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Bruno Henrique stars as Flamengo reach Copa Libertadores final

It was a case of same score, same player as Flamengo booked their place in an all-Brazilian Copa Libertadores final against Palmeiras with victory over Barcelona SC on Wednesday.

Bruno Henrique was the player and 2-0 the scoreline as Flamengo eased through 4-0 on aggregate against their opponents from Ecuador.

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Gabriel Barbosa and Everton Ribeiro have both been called up by Brazil for next month’s World Cup qualifiers, while playmaker Giorgian De Arrascaeta will join up with Uruguay. That leaves Bruno Henrique as the only member of Flamengo’s forward line not to earn an international call. This is strange. In the two-and-a-half years that the quartet have been tearing rival defences to pieces, he has been the outstanding member, a lethal mixture of winger and centre-forward. And with all four goals in this semifinal, he has made a clear statement of his value. But after a brief appearance in the Brazil squad two years ago, he has been discarded. Perhaps events of the last few days will make Brazil coach Tite think again.

Bruno Henrique ensured that Barcelona were outgunned, but they weren’t entirely outclassed. The Ecuadorians emerge from not only the campaign, but also these games, with considerable credit. The financial scales are tipped almost absurdly against them. Flamengo’s annual football spending stands at $110 million, while Barcelona’s is $3m. The gap between the two clubs never looked that wide, and it would have been narrower still if Barcelona had scored the away goal that they surely deserved last week.

Unlike the UEFA Champions League, the Libertadores has retained the away goals rule, and it had a huge impact on the semifinals. In the other, all-Brazilian clash, Palmeiras overcame Atletico Mineiro on away goals, and played as if they planned for such an eventuality. They were happy with a goalless draw at home, well aware of the value of a single strike on the road.

In the case of Barcelona, there were times in the first leg when they were in danger of being over-run. But they also forced a succession of fine saves from Flamengo goalkeeper Diego Alves. Had one gone in, the entire complexion of the return game would have looked very different. As it was, even a single Flamengo goal in Guayaquil on Wednesday was going to make things very difficult, if not impossible.

Barcelona coach Fabian Bustos sprang a surprise with his starting lineup, dropping playmaker Damian Diaz in favour of a second out-and-out striker. The message was clear, Barcelona would look to be direct, getting the ball early into the penalty area with the veteran Diaz ready to come on in the closing stages once space had opened up. Had they scored the first goal, the strategy may have worked.

Flamengo endured an awkward start, with midfielder Andreas Pereira picking up a yellow card in the second minute and centre-back David Luiz limping off in the ninth. But before the 20-minute mark the contest was effectively over. Barcelona were punished for chasing the ball in midfield, leaving space for Everton Ribeiro to slip a pass behind their defensive line. Bruno Henrique raced on to collect, beat the keeper to the left and slid home.

Diego Alves was once again a busy man. Defence is not Flamengo’s strong suit; they had problems both down their right and clearing crosses into the box, and their keeper was forced into a number of smart saves. But with the away goal to their name, they effectively had a four-goal cushion.

Barcelona were obviously obliged to gamble and Diaz made his entrance at the interval. But with Diaz plus the two strikers, the midfield marking could not possibly be as tight. Early in the second half Flamengo killed things off with one of their trademark moments, a move involving the entire front four. Right-back Mauricio Isla and midfielder Willian Arao started the move from deep, a flick from De Arrascaeta found Gabriel Barbosa wide on the right, he passed behind the line for Everton Ribeiro who squared intelligently for the arriving Bruno Henrique to slip inside the far post.

When Portuguese coach Jorge Jesus took charge at the club two years ago, the consensus in Brazilian football was that the four could not play together — a view that now looks like insanity. Coaches have come and gone, and the Flamengo front four are still one of the best quartets in the business.

There was a landmark for current coach Renato Portaluppi. He took Fluminense to the 2008 final, and won the title with Gremio in 2017. He now becomes the coach with the most victories in the history of the Libertadores. Flamengo also equalled the longest unbeaten run in the competition — 24 hours after final opponents Palmeiras broke the record for the longest unbeaten run of games away from home.

All these records illustrate the dominance that Brazilian football, and especially its new super-clubs, are enjoying in the competition. The semifinal trio of Palmeiras, Atletico Mineiro and Flamengo have played 36 games in the competition this year and suffered just one defeat. Palmeiras against Flamengo on Nov. 27 in Montevideo is the second successive all-Brazilian final, and is a meeting of the last two champions.

In the circumstances, Barcelona were worthy opponents for Flamengo, and with a little luck the aggregate scoreline could have been closer than 4-0. But with the big Brazilian clubs full of money, and doing a much improved scouting job on the rest of the continent, and with Major League Soccer emerging as yet another venue in the market for South American players, it is hard to see how the new era of Brazilian dominance can be challenged.

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