonso. But Mohamed’s has little to fix because nothing was broken. But Flamengo are very keen to get out of the shadow of their all-conquering side of 2019, under the command of another Portuguese manager, Jorge Jesus. They have never been as good since. Paulo Sousa, then, has the freedom to launch a new era — and with David Luiz in the middle of a back three, he is building a side with his own imprint.

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Going into the game, both coaches were running an obvious risk; Brazilian football is notoriously impatient. A humiliating defeat in the Super Copa could torpedo the entire project at this early stage. That did not happen. Both Mohamed and Sousa emerge unscathed from this first big game — and both can take heart from the way that the match unfolded.

Flamengo were on top for most of the first half. Paulo Sousa’s back three allowed them to pack the midfield, giving their playmaker, Giorgian De Arrascaeta, more of a platform to play than his opposite number, Nacho Fernandez. But as half-time approached, Flamengo appeared to tire in the summer heat. They dropped deeper — too deep — and gave Atletico left-back Guilherme Arana the space to unleash one of his trademark shots. Young keeper Hugo Souza spilled the ball, and Fernandez nipped in to score from the rebound.

But the 20 minutes after the interval belonged to Flamengo and Paulo Sousa. He switched the sides of De Arrascaeta and support striker Bruno Henrique, and was soon rewarded. Fiilpe Luis slipped De Arrascaeta down the left flank, his dinked cross was headed towards goal by Henrique, keeper Everson dived left to block and Gabigol volleyed home the rebound. And then Flamengo were ahead. Young midfielder Lazaro came on to play at left wing-back. Within a minute his driving run opened up space and his cute diagonal pass cut out Godin, giving Henrique the chance to score with a clever chip.

Now Atlético had to respond. Mohamed changed his flank strikers, introducing new signing Ademir and Chile international Eduardo Vargas. Within two minutes, Atletico were level. Ademir crossed left-footed from the right, Vargas at the far post nodded across goal and Hulk found space between Fabricio Bruno and David Luiz to blast home off his weaker right foot. And so the drama of the penalty shootout was ensured.

With neither side humiliated, even the beaten coach can come away with his job security intact — though Paulo Sousa will have to field plenty of questions about Gabigol not taking the fatal penalty.

It was a stirring game — an excellent example of the potential of domestic Brazilian football, especially now the biggest clubs have the resources to bring back players from Europe (either veterans or those who failed to settle) and also sign quality South Americans. But the event also highlighted the problems of organization and the lack of collective spirit which bedevil the domestic game. COVID restrictions meant that the game could not be staged in front of a full stadium in Brasilia, as originally planned. Cuiaba, and the stadium built for the 2014 World Cup, was a late replacement, chosen after lots of backstage wrangling.

There are projects on the table for Brazil’s clubs to organize their own league. But finding a consensus among the clubs is a daunting task — and negotiations will stretch on much longer than the epic Super Copa shootout between Atletico Mineiro and Flamengo.

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