Flamengo's magical 2019 continues -- all the way to Saturday's final of the Club World Cup.
They booked their place with a 3-1 semifinal win over Al Hilal of Saudi Arabia -- a match which followed a strikingly similar script to that of last month's Copa Libertadores final, when the Brazilians staged a late comeback to beat Argentina's River Plate.
They went behind at a similar stage of the game -- 17 minutes as opposed to 14 last time -- to a similar goal -- a ball cut back from the right flank that was met by a fierce shot. And again they could hardly complain. If River Plate were marginally better in the early stages, the superiority of Al Hilal in the first 20 minutes was clear. The Club World Cup has become an annual horror story for the South American clubs, and this match explained why. This year, Flamengo have not faced anyone capable of moving the ball collectively as well as Al Hilal, who found clever angles for the passes, played into the open spaces and were cutting through the Flamengo defence almost at will in the first half.
At 1-0 down, Flamengo were staring an historic humiliation in the face. Brazilians, justifiably, complain that Europe pays no attention to their football. But they, in turn, pay little attention to football in the other continents. Year after year, the South Americans are struggling to win their Club World Cup semifinal. Ever since the current format was introduced in 2005, they have never found it easy and have been losing with increasing frequency. If Al Hilal had been able to hang on to their first-half lead, then Flamengo would have flown home with their tails between their legs.
But this Flamengo is the best side that South America has produced in a while -- the most capable of attacking their way out of trouble. And the tide began to turn in the first half. Al Hilal dropped off, stopped posing such a threat, and Flamengo began to find some rhythm. At half-time, Portuguese coach Jorge Jesus seemed to want the defensive line higher, and three minutes after the restart they were level after scoring the kind of goal that has been their hallmark under his watch.
Right-back Rafinha played infield to Gabriel Barbosa, who slipped forward for fellow striker Bruno Henrique to make a run in behind the defence. He then squared for attacking midfielder Giorgian De Arrascaeta to slide home. Mobility across the attacking line, the flexibility of the front four, and movement of the ball at pace -- all were present as Flamengo eased their nerves with a fine goal.
There is an easy explanation for those nerves. The semifinal is a form of psychological torture for the South Americans. They take this competition so seriously, mainly because it gives them the chance to have a crack at the champions of Europe. They go into the semi, then, with the knowledge that they are so close but that it all can all be taken away from them in the space of 90 minutes.
The second half was an even affair, until -- just as in the final of the Libertadores -- the introduction of veteran playmaker Diego tipped the match in Flamengo's favour. With all of his experience, he brings clarity to the game in the late stages, when players are tiring and space is opening up. And he played a big role in the two late goals. He found space to feed Rafinha, whose cross was wonderfully headed home by Bruno Henrique. And then he found Bruno Henrique in a dangerous position on the left, and the forward's low cross was turned into his own goal by the unfortunate Ali al Bulaihi.
Much of the pre-match build up had focused on Gabriel Barbosa, or "Gabigol," as he has become known. But Bruno Henrique is probably the more complete of the Flamengo strike pair -- more two footed, better in the air, with the skills of a winger and the presence of a centre-forward. He would clearly be the key attacking weapon in a final against Liverpool, cutting in from the left, up against the weaker side of the European defence.
That is, of course, assuming that there is no upset and Flamengo do face Liverpool on Saturday. It would surely be easier for them to win the title against Monterrey of Mexico. But that would strip the moment of some of its heroic glory. Flamengo would rather face Liverpool. And it if happens, there is the prospect of the most attractive match in the history of the current format of the Club World Cup.