This year’s Libertadores has thrown up some major shocks, and with the final now just days away Simon Edwards delves into the detail and the data to help you find the edge on Boca Juniors vs. Fluminense.
The final of the Libertadores will see Boca Juniors facing Fluminense, two of South America’s most historic clubs, –in a one-off final at the world famous Maracaná stadium.
Fluminense will have home support in Rio de Janeiro for their first ever Copa Libertadores final while tens of thousands of Argentines will make the journey across the border.
Boca have been struggling in the league and have failed to set the competition alight, but they have risen to the occasion and progressed thanks to big moments. Fluminense have played some incredible soccer, including a 5-1 win against Boca’s great rivals River Plate, but have been open at times and lack honours in the Libertadores.
I will look at the style of play of both teams, their history and performance in the competition, domestic form and identify some key battles, before making three big predictions for what should be a fascinating final.
Style of Play and Tactical Approach
Fluminense play a with a slick, dynamic style which has really caught the imagination of South American soccer fans, and earned manager Fernando Diniz his job as the interim head coach of the Brazil national team.
In possession, they move the ball quickly with players free to naturally create overloads. Rather than stretching the opposition with positional discipline and methodically building to a 2 vs 1 situation, Diniz allows his players to naturally follow the flow of the game.
At times three or four of the midfielders will be occupying the same area of the pitch, but the invention, dynamism and ability to move the ball in tight spaces means they can work their way through and then drive at the opposition. Fluminense have many quick players who excel in multiple functions which makes them so dangerous.
André anchors the midfield while Ganso pulls the strings.
Arias and Keno not only have the qualities of wingers but the energy, work-rate and creativity to be very effective as ‘free 8s’ with permission to drift and make things happen.
In attack you have the very composed Argentine Germán Cano alongside the energetic, tireless John Kennedy.
The defense is martialed by the seasoned, uncompromising, slightly terrifying Felipe Melo and former Real Madrid man Marcelo, in line to return from a three-match Libertadores ban.
Boca have a mix of experienced, well-established former national team players with a handful of exciting youngsters.
They play with, quality national team attacking fullbacks, Fabra (Colombia) and Advíncula (Peru) overlapping a more narrow, compact midfield. Solid goal keeper, Romero who used to play for Manchester United and has almost 100 Argentina caps will be supported by Jorge Figal and most probably Nicolás Valentini in central defense, following the semifinal red for Marcos Rojo.
They play a narrow midfield with Guillermo and Ezequiel Fernández, while Valentín Barco and Medina are given more freedom to break forward.
Edinson Cavani still has good energy, smart movement and poses a good threat in attacking alongside collective fellow Uruguayan Miguel Merentiel.
The midfield options Boca have alongside overlapping fullbacks gives some nice tactical fluidity, but also allows the side to congest the middle of the park. This is something that could prove important against a Fluminense side who often try to build centrally.
Route to the Final
Fluminense finished top of their group on goal difference ahead of River Plate, the great rivals of their final opponents. In the group, they demolished River 5-1 at home but lost 2-0 away in Argentina, a pair of results that show how good they could be at their best but also some of their vulnerabilities.
Round of 16 (after two legs)
Fluminense 3-1 Argentina Juniors
Quarter final (after two legs)
Fluminense 5-1 Olimpia
Semifinals (after two legs)
Internacional 3-4 Fluminense
Boca progressed from probably the easiest group this year, which included Colombian debutants Pereira, Monagas of Venezuela and Chile’s Colo-Colo. They drew to Monagas and were beaten by Pereira. They only conceded 2 over 6 games and scored 9, a number significantly boosted by a final day 4-0 win against Monagas.
Round of 16 (after two legs)
Boca Juniors 2-2 Nacional – win on penalties
Quarter-final (after two legs)
Boca Juniors 0-0 Racing Club – win on penalties
Semifinals (after two legs)
Boca Juniors 1-1 Palmeiras – win on penalties
History in the Competition
Fluminense is a big, important, historic club in South American soccer but they have had very limited international successes and their domestic triumphs has been much more regional than national within Brazil.
They have won 33 Carioca Championships, including 2022 and 2023, but they have only won the Copa do Brasil once (2007) and the Brazilian league four times (1970, 1984, 2010, 2012). In 1952 they beat Corinthians in the final of the Copa Rio, the first ever international club competition to include South American and European teams.
This title, over 70 years ago, is their only international trophy and winning the Libertadores would be a huge achievement of generational importance.
Boca are one of the biggest and most important clubs in South American soccer with a global reputation and the trophy haul to back it up.
They have won the Argentine league on 35 occasions with the most recent title coming in 2022. Domestically they have also won the Copa Argentina four times (1969, 2012, 2015, 2019) and the Copa de La Liga in 2018 and 2022.
Internationally they have 21 titles with six Libertadores wins (1977, 1978, 2000, 2001, 2003, 2007) and two Sudamericana triumphs (2004, 2005). Their most recent Libertadores final appearance came in 2018, with a heartbreaking defeat to rivals River Plate.
Boca have great international pedigree, but a Libertadores title would bring a huge lift to a club that has been inconsistent this year. It would also be a huge statement for Argentine soccer as they push back against the increasingly dominant Brazilian clubs.
The key questions that will decide the Final
Can Boca keep clinical Germán Cano quiet in the final?
Cano failed to make any impact in his native Argentina before moving abroad and establishing himself as a lethal marksman in Colombia, Mexico and Brazil. He has never been considered for the Argentina national team and moves were made for him to potentially represent Colombia.
Helping Fluminense win their first Libertadores title, and breaking the hearts of millions of fans of one of his country’s biggest clubs, would really let Argentina know what they have been missing.
This year, Cano has scored 12 goals in 11 games in the Copa Libertadores. In 2022, he scored an all-time record of 44 goals in the calendar year. Cano is an extremely intelligent striker who times his runs into the box perfectly, shifts the ball quickly and finishes perfectly.
Cano is the type of striker who can be diligently marked out of the game, but still pops up with a late winner. Boca will really need to be switched on to deny the competition's leading scorer.
Will Boca’s experienced stars rise to the occasion?
Boca haven’t been very good for most of this year, but they are in the Libertadores final. They have a team filled with big name stars with most past their prime and at times they can look disjointed.
That said, they have many players experienced at playing on the biggest occasions and getting a result. Edinson Cavani and Darío Benedetto are not at their best, but will be incredibly motivated for their first and probably last chance to lift the Libertadores title.
Fabra and Advíincula are experienced national team players while Romero has almost 100 caps for Argentina. Alongside those seasoned veterans, Boca also have three younger more lively midfielders in Fernández (21), Barco (19) and Medina (21).
Fluminense are going to bring the pace and invention but if Boca can stay compact, they know they have the big personalities to win a high profile final.
Which Europe-bound rising star will take the headlines, Barco or André?
Two of the breakout stars in this year’s Libertadores have been classy left-sided Valentín Barco (19) and tireless, midfield leader André (22).
Barco is a fearless, creative wide midfielder or attacking fullback who glides with the ball. He scored a penalty against Nacional in the shootout, he balanced on top of the ball in the semifinal and recently screamed at an unimpressed Cavani for not passing him the ball.
André on the other hand is less flashy but equally classy. A dominant midfielder who dictates play, progresses the ball and allows the inventive Fluminense forwards to push on. A midfielder metronome who is incredibly important.
Barco has been linked with the likes of Manchester City, Borussia Dortmund and Brighton & Hove Albion while André is apparently top target for Arsenal and Liverpool. Many European fans will be tuning in to see what all the hype is about in the final.
Can classy playmaker Ganso pull the strings in midfield?
Once positioned alongside Santos teammate Neymar, as the future South American superstars of world soccer, the classy playmaker lost his way for many years. Always elegant and stylish, Ganso’s failure to find his place in the increasingly fast paced, all-action rhythm of modern soccer was mourned by traditionalists.
It seemed as though he was a man out of time, a beautiful but ineffective relic of soccer’s past.
Fluminense is a side that has shown the best of Brazilian invention and creativity with Ganso emerging as the man who pulls the strings. The 34-year-old left footed playmaker is a joy to watch and Boca will look to prevent his decisive through balls that can open up the game.
Will fluid Fluminense get into their rhythm or will Boca be able to manage the game?
Boca Juniors will look to disrupt the flow of the dynamic Fluminense side. If the game is disjointed and slow, then the Argentines will fancy their chances. The Brazilians are experts at passing their way through a tight midfield but if they can’t move Boca out of their shape, they will struggle to find Cano in the box.
Boca will feel their best chance of winning is by frustrating Fluminense and finding one of their big name forwards in advanced areas to deliver a moment of magic. If that moment doesn’t arrive, a clean sheet means penalties and tension which they have already shown they are experts at managing in this year’s competition.
Three Predictions for the Final
I expect lots of misconducts, cards and tactical fouls
Boca will know that if Fluminense are free to play their soccer then it will be very difficult for the Argentines to come out on top. I expect dozens of fouls, likely instigated by Boca but with Fluminense responding. Lots of frustration, lots of mind games, pushes, dives, appeals to the referee, touchline incursions from coaching staff. The card markets could be worth a look here.
Very little creativeness levels the playing field for Boca and gives them their best chance of winning the game. There’s sure to be moments of brilliance but also a good amount of petulance and cunning dark arts. Felipe Melo should be primed for a big performance.
An incredible atmosphere in and around the stadium on the day of the final
There have been a lot of complaints about the move to a one-off final, and how it takes away from the amazing atmosphere a packed-home-ground can provide over two legs.
While Fluminense isn’t Brazil’s most popular club, a final in Rio will bring out all of their fans while Boca will undoubtedly bring at least twice as many fans as they have ticket allowance. It is going to be an intense, passionate, imposing atmosphere which will add to the on-the-field tension and edge.
A Money Line bet on Boca Juniors could be an interesting play.
Beautiful play will triumph and Fluminense will be the 2023 Libertadores champions
Pinnacle has Fluminense as strong favourites to win the final. I agree that they are the better side, play better soccer and have shown in the semifinal that they can overcome adversity to get a result. I predict Fluminense will win and get their first ever Libertadores title.
That said, there really is some tempting value in a Boca upset. They are penalty specialists and could grind out a result. The Argentines will look to unsettle and frustrate ; a Money Line bet on Boca could make a disjointed, stop-start final much more enjoyable watching.
Every minute wasted; every attack thwarted could bring you closer to a big payout.
Head over to Pinnacle’s soccer odds to have your say on the Copa Libertadores and more.