Palmeiras and Santos meet in the famous Maracaña stadium in Rio de Janeiro on Saturday in the final of the Copa Libertadores. The two Brazilian teams, both from São Paulo, have a number of interesting players, and here are some to watch out for in the final of South America’s primary club competition.
Rony has been Palmeiras’ most productive attacker in their Libertadores campaign, scoring five goals (including one penalty) and providing seven assists. Abel Ferreira’s team take full advantage of opportunities to attack in transition and Rony, fast and direct in all of his actions, plays a key role in the final stages of those attacks. The 25-year-old stood out at Athletico Paranaense last season for the quantity of shots he both created and took, and he has repeated that production at Palmeiras. Not only that, but he has significantly improved his shot locations, taking fewer long-range efforts and more from inside the six-yard box, while also benefiting from an increased throughball supply. Rony is capable of playing on either side of the attack as well as through the centre, as he has done on occasion this season. With or without the ball, he aggressively attacks the penalty area. Only two wingers in the Brazilian top flight, Serie A, touch the ball there more often. Ferreira has a potent attack, with the former Shakhtar Donetsk striker Luiz Adriano at its centre and Willian, Raphael Veiga and the young Gabriel Veron as additional options in the wide positions. Some of them may have had better league seasons, but there can be no doubting that Rony has been the star of the Palmeiras attack in the Libertadores.
Yefferson Soteldo, Santos
Yefferson Soteldo is the key player in the Santos attack. He is at the centre of their ball progression in the attacking half... ...he creates more chances than anyone else... ...and he even gets himself on the scoresheet sometimes, too, as he did in the return leg of the semi-final against Boca Juniors. The pint-sized Venezuelan doesn’t stand out for his ability to break defensive lines with his passing. Amongst all the attacking midfielders and wingers of Serie A, he ranks among those who least often pass the ball forward, both in general and in the final third. But when there is space to attack or when he creates space off the dribble, he is the accelerator of his team’s attacks, driving forward purposefully with the ball at his feet. At an individual level, Soteldo is Santos’ most important player. If he plays well on Saturday, their chances of lifting the Libertadores trophy will be greatly increased.
Gabriel Menino, Palmeiras
Among the primary draws of the Libertadores is that it is a competition studded with ascendant stars, and few enjoyed as ascendant a 2020 as Gabriel Menino. He made his first team debut in January, quickly established himself as a regular starter and was then called up to the Brazil national team in September. Now, after a standout performance in the first leg of the Libertadores semi-final against River Plate, he has the chance to continue his upward momentum in 2021. Menino played as a midfielder in the Palmeiras youth teams, and although he has shown himself to be a versatile player in the first team, playing at full-back, in central midfield and even as an attacking midfielder, he interprets every position in pretty much the same way. National team coach Tite considers him an interesting option at right-back precisely because of his natural inclination to step infield and join the midfield line. The 20-year-old is not especially quick but he does have the necessary strength and technical ability to retain possession under pressure and free himself of his marker to advance the ball via passes or carries. In Serie A, where we have a bigger sample size, he has an important role in progressing the ball forward inside the attacking half, something that is also reflected in a smaller sample in the Libertadores. Menino also provides some output in the final third, with between 2.5 and 2.8 shots and key passes per 90 between the Libertadores and Serie A -- solid figures given the amount of minutes he has played at full-back in both competitions.
Marinho is a wide forward by trade, but he is Santos’ primary shot-taker. Eighteen-year old Kaio Jorge has a more collaborative and supporting role in the centre of the Santos attack -- although he has been more active inside the penalty area during the Libertadores run than he has in the Brazilian league -- and Marinho is the player who takes most advantage of the space created by his movement, cutting in diagonally from the right flank to get off shots. His shot locations do leave something to be desired. If he were still a young player with an opportunity to move on to Europe, it would be something to be worked on and refined. As it is, with a total of 13 non-penalty goals across the Libertadores and the league, the 30-year-old is in the best form of his career. At this stage, he likely is what he is, and this season it is definitely working out for him. Marinho is not an especially efficient player, but he is very active inside the final third and could have a decisive role to play in Saturday’s final.