The final round of Brazil‘s title race between Flamengo and Internacional ended in almost unbearable drama on Thursday night that struck a blow to the argument from those who miss the old playoff format and argue that the league system is dull.
Sunday’s penultimate round of the elongated 2020 campaign pitted first against second and saw them change position after defending champions Flamengo of Rio de Janeiro beat Internacional of Porto Alegre 2-1. Flamengo took a two-point lead at the top of the table, meaning they could make sure of the title with a last-day win at Sao Paulo. Any other result opened the door for Internacional to claim their first championship since 1979 with a victory at home to Corinthians. The two games were played simultaneously on Thursday.
Flamengo had an unhappy night, pressing for most of the first half only to go a goal down just before the interval. They were never as dominant after the restart, and though they quickly equalised they ended up going down to a 2-1 defeat. And so now everything depended on events in Porto Alegre.
Internacional pressed relentlessly. VAR denied them a penalty and a goal, chalked off for offside — both decisions seemed correct. In the second half they hit the post, had another goal ruled out and forced saves from Corinthians keeper Cassio. And just after the final whistle blew on Flamengo’s game they had the ball in the net again, only to have another goal ruled out for a narrow offside. More than eight minutes of stoppage time had been played, but there was still time for more drama. With the final kick of the championship, with the entire team including the goalkeeper up for a corner, centre-back Lucas Ribeiro had a good chance… and put the ball just over the bar.
After 38 games, by the margin of a single point, Flamengo were champions. It may seem, and not just because of the drama of the final round, that they were champions by default. At one stage the battle for the title seemed to be a six-horse race. One by one, they fall away. Gremio and, especially, Palmeiras were caught in fixture pile-ups — the two of them still have the two-legged cup final to contest, starting on Sunday. Sao Paulo were leading the field, but collapsed under the pressure of trying to win a first title in years. Atletico Mineiro, under ex-Argentina coach Jorge Sampaoli, were sporadically brilliant but not consistent enough. And Internacional blew the lead right at the end.
It would, though, be unduly harsh to conclude that Flamengo won the title by default. The inconsistency of their competitors is easy to explain. Normally the competition runs from early May through to the start of December. This time, because of the stoppage for the coronavirus pandemic, it did not get underway until early August and ploughed on through high summer. This imposed a punishing schedule on the players, especially with some of the games kicking off at 4 p.m. local time. Consistency in such gruelling conditions was too much to ask, even from the champions.
With the exception of the heart-stopping drama, the 2020 title winners will not be remembered with anything like the affection of the swashbuckling side that cruised to the 2019 title, coached by the Portuguese Jorge Jesus. His successors could never replace Spanish centre-back Pablo Mari, who was sold to Arsenal. Flamengo defended so badly throughout the campaign that, astonishingly, the champions had the worst defensive record in the top half of the table with 48 goals conceded. In the 20-team division, just the four relegated clubs plus four others conceded more goals.
Neither Domenec Torrent, Pep Guardiola’s former assistant who took over from Jorge Jesus, nor Rogerio Ceni, who stepped in when Torrent was harshly sacked, managed to find an effective balance between attack and defence. But the wealth of attacking resources was enough. The fantastic four from 2019, strikers Gabriel and Bruno Henrique, plus attacking midfielders Everton Ribeiro and Giorgian De Arrascaeta, took it in turns to hit form. They were consistently well supported from midfield by Gerson, and in this campaign there was the reinforcement of centre-forward Pedro, who chipped in with vital goals.
It was enough. And even if it was nowhere near as good as 2019, it gave the Brazilian public a conclusion to the league campaign they will never forget.