As the Copa Libertadores moves into its second week of group games, the reigning champions have already sacked their coach. In fact, Rio de Janeiro giants Flamengo have made two coaching changes since lifting the trophy at the end of October.
Dorival Junior’s contract was not renewed, and he was replaced by Portuguese coach Vitor Pereira — almost certainly with an eye on a dream final of the Club World Cup against Real Madrid. The sad truth, though, is that Flamengo didn’t get that far, losing their semi final to Al Ahly of Saudi Arabia. With Pereira seemingly chasing his tail as he tried to find a way to balance out his team, Flamengo also lost both a domestic and a continental supercup, and the last straw came just over a week ago when they threw away a 2-0 first leg. lead against Fluminense and lost the final of the Rio State Championship 4–3 on aggregate.
Pereira was sacked last Tuesday. Predictably, Flamengo turned to another Portuguese, the big-haired Jorge Jesus, who enjoyed a magical spell in charge of the club in 2019. But he is currently employed by Fenerbahce in Turkey, where the league season is coming to a dramatic climax. He would not be free for another six weeks — and there seemed to be no guarantee that he would go back to Flamengo even then. So what should the club do? Wait and trust in the second coming or investigate Plan B?
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Flamengo’s mind was probably made up last Thursday, when under a caretaker coach they lost 2-0 away to a fourth division side in the first leg of a domestic cup tie. Immediate action was called for, and so Jorge Sampaoli was hurriedly announced, This is an intriguing mix. The Argentine is undoubtedly talented, and his attack-based model of play looks like a good fit for the ‘up and at them’ Flamengo ethos.
But it can be a high risk style of play, and when it goes wrong — the predictable disaster of Argentina’s 2018 World Cup campaign or the recent, second spell with Sevilla, things can go badly off the rails. Flamengo and the fans are notoriously impatient. Sampaoli is notoriously explosive. Sparks will certainly fly, and a long-term marriage is unlikely.
But it could work well in the short term. Sampaoli has worked in Brazil twice before and done well. He knows what he is getting himself into, and will believe that this time he has the financial muscle behind him to challenge for the serious honours. And in the immediate short term, it is hard to see anything but a victory on debut. Flamengo lost away to Aucas of Ecuador in their Libertadores opener. But on Thursday they are at home to little Nublense of Chile, playing the competition for the first time. It is hard to think of a gentler start to Sampaoli’s time in charge of Brazil’s biggest club.
Another big club to have gone through a coaching change are Boca Juniors of Argentina, who sacked Hugo Ibarra shortly before the Libertadores got underway. His replacement is Jorge Almiron, who enjoyed a splendid time with Lanus — winning the Argentine league title in 2016 and reaching the final of the Libertadores the following year — but has done nothing of note since. He has one blessing.
Boca’s Libertadores group looks straightforward. In the opening game, away to Monagas of Venezuela, Boca had both centre-backs sent off, but still managed to come home with a 0-0 draw. On Tuesday they host Pereira, the modest opposition from Colombia.
The fun of the second week is that a number of the favorites are under pressure — entirely by design. The fixture list is drawn up in such a way that the big teams are forced to open their campaign away from home, often in difficult conditions. Flamengo’s defeat to Aucas, for example, came at the altitude of Quito.
Two of the other giants were even higher up in the Andes in La Paz, Bolivia, and came back empty handed from the rarefied air. Winners in 2020 and ’21, Palmeiras of Brazil lost to Bolivar, while, also by a 3-1 margin, Argentina’s River Plate fell to The Strongest. River now hosts Sporting Cristal of Peru while, in one of the most intriguing ties of the week, Palmeiras are at home to the durable Cerro Porteno of Paraguay.
Underestimating Paraguayan opposition is an age old Libertadores pitfall. In the biggest shock of the first week’s action, Libertad won 1–0 away to Atletico Mineiro of Brazil — a result that detonated a crisis in the loser’s ranks, with Argentine coach Eduardo Coudet revolted by having fans throw beer in his direction and using the post match press conference to complain about his working conditions. Meetings were held to discuss Coudet’s position, and his job security has certainly not been enhanced by a home defeat to Vasco da Gama on Saturday in the first round of the domestic league.
Of all the Libertadores favourites, Atlético Mineiro are in the worst predicament in the Libertadores. All the other big guns played the opening fixture on the road. But after a disappointing league campaign last year, Atlético had to fight their way through the qualifying rounds of the Libertadores, and were drawn into a group with another Brazilian team — who they face this week.
On Tuesday they are away to Athletico Paranaense, beaten finalists of last year’s Libertadores and a team who are famously strong at home. Defeat will not necessarily bring a swift end to Atletico Mineiro’s chances, although it will mean they have to scale Everest the hard way. But losing might well mean that Eduardo Coudet’s spell in charge will only be a little bit longer than Vitor Pereira’s reign at Flamengo.