The mouse has given perhaps its loudest roar yet. Independiente del Valle of Ecuador overcame Brazilian giants Flamengo — in Rio de Janeiro’s iconic Maracana stadium — to win South America’s Recopa Sudamericana.
This in itself is remarkable. Even more extraordinary was the way that it happened. With a 1-0 lead from last week’s first leg in Quito, Del Valle were within twenty seconds of holding out for a goalless draw. The giant home crowd had already turned against its own team, and was preparing to greet the final whistle with a deafening jeer, when with the last attack of normal time Flamengo found an equaliser.
With half an hour of extra time to endure, there seemed no way that Del Valle could hold out. But they did, with relatively few alarms, and they showed astonishing cool from the penalty spot to win the shoot-out.
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This is a third international title for a club that do not even have the primary aim of winning titles. A neighbourhood outfit from the outskirts of Quito, Independiente del Valle were taken over by a group of businessmen just over 15 years ago with the aim of producing players to transfer. This they do wonderfully well. A combination of intelligence and investment has made their youth structure a reference all over the world. Moises Caicedo of Brighton is their most successful export — but there are even higher hopes of 15-year-old support striker Kendry Paez, who scored an excellent goal on his senior debut at the weekend.
The current side is an in-between outfit of sorts. The last crop of youngsters have been transferred. The next generation have yet to make the breakthrough. In the meantime the first team are an older group, with six Argentines in the Maracana starting line-up. The most striking case is that of 41-year-old central midfielder Cristian Pellerano, there to use his good sense and experience moving the ball around the centre of the pitch.
And Pellerano and company have now defeated the the holders of the Copa Libertadores, the reigning champions of South America. And this after beating Sao Paulo in October to claim the Copa Sudamericana for the second time.
For Flamengo this is a desperately disappointing result. It is the third time this year that have failed to win a title — they went down to Palmeiras in the Brazilian Super Cup, lost to Al Hilal of Saudi Arabia in the semifinal of the Club World Cup — the one trophy they really wanted — and have now followed it up with defeat, and a sub-standard performance — in front of their own fans.
Portuguese coach Vitor Pereira, who only took over at the start of the year, now finds himself under intense pressure. Pereira came into the job aware that his task might not be easy. Flamengo have an impressive array of attacking firepower. But playing with a front four — two strikers plus two attacking midfielders — can put strain on the team. How could Pereira balance the front four with the need to defend efficiently? And, with a front four that does not include a natural winger, how could he incorporate the attacking width he craves?
On paper he came up with an interesting solution. Defensive midfielder Thiago Maia spent much of his time almost as a left sided centre-back, allowing left back Ayron Lucas to push up as a wing back — in turn permitting Uruguayan playmaker Giorgian De Arrascaeta to move infield, where he wants to be. On the other flank full back Guillermo Varela was free to go forward, creating space for cultured attacking midfielder Everton Ribeiro to cut in onto his stronger left foot.
On the pitch, though, the moves failed to flow. Strikers Pedro and Gabriel Barbosa were not being brought into the game. True, on another day Flamengo would have been home and dry by halftime. Thiago Maia rattled the post with one header, Ayrton Lucas struck the bar with another. But the danger was coming from aerial bombardment rather than the slick five- or six-man moves that are the team’s hallmark. Much of this, of course, was the merit of Independiente del Valle.
They came through the storm — metaphorically and literally. At the end of a hot summer’s day the rain bucketed down for the opening hour of the match. The Ecuadorians were not ambitious. In comparison with last week’s first leg, they left striker Kevin Rodriguez on the bench and packed the midfield. And lone striker Lautaro Diaz, the scourge of Sao Paulo five months ago, looked badly out of form. There was little attacking threat — though Rodriguez had his moments when he came on in the second half. But the team ran the clock down — not always legally, but at times with neat passages of possession in which Lorenzo Faravelli excelled.
And after the interval they kept Flamengo at bay in relative comfort. And then, with the referee ready to blow and the crowd damning the hosts as “a team with no shame,” Flamengo finally came up with an intelligent combination. Gabriel Barbosa struck a cross from deep — not in the melee in the centre, but beyond the far post, taking out the opposing defence. Everton “Cebolinha” Soares turned low across the face and De Arrascaeta slid home his first goal since Uruguay’s World Cup game against Ghana. Flamengo had an entire half hour to come up with something similar.
There were bright moments from 17-year-old left footed substitute Matheus Goncalves, but it was a succession of individual flashes rather than the collective move which had brought the goal. And so to penalties. First up was De Arrascaeta, who had his shot superbly saved by Moises Ramirez, Ecuador’s third-choice keeper in the World Cup. Though the pressure mounted, no one else missed, and the killer blow was coolly coaxed home by defender Anthony Landazuri, a sweet moment for an Ecuadorian who spent last season in Brazilian football.
And a moment sweeter still for his club. And perhaps, in the fresh light of day, there will even be Flamengo fans who find it hard to begrudge this latest achievement from Independiente del Valle, South America’s surprise team.