Grêmio may still be celebrating the capture of South America’s most illustrious title last week but the Copa Sudamericana final is yet to be decided and for two of the continent’s biggest clubs it is a crucial opportunity to restore some pride and put past failures behind them.
For Brazilian giants Flamengo, five-time Campeonato Brasileiro champions, Copa Libertadores and Intercontinental Cup champions in 1981 and record Campeonato Carioca champions, it’s an opportunity to make up for recent disappointments.
The Mengão are in the Sudamericana after another early exit from the Libertadores and victory would go someway to making up for that.
For Independiente it is something far more.
El Rey de Copas, a nickname that points back to Independiente’s rich history has looked more like a cruel joke in recent years, but after the ignominy of suffering the first and only relegation in the club’s history in 2013, Los Diablos Rojos are back in an international final.
The last was in this very competition back in 2010 when Independiente beat another Brazilian side, Goiás on penalties. It proved to be a peak before the great decline.
That is of course to say not the peak for Independiente – the reputation as King of Cups wasn’t built on that, but after lifting a record seven Copa Libertadores titles between 1964 and 1984 it is easy to see why El Rojo have been so impatient to sit back to the top table of South American football.
Getting to here hasn’t been easy and since that relegation Independiente have been through a host of managers, who have all failed to sate the insatiable appetite for instant success.
Current manager Ariel Holan was perhaps not the obvious candidate to buck that trend but the 57-year-old has proved an inspired choice.
The former hockey coach, Holan only moved into football in his early forties and had been a youth coach and assistant until Defensa y Justicia gave him his first managerial role in 2015. Results weren’t spectacular in Florencio Varela but an attractive, attacking brand of football that gave plenty of opportunities to young players was evident.
When Independiente came calling to the recently unemployed Holan after the resignation of Gabriel Milito, it was a simple decision. The self-confessed El Rojo fanatic had the chance to guide the club he loved and his impact has been nothing short of tremendous.
Only a missed penalty on the last day of last season denied Independiente a place back in the Copa Libertadores, the holy grail for a club with such an affinity for the competition, but Independiente appear to have only gained a further determination to succeed since then.
Holan’s side defend resolutely led by captain Nicolás Tagliafico but attack with such dynamism that many positions on the field become interchangable. The outrageously gifted teenager Ezequiel Barco, shifted to the left of Independiente’s attack, blends perfectly with Maxi Meza, Juan Sánchez Miño and Martin Benitez, all of whom have produced some of their best form under Holan. And this dynamic trident all flow towards centre forward Emmanuel Gigliotti, who decisively scored twice in the semi final against Libertad.
Independiente probable XI: Martín Campaña; Fabricio Bustos, Alan Franco, Nicolás Taglifico, Martín Silva; Diego Rodríguez, Nicolás Domingo; Ezequiel Barco, Maximiliano Meza, Juan Sánchez Miño; Emmanuel Gigliotti
After edging past Atlético Tucumán and Libertad en route to the final with victories in Avellaneda that overturned away defeats, Independiente will be desperate to travel to the Maracanã next week with a lead.
Flamengo have had perhaps a more straight-forward path with victories over Palestino, Chapecoense, Fluminense and Junior but will be aware that Independiente pose a greater threat than all those sides.
Peruvian centre forward Paolo Guerrero is ruled out due to the doping ban that saw him miss Peru’s World Cup playoff and Flamengo manager Reinaldo Rueda is likely to stick with third-choice goalkeeper César, after his semi final heroics.
Flamengo probable XI: César; Pará, Réver or Rafael Vaz, Juan, Miguel Trauco; Willian Arao, Gustavo Cuéllar, Diego, Everton Ribeiro; Lucas Paquetá or Everton, Felipe Vizéu
The two sides have met eight times with Flamengo holding a clear advantage, winning four and suffering defeat only once. However, it is the aggregate defeat to Independiente in the final of the 1995 Supercopa Sudamericana that is best remembered.
A 2-0 defeat in Avellaneda in the first leg rendered the great Romário’s solitary goal in the Maracanã a week later nothing more than a consolation.
Independiente will certainly be hoping for a repeat and the weight of history is not something lost on Ariel Holan’s current crop of players. El Rojo have played 25 international final and won 16 (7 Copa Libertadores, 2 Intercontinental Cups, 1 Copa Sudamericana, 3 Copa Interamericanas, 2 Supercopas and 1 Recopa), and the players, staff and supporters are desperate that one more is added.