As football concludes for 2021, you'd be forgiven for wondering if the past year even happened at all.

COVID-19 cases are skyrocketing, the climate crisis continues unabated, Donald Trump is crying election fraud and everyone is talking about cryptocurrency without really knowing why. If Bill Murray appeared on television to tell you we're stuck in a 2020 time loop, you'd barely even blink.

Well, 2021 really did happen, and we have the data to prove it. Here, Stats Perform presents a selection of the biggest footballing moments of the year, and the numbers that help to make them unforgettable – even if you can't remember what day it is...

Tuchel your fancy

Expectations are pretty high for Chelsea coaches, but winning the Champions League before you've been in the job for half a year – after replacing club legend Frank Lampard, no less – isn't a bad way to impress the owner! No but seriously, Thomas Tuchel is brilliant.

The Blues beat Atletico Madrid, Porto, Real Madrid and Manchester City in the knockouts as they became kings of Europe for the second time. They only conceded twice in those matches; in fact, Edouard Mendy became the first goalkeeper to keep as many as nine clean sheets in his debut season in the competition.

From Tuchel's first match in charge until the end of 2020-21, no Premier League team lost fewer games (five), conceded fewer goals (16) or kept more clean sheets (19) across all competitions than Chelsea. It's worth remembering that, Thomas, if you really do think your title hopes are already over at the halfway stage of the season.

Live and let Daei

Football's greatest-of-all-time debate is likely to drag on until humanity has long since gone extinct, with nothing left of civilisation except decaying ruins and NFTs of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, most likely dressed as goats, stored on a giant blockchain server at the centre of the Earth (no, we don't understand it all, either).

We can at least agree on one non-fungible Ronaldo record, though: as of 2021, he is the leading international goalscorer in the history of men's football.

A brace against the Republic of Ireland on September 1 took him to 111 for Portugal, two more than previous record-holder Ali Daei of Iran. Ronaldo will start the World Cup year on 115 goals in 184 international appearances – but without the Ballon d'Or on his mantelpiece...

Gerd lord, another record

With practically the final kick of the 2020-21 Bundesliga season, Robert Lewandowski pounced on a loose ball to score his 41st league goal and break Gerd Muller's previous single-season record of 40, which had stood since 1972.

Not satisfied with the greatest goalscoring effort in Germany's top flight for nearly half a century, Lewandowski ended 2021 with 43 goals for the calendar year (in only 34 games), again surpassing a previous best tally set by Muller. During that run, he became the first player in the competition to score in 13 consecutive home matches, beating the 12-game runs of Jupp Heynckes and, yes, Muller. The late Bayern great's record of a goal in 16 Bundesliga games in a row still stands, though, Lewandowski having been stopped from matching it by the crossbar in a 3-1 win at Greuther Furth in September.

This year also saw the Bayern Munich striker reach 120 away goals in the Bundesliga, which is, you guessed it, another record. At least this one was previously held by a different name: Klaus Fischer, on 117. Muller is third on 115, for what it's worth.

Let's talk about six, baby 

Liverpool started the year boasting the second-longest unbeaten home run in the history of England's top division: they had gone 68 games without defeat after losing 2-1 to Crystal Palace in April 2017, a streak only bettered by Chelsea (86 games ending in October 2008).

Then, they lost 1-0 to Burnley at Anfield. Then, 1-0 to Brighton and Hove Albion at Anfield. After that came a 4-1 battering by Manchester City, an almost unthinkable 2-0 loss to Everton, and then another pair of 1-0 defeats, this time to Chelsea and Fulham... and all at Anfield.

Six consecutive home defeats: something never endured by any Liverpool team before, nor any reigning champion of England's top flight.

Pep-pered with records

City were top of the Premier League on Christmas Day for the third time in their history. They won the league on the previous two occasions (in 2011 and 2017), so the omens are positive for 2021-22 – not that they need much divine intervention right now.

The reigning champions, boasting a 10-match winning streak, broke the record for the most victories in a calendar year in England's top flight with their 34th of 2021 against Newcastle United this month. The previous best was 33 set by Bob Paisley's Liverpool in 1982.

In the process, Pep Guardiola's men also set a new top-tier record of 18 away wins in a single year, beating the previous best of 17 set by Bill Nicholson's famous Tottenham side of 1960-61. Oh, and their 112 goals scored in 2021 is the best such calendar-year return in the Premier League era.

An Argentine tango – and a Messi divorce

Lionel Messi ends 2021 with 23 goals and eight assists in LaLiga, the most direct goal involvements of any player aside from Karim Benzema (41). And he hasn't played in the competition since May.

Messi's tearful departure from Barcelona, who decided they simply couldn't afford to keep the player they previously couldn't afford to lose, heralded the end of an era in Spanish football. It hasn't gone particularly well for either party, either: Barca, who sacked Ronald Koeman in November, sit seventh in LaLiga, while Messi has scored one goal in 11 Ligue 1 games for Paris Saint-Germain.

Club football might have been more of a nightmare than a dream for Messi this year, but the same cannot be said for his international exploits. He was the joint-top goalscorer and the tournament's best player as Argentina finally ended their long wait for silverware, defeating Brazil 1-0 in the final of the Copa America. It was enough to secure Messi a record-extending seventh Ballon d'Or, even though he seemed to think Lewandowski actually deserved to win (and, let's be honest, a lot of us did).

It's a Lille bit funny...

Last season, Paris Saint-Germain replaced Tuchel with Mauricio Pochettino ostensibly so they might win the Champions League. Instead, while Tuchel took Chelsea to European glory within just five months, Pochettino's PSG could not even keep hold of their Ligue 1 crown.

Lille won the French top flight for the fourth time in their history, becoming only the fourth side to win it at least twice since the turn of the century (the others being PSG, of course, Monaco and Lyon). Their triumph was inspired by the late-career renaissance of Burak Yilmaz: his 16 league goals were the most scored by anyone over the age of 35 in Europe's top five leagues last season, with the exception of Cristiano Ronaldo (29).

While their title defence isn't going too swimmingly – Lille are eighth in the table after 19 games, 18 points behind leaders PSG – they managed to win their Champions League group for the first time in seven attempts. They also boast the top scorer in Ligue 1 this term: Jonathan David, who was an 11-year-old playing for Ottawa Gloucester Hornets when Lille won their third league title in 2011, has scored 12 times already.

Get Inter the spirit

This year saw Inter end their decade-long wait for the Scudetto and bring about the end of Juventus' recent stranglehold on Serie A.

Inspired by Antonio Conte – who started Juve's nine-year title streak back in 2012 – and league MVP Romelu Lukaku, the Nerazzurri finished 12 points clear at the top as their coach became the man with the best points-per-game ratio (2.26) in the modern history of Italy's top flight.

Despite a close-season of upheaval in which Conte walked, Lukaku returned to Chelsea and Achraf Hakimi went to PSG, Inter go into next year with a four-point advantage at the top and just one defeat in 19 league games, having scored over 100 league goals in a calendar year for the first time in their history.

Mancini's miracle

Italy's second European Championship trophy, secured courtesy of a penalty shoot-out win over England at Wembley, was the pinnacle of a quite remarkable run of results under Roberto Mancini.

The Azzurri would go on to set a new world record in men's international football of 37 matches without defeat, during which they won 30, scored 93 goals and conceded only 12. The run ended when they lost 2-1 to Spain in the Nations League semi-finals in Milan, marking their first competitive home defeat since 1999.

In the first 33 of those matches, starting from a 1-1 draw with Ukraine in October 2018, they were behind for only 44 minutes. At Euro 2020, they had five players who scored at least twice, they ended the tournament with a joint-high 13 goals and conceded only four. And yet, in 2022, they must navigate the play-offs – and potentially a meeting with Portugal – if they are to avoid failing to qualify for the World Cup for the second time in a row.

Palmeiras pull off the unbeliev-Abel

The Copa Libertadores final is not something Andreas Pereira will want to remember: it was the Manchester United loanee's error that allowed substitute Deyverson to win it for Palmeiras in extra time.

This was a historic result, though. Not only were Palmeiras the first team since Boca Juniors 20 years ago to win back-to-back Libertadores trophies, but Abel Ferreira became the only European coach to win the competition twice.

Before his time in Brazil, arguably Abel's finest achievement in his post-playing career was helping PAOK reach 51 league games unbeaten – although he was only actually in charge for 17 of those matches, including the 4-2 loss to Aris that brought the streak to an end.

Palmeiras head coach Abel Ferreira admits he is considering his future in the role despite lifting the Copa Libertadores with Saturday's 2-1 final victory over Flamengo.

The 42-year-old Portuguese cited the hectic schedule for Palmeiras, juggling competing in Brazil's top flight along with continental competitions.

Palmeiras have played eight times this month and will back up from Saturday's final with a Brasileiro Serie A fixture against Cuiaba on Tuesday.

Ferreira, who became the first European head coach to win the Copa Libertadores twice, said the schedule was "insane" and "inhuman".

"The calendar is insane, it is inhuman," Ferreira said at the post-game news conference. "For me, I have to do a lot of thinking. The club has already demonstrated its will, I am very grateful to the club.

I can't manage with this rhythm of game, rest, game. This is not for me. I am not able to do it. I can't be at my maximum capacity, not at my maximum strength, not at my maximum energy.

"I always need to rely on the players. It's inhuman what they do here. If they want to grow, they gave to give up the round trips in cups.

"We have to have space to be able to rest and play well. I will stop, reflect and do what is best for Palmeiras."

Ferreira took over as Palmeiras boss in October 2020, having previously led PAOK and Sporting Braga.

Palmeiras successfully defended their Copa Libertadores crown as they battled to a 2-1 extra-time win over Flamengo.

The Brazilian sides were both bidding for their third Libertadores title in Montevideo on Saturday, and it was Palmeiras who came out on top to become the first side to win the tournament in successive seasons since Boca Juniors did so in 2000 and 2001.

Palmeiras made a flying start, with Raphael Veiga scoring the earliest goal in a Libertadores final since 2008, but at the stadium where they won their maiden title in 1981, Flamengo's second-half dominance was rewarded when Gabriel Barbosa restored parity.

Having scored early in regulation time, Palmeiras repeated the feat in the additional period – substitute Deyverson proving their hero.

Veiga's fifth-minute opener was wonderfully worked, with Mayke getting to the byline and cutting it back for the onrushing midfielder to finish first time.

Aiming to repeat the feat of rivals Corinthians, who are still the only team to win the title while going undefeated in the current format of the tournament, 2019 champions Flamengo would then have equalised if not for the reactions of Weverton, who denied Giorgian de Arrascaeta from point-blank range.

After squandering a golden chance to head in from close range, Gabi, Flamengo's hero in 2019, atoned for his miss with a drilled strike in the 72nd minute, catching Weverton out at his near post with unerring accuracy, becoming the first player to score 11 goals in a Libertadores campaign.

Yet a lapse in concentration from Andreas Pereira cost Flamengo five minutes into extra time. Having replaced Veiga, Deyverson pounced on the Manchester United loanee's loose touch and squeezed a finish past Diego Alves to etch Palmeiras' name on the trophy.

Flamengo head coach Renato Gaucho is dreaming of Copa Libertadores glory as defending champions Palmeiras bid to become the first team in 20 years to retain the South American crown.

Montevideo is the scene for this year's all-Brazilian Libertadores final between 2019 winners Flamengo and titleholders Palmeiras on Saturday.

Uruguay's iconic Centenario stadium brings back good memories for two-time champions Flamengo, who trumped Chile's Cobreloa in 1981 for their first Libertadores trophy 40 years ago.

Flamengo remain undefeated in the 2021 edition. They will be aiming to repeat the feat of rivals Corinthians, who are still the only team to win the title while going undefeated in the current format of the tournament, following their 2012 achievement.

Speaking ahead of the decider, Renato – the record holder for most victories as a coach in Libertadores history (50) – told reporters on Friday: "The feeling is of a dream come true for having reached another Libertadores final, because it is for few coaches and I have that privilege working with Flamengo, in the same way as Abel [Ferreira] doing with Palmeiras.

"The feeling is that of having fulfilled my job leading a wonderful group in a club with so many fans and with an immense responsibility, but we are professionals and we are prepared for this.

"I hope that Flamengo gets their third cup, we know that we have a very strong team in front of us and they also want to be champion, but we have all done what it takes to be here, the managers, the coaching staff and the players, we know the importance of this match.

"We are two great teams with players at the level of the Brazilian national team, I am sure it will be a great game, well played because we are two teams that always go to the front looking for the goal and we both arrived with our merits. As I said, I think it is going to be a game with a lot of emotions."

Not since Argentine powerhouse Boca Juniors in 2000 and 2001 has a team won back-to-back Libertadores trophies.

Palmeiras continue to flourish under Portuguese head coach Abel Ferreira – the club have only lost two of the 19 Libertadores games with the 42-year-old in the dugout, while they are seven games unbeaten having eliminated Atletico Mineiro in the semis.

Abel's Palmeiras have won 13 Libertadores match – the joint-second most of any coach in the club's tournament history, alongside Vanderlei Luxemburgo and only behind Felipao (24 wins in 44 games).

"Experience tells us how difficult it is to be consistently winning and after last year if they asked everyone from Palmeiras if they thought they would be twice in a row in the final of the Copa Libertadores they would have had many doubts," Abel, who is looking to become the first European coach to win two Libertadores titles, said in a pre-game news conference.

"Last year we reached the final because of the players and this year I infected the players to be here again. We climb the mountain because we have a very clear purpose from day one: to win the final.

"This is our purpose and we are here for merit, for a lot of effort and for the help of many people and above all because of the character, courage and capacity of our players."

The Copa Libertadores is a competition like no other, just look back at the 2018 final between bitter rivals River Plate and Boca Juniors.

The second leg of the all-Argentinean decider was sensationally played at Real Madrid's Santiago Bernabeu in the Spanish capital three years ago after Boca's team bus was attacked by River supporters en route to El Monumental for the initially scheduled return encounter.

River eventually prevailed 5-3 on aggregate.

Fast forward to this week – Flamengo and titleholders Palmeiras will do battle at Uruguay's iconic Centenario stadium in Montevideo. Saturday's final is only the fifth decider to feature two teams from the same country in the tournament's history. Four of those fixtures have been all-Brazilian showdowns after Palmeiras trumped rivals Santos last season.

As Palmeiras bid to become the first team to retain the Libertadores crown in 20 years – Boca were the last to do so in 2001, star goalkeeper Weverton provided an insight into the emotion-fuelled competition, which was founded in 1960.

"Really, our side here is much more passion than reason," Brazil international Weverton – who has called Palmeiras home since 2018 – told Stats Perform as he explained what it means to play in the Libertadores decider. "I say that in Europe, people go watch a show, go to have fun, they go with their family to watch a show. The Brazilian football the families go to the stadium to watch your team win. He wants his club to win, and it doesn't matter what it takes. He doesn't go to the stadium to watch a match, have fun, and take his son to wave to his favourite player. No. He goes to the match so he can see his team winning. This is the big difference from our football.

"We always want to win. We are very competitive. Sometimes we do a match here that is… Abel [Ferreira] always says that those who lose will give food to people in need. So, we have three teams and the worst one has to pay. We get very competitive on that. Nobody wants to lose. Even if it is not that much money. It is competitive. Brazilian football is all about that. We don't know how to lose; we don't accept losing. Sometimes people say that we need to accept the defeat, but it is in our Brazilian blood to compete.

"So, when you talk about Libertadores, how is the atmosphere in a Libertadores match? It looks like a war. I shouldn't associate football and war, but Libertadores brings up that competitive atmosphere, a tough match. I think that is the style of Libertadores.

"We see the Champions League as a show, but Libertadores is not like that. When you play Libertadores, you are going to the battle. I think that is the difference between South American football, the Brazilian football, from European football."

This year's Libertadores final is the first in history to feature the winners of the past two tournaments – Flamengo conquered South America in 2019 before Palmeiras got their hands on the trophy thanks to Breno Lopes' 99th-minute winner last year.

Montevideo brings back good memories for two-time champions Flamengo, who trumped Chile's Cobreloa in 1981 for their first Libertadores trophy 40 years ago.

"That is something that brings up good memories," star Flamengo defender David Luiz told Stats Perform. "Without a doubt, we must carry this and bring that to us in a totally positive way. That is a place where every 'flamenguista' was happy. Why not be happy again?"

David Luiz joined Flamengo in September following his exit from Arsenal at the end of last season.

The 34-year-old returned to his homeland 14 years after departing Vitoria for Europe, moving to the star-studded Rio de Janeiro-based outfit boasting Gabriel 'Gabigol' Barbosa, Filipe Luis, Everton Ribeiro, Diego and loanees Kenedy (Chelsea) and Andreas Pereira (Manchester United).

"I always said that since I came here that I am privileged in this group," David Luiz said. "I arrived at the best time of the competition. I could play the semi-finals, and now it is the best part of the cake. That is playing this great final. I am anxious, I want to play it.

"It was always a dream for me to be playing in my country. I could accomplish that after I left Brazil while I was with the national team. But now I am representing America's best team. And I can be in the final of the biggest South American competition. Without a doubt, that is very, very special."

Flamengo have established themselves as one of South America's finest, setting the bar after sweeping Libertadores, Campeonato Brasileiro and Recopa Sudamericana honours under Jorge Jesus before his return to Benfica.

After back-to-back league trophies in 2019 and 2020, Flamengo turned to Renato Gaucho after the tenures of former Pep Guardiola assistant Domenec Torrent and iconic ex-goalkeeper Rogerio Ceni did not go according to plan.

With Gaucho – the record holder for most victories in Libertadores history (50) – at the helm, Flamengo are on the cusp of a third crown.

Flamengo remain undefeated in the 2021 edition. They will be aiming to repeat the feat of rivals Corinthians, who are still the only team to win the title while going undefeated in the current format of the tournament, following their 2012 achievement.

The hero in the 2019 final with a brace, Gabigol will spearhead Flamengo's efforts on the pitch – the in-form Brazil international and former Inter forward tops the goalscoring charts in this season's Libertadores (10) as he seeks to become the first player in the competition's history to score 11 goals in the 21st century.

Gabigol has outperformed his expected goals tally (xG total of 8.5), while he has supplied four assists.

A Champions League winner with Premier League giants Chelsea, David Luiz was asked to compare the two tournaments, and whether Flamengo had the quality to compete in the European edition.

"I believe and understand that when you love something in your life, you will always feel that anger to live this," David Luiz said. "When you love something, you will have this in your heart, you have anxiety, you will want to be there, you will be counting the days, you will, without a doubt, be focused on that. The same way I counted, I lived, was anxious and wanted to play when I was young and was in the Champions League final. Today also, even after a lot of years, a lot of finals, that is still happening. I still love football. I still love what I do. And, of course, I will keep having that same anger to be in a final and living it the best way I can."

On Flamengo being able to match it with teams in the Champions League, David Luiz added: "I believe that is right. Today Flamengo are the first club to be organised to give us players the opportunity to represent and do best what we have to do that is to play football the best way we can. We have an amazing structure.

"High-calibre players, players who have played in numerous places and have a lot of quality. I believe, yes, we have the quality to play a Champions League without a doubt."

Standing in Flamengo's way is Weverton and reigning Libertadores champions Palmeiras, who are captained by tenacious former Juventus and Inter midfielder Felipe Melo.

Palmeiras continue to flourish under Portuguese head coach Abel Ferreira – the club have only lost two of the 19 Libertadores games with the 42-year-old in the dugout, while they are seven games unbeaten having eliminated Atletico Mineiro in the semis.

Abel is also looking to become the first European coach to win two Libertadores titles.

Weverton has kept seven clean sheets in this season's tournament as two-time winners Palmeiras eye their third piece of silverware in their sixth trip to the final.

In total, the 33-year-old has kept 31 clean sheets in 60 Libertadores appearances, with a 51.6 per cent effectiveness.

"I believe that you try to keep what you've achieved as if you were protecting something you conquered," Weverton said when asked about the fact it has been 20 years since a team last celebrated back-to-back titles. "We conquered that last year and now we have the chance to protect it, to bring it back, and that motivates us. But it doesn't give us an advantage. It just brings us motivation to protect something that you know that feels good to achieve.

"We saw how good it is to be champions of Libertadores, on how many good things this brings to you. Recognition, prestige, history, you have your name in the club’s history, brings you the fans respect. So, we saw that there are a lot of good things around it. We want to feel it again. We know we will have to battle for that again, we know that it is going to be a great game, a big war facing a great team. We know the path, but we have to pay the price for it. It does motivate us, but we need to prepare ourselves and know that it is going to be tough, but it is doable."

David Luiz believes Flamengo "without a doubt" have the quality to play in the Champions League as they prepare for the Copa Libertadores final against Palmeiras.

Former Chelsea centre-back David Luiz joined Flamengo in September, ending a 14-year association with European football after his contract with Arsenal expired. 

Injuries have hampered his return to Brazilian domestic football, but his side have cruised to the final of South America's showpiece event with a perfect six wins beyond the group stage.

Indeed, the 34-year-old made his debut in the Libertadores semi-final against Barcelona SC following a lengthy spell on the sidelines after knee surgery when at Arsenal.

While Palmeiras remain focused on the weekend, David Luiz told Stats Perform how he believes Flamengo are good enough to play in Europe's premier club competition.

"I believe that is right," David Luiz responded when asked whether Flamengo could cut it in the Champions League.

"Flamengo are the first club to be organised to give players the opportunity to represent and do best what we have to do, and that is to play football the best way we can. 

"We have an amazing structure – high calibre players, players who have played in numerous places and have a lot of quality. I believe, yes, we have the quality to play in the Champions League, without a doubt."

Palmeiras are eyeing a title defence in Montevideo after succeeding in last year's final against Santos in CONMEBOL's top-tier club tournament.

Flamengo, meanwhile, are searching for their second South American title in three seasons, and former right-back and now Cruzeiro assistant manager Juliano Belletti told Stats Perform how the pair have reached a class above in Brazilian football.

"It's a fact that Palmeiras and Flamengo have reached another level here within Brazilian football," Belletti said.

"With the signings that were made, the investment, both on and off the pitch. It's interesting to highlight that too. The structure of the clubs has changed a lot, for the better. 

"That's why they deserve to be in the Libertadores final. It's a match of great technical quality, which often goes against the spirit of the Libertadores that many people talk about.

"We see Palmeiras and Flamengo coming through, playing great football. They played good football to reach the final, a well-balanced game, and they deserved to be in this final match."

However, Belletti – who enjoyed spells with Barcelona and Chelsea during his playing days – was more measured in his response when asked the same question about Flamengo's Champions League credentials.

"The technical quality doesn't define a team's capacity to play or not in a competition like the Champions League," Belletti responded. 

"But there are players of quality that could play in teams that compete in the Champions League. That's for sure."

Palmeiras coach Abel Ferreira took inspiration from Jose Mourinho's early-career Champions League success as he masterminded an away-goals win against Atletico Mineiro in the Copa Libertadores semi-finals.

The reigning South American champions returned to the Libertadores final with a 1-1 draw at Atletico on Tuesday, having played out a goalless first leg at home.

Eduardo Vargas' header had put the home side in front, but Dudu equalised 22 minutes from time to crucially extend Palmeiras' record-breaking unbeaten away run in the competition to 15 matches.

Abel never doubted that leveller was coming, revealing Palmeiras had planned simply to score once in order to advance.

The coach referred to Mourinho's 1-1 draw at Manchester United with Porto in 2004, in which the visitors netted in the 90th minute through Costinha to knock Alex Ferguson's men out 3-2 on aggregate. Porto went on to win the Champions League.

"I'm Portuguese with great pride, I'm European with great pride," Abel said.

"We have the best coaches in the world, like Mourinho; we have the best referees in the world, like Pedro Proenca; we have in Portugal the president with the most titles in the world [Pinto da Costa]; and we have one of the best players in the world, [Cristiano] Ronaldo.

"When you look at Ronaldo, you see great mental strength, an insatiable work discipline, wanting to win and wanting to do more and better, and that is the Portuguese mentality and the European mentality.

"This I will never abdicate. And that calm and that intelligence inspired me.

"I talked about the game between Manchester United and Porto in which Mourinho in the last second at Old Trafford made it 1-1 and [went through]. It was in this game that I was inspired.

"That's what I told our players: we have to come here to score a goal, and we're going to do it because we have had an impeccable Libertadores.

"What is sometimes lacking here in Brazil is rigour and discipline in work and daily dedication to sacrifice. They know what it means, that to win you pay a price to be in the final, and these players were willing to pay that price to be in the final."

Palmeiras had just 36.7 per cent of the possession but blocked seven of their opponents' 17 shots.

Veteran captain Felipe Melo contributed one of those and led by example as he made nine clearances, three tackles and three interceptions.

Palmeiras' reward was a second consecutive Libertadores final, becoming the fourth club to achieve that feat in the 21st century – after Boca Juniors in both 2000 and 2001 and 2003 and 2004, Sao Paulo in 2005 and 2006 and River Plate in 2018 and 2019.

They will face Flamengo or Barcelona in the showpiece, with their Brazilian rivals 2-0 up after the first leg.

Copa Libertadores champions Palmeiras have the chance to claim back-to-back titles after edging Brazilian rivals Atletico Mineiro in the semi-finals.

Palmeiras advanced to the 2021 showpiece 1-1 on away goals following Tuesday's 1-1 draw away to Mineiro in Belo Horizonte.

After a scoreless first-leg draw, Palmeiras' Dudu struck in the 68th minute, cancelling out Eduardo Vargas' 52nd-minute opener.

Palmeiras will be the fourth consecutive team to play in two successive Libertadores finals since 2000, after Boca Juniors (2000 and 2001, 2003 and 2004), Sao Paulo (2005 and 2006) and River Plate (2018 and 2019) as they await either Flamengo or Barcelona in the decider.

In all six previous Libertadores semi-final ties since 1989 that the first leg ended in a goalless draw, the team who played the return leg at home had progressed to the final.

Mineiro looked on track to continue that streak when Chile international Vargas put the home side ahead with his third goal of the Libertadores campaign.

But some poor defending allowed Palmeiras back into the contest, Gabriel Veron dispossessing his opponent before squaring the ball to Dudu for a tap-in on the line.

It was Dudu's seventh goal for Palmeiras in the Libertadores, with the two-time South American champions – unbeaten in 15 away games in the competition, the longest undefeated run on the road in history, having won all seven games in which he has scored.

Brazil international Hulk missed a first-half penalty as Atletico Mineiro grabbed a 0-0 draw away to reigning champions Palmeiras in the first leg of their Copa Libertadores semi final on Tuesday.

Hulk, who has netted seven goals in this season's edition, sent Palmeiras goalkeeper Weverton the wrong way with his low 42nd-minute spotkick but his effort cannoned into the post.

In a game where neither goalkeeper was legitimately tested, Atletico had the better of the chances at Sao Paulo's Allianz Parque, with 11 shots to Palmeiras' four but could not make them count.

Luan dragged an early left-foot shot wide for the visitors, while Palmeiras' best first-half opportunity came from Rony with an off-target effort.

Paraguayan defender Gustavo Gomez scythed down Diego Costa inside the box, offering Atletico an opportunity from the spot, but Hulk fluffed the chance.

Hulk sought redemption in the second half, lashing a powerful long-distance strike over Weverton's crossbar.

The 35-year-old former Porto forward also fizzed a left-foot free-kick past a diving Weverton but wide again late.

The second leg will take next Tuesday in Belo Horizonte, with the winner to take either Flamengo or Ecuadorian club Barcelona in the final on November 27 in Montevideo.

Enzo Perez believes River Plate showed "the kind of people we are" as he played a full match out of position in goal on Wednesday.

Perez, an injured midfielder, had to volunteer for a place between the posts against Independiente Santa Fe, with River heading into their Copa Libertadores group-stage match with just 11 players available.

The team have been hit by a COVID-19 outbreak, which on top of a spate of injuries left River heavily depleted, with the four goalkeepers included in their Libertadores squad testing positive for the virus.

They were not allowed to call up a keeper from their academy, instead relying on 35-year-old Perez in goal while having no substitutes to call on.

Regardless, River took an early two-goal lead – Federico Angileri and Julian Alvarez scoring within the first five minutes – and conceded only once to Kelvin Osorio with 17 minutes remaining.

Perez had only four saves to make in the 2-1 win, despite Colombian side Santa Fe attempting 22 shots and bossing 69 per cent of the possession.

Jersson Gonzalez, Daniel Giraldo, Jorge Ramos and Osorio were all denied by Perez, although their 22 efforts were worth a measly 1.1 expected goals (xG) combined. River scored twice from nine chances with an xG value of 1.6.

"Unfortunately, we had to suffer the contagion issue, but we rescued everyone's heart, manhood and personality," Perez told ESPN.

"We once again demonstrated the group and the kind of people we are. I don't fall too much into everything we've been through, I tried to focus and help the team. There is going to be a lot of talk about this game.

"I was asking questions, practicing with the goalkeeping coach, listening to advice. I lost a bit, but always took the penalty spot as a reference."

River's win sees them top Group D heading into their final game, against Fluminense on Tuesday. The embattled side could still be knocked out, should they lose and third-placed Junior win, but will hope to by then have a bigger squad – and a goalkeeper – to call upon.

River Plate will be forced to play without a recognised goalkeeper in their Copa Libertadores clash with Independiente Santa Fe after a coronavirus outbreak.

The Argentinian club have seen 20 players, including all of their eligible goalkeepers, test positive for COVID-19, leaving Marcelo Gallardo with just 10 fit members of his squad for the Group D game.

CONMEBOL ensured River will have to put an outfield player in goal after the governing body rejected a request from the club to add academy goalkeepers Alan Leonardo Diaz and Agustin Gomez to the squad.

Midfielder Enzo Perez, who has a hamstring injury, appears likely to play as River's stand-in goalkeeper following a decision that angered club president Rodolfo D'Onofrio.

"We would never have thought that they could make a decision of this type," D'Onofrio told ESPN. 

"We made a presentation where we perfectly clarified why we consider that the goalkeeper can be substituted at any time during the competition. 

"There is an article [in the competition's regulations] that talks about serious injury. We consider COVID as a serious injury. 

"We have 18 outfield players and three goalkeepers. We put the 32 players with four professional goalkeepers, who were infected. What we ask is to replace them."

Of River's available players, just six have started a top-flight game for the club, though the Colombians have their own coronavirus issues, with five Santa Fe players having tested positive ahead of the game.

River are second in Group D, level on six points with another Colombian club in Junior, who have played a game more. Santa Fe are bottom with two points from four games.

Argentina has the seventh most active cases of coronavirus in the world with over 307,000. Colombia is 19th with over 114,000 as the virus continues to ravage South America.

 

Breno Lopes scored a 99th-minute winner as Palmeiras clinched the Copa Libertadores final in dramatic finale with a 1-0 victory over Santos at the Maracana on Saturday.

After a touchline fracas that saw Santos boss Cuca sent off, Breno – who replaced Gabriel Menino in the 85th minute – rose highest at the back post to nod a sensational right-wing delivery from Rony back across goal and into the far corner.

It was Rony's 13th goal involvement (five scored, eight assisted) in this season's Libertadores and it settled what had been a drab game of few chances in front of a small crowd.

Palmeiras were consequently crowned Libertadores champions for the second time in their history, with Abel Ferreira becoming just the third European coach to lead a team to glory in the competition.

Despite a fiery start there was minimal tempo in the play of both sides, with the temperature in Rio de Janeiro over 30 degrees Celsius at kick-off.

Raphael Veiga dragged the best opening wide before half-time and 14 minutes after the restart Lucas Verissimo nodded a free-kick from Marinho narrowly off target.

Veiga thundered a free-kick just over after the hour mark and Felipe Jonatan flashed a half-volley wide before Cuca was shown a red card in stoppage time for trying to stop Marcos Rocha taking a quick throw-in.

Santos were seemingly distracted by the incident and Palmeiras punished them, with Breno getting above Para – a champion with Santos in 2011 – to head home the decisive goal without the need for extra time.

There was huge adversity in the early stages of Yeferson Soteldo's career.

He grew up in the underprivileged neighbourhood of El Muertico in the city of Acarigua, where he claims an early grave was the likely alternative to a career in professional football, and although he gained a spot in the academy of Caracas – Venezuela's most successful club – he was thrown out aged 14 for "indiscipline".

Furthermore, there were huge question marks over his physical capability to make it as a pro – now 23, he only stands at five feet and two inches tall.

But Venezuela's most-decorated coach Noel Sanvicente gave him a second chance at Zamora and put him on the path to Saturday's Copa Libertadores final between Santos and Palmeiras at the iconic Maracana in Rio de Janeiro.  

In Messi's footsteps

Six-time Ballon d'Or winner Lionel Messi is an obvious inspiration for a number of players, but Soteldo felt a stronger connection than most to the Barcelona superstar as he worked his way through spells with Zamora, Huachipato and Universidad de Chile before ending up at Santos in 2019.

"Everyone was talking about my height, that I was not going to be able to play football because of my size, because I was very small. Now I'm here, I got over it," Soteldo told the official Libertadores website.

"That's for the young ones who are little too. They can see Soteldo and say, 'I can too.' I did that with Messi. I saw he was small, that he made it and I can too."

Since his arrival in the Campeonato Brasileiro, it is not just his short stature and bleached blond hair that have made him stand out on the pitch.

Soteldo has established himself as one of the league's most potent wingers, his low centre of gravity, incredible pace and quick feet making him a serious threat when in possession out wide.

It is no surprise he has attempted more dribbles (308) than anyone else since the start of the 2019 Brasileiro, but it is what he does in those moments that makes him dangerous.

Soteldo averages a carry with a shot every other game (0.6) in Brazil's top flight and creates a chance following a carry at least once per 90 minutes (1.1) – a league-leading amount among players to have featured for at least 1,800 minutes over the past two seasons.

That ability has seen him directly set up five goals and score three following a carry, accounting for over one third of his 22 goal involvements (13 scored, nine assisted) in the competition.

It is tough for defenders to stop him and he is unrelenting. Per 90 minutes, he averages 5.3 carries of at least 10 metres and 3.8 carries with a take on – the latter being the most among active players in the division.

Stepping up

He has managed to translate that form to the Libertadores this season, with only Carlos Tevez (30) and Nicolas de la Cruz (31) supplying more key passes than Soteldo (28) in the competition.

However, Soteldo has played one game fewer and averages three chances created per game, so would be expected to move level with De la Cruz after the final.

Carries have again formed a key part of the Venezuelan's output, with 11 of his key passes coming after a carry – three more than any other player – though only one has resulted in an assist.

This does not mean Soteldo is consistently involved, though. In this season's Libertadores he has 22 direct chance involvements, where his only contribution in those open play sequences was to create the chance. No player in the competition has more direct chance involvements and it shows the 23-year-old is always capable of popping up with a killer ball.

The next step

Life at the Vila Belmiro has not been a walk in the park for Soteldo.

Santos accepted a transfer bid from Saudi Arabia's Al Hilal last October but Soteldo opted against the move because of his desire to play in Europe.

The Brazilian side were only keen to sell to avoid a punishment from FIFA over fees owed to Huachipato following his arrival at the club, with a financial crisis making his future look increasingly uncertain.

In South America's biggest club game, at one of the continent's most famous stadiums, Soteldo can have a huge say in what happens next for him.

His journey to this point proves he will not let anything stand in his way.   

Weverton and Gabriel Menino will be key to Palmeiras' hopes of defeating Santos in the Copa Libertadores final on Saturday, according to Zinho.

The former Brazil international, a World Cup winner in 1994, was part of the first and only Palmeiras side to lift the Libertadores in 1999.

Marcos made a crucial save in a penalty shoot-out as the Sao Paulo giants overcame Deportivo Cali on that occasion and Zinho believes their goalkeeper may prove key this year too.

"Their strength, for me, is the whole. But if you ask me to choose one, I would choose the goalkeeper, who for me is the best goalkeeper playing in Brazil, which is Weverton," Zinho told Stats Perform News.

In the Libertadores and Campeonato Brasileiro this season, Weverton has conceded 24 times from an expected goals on target (xGOT) value of 33.9, meaning he has prevented 9.9 goals.

Only Luan Polli (6.8) of Sport Recife and Athletico Paranaense's Santos (7.2) outperform his 5.3 goals prevented in the Brasileirao, while Sergio Rochet of Nacional (5.2) is the solitary keeper with a better figure than Weverton's 4.6 in the Libertadores.

The young star

Palmeiras are also blessed with young talent and Menino is undoubtedly part of their most promising players.

Having been converted from a midfielder to a right-back, it has been suggested Menino could be the long-term successor to Dani Alves for the Brazil national team.

The 20-year-old has already been called up twice by Tite but was robbed of a potential debut in November after contracting coronavirus.

"Gabriel Menino [can be important] because of his versatility. He plays on both sides, he plays in the middle. During the match, he also can play as a striker. He is very versatile and he is very important for the team," said Zinho.

Regardless of where he plays, Menino makes his impact felt for Palmeiras.

In the league this season he leads the team in assists (five), and his 34 chances created are only surpassed by Lucas Lima (40).

It doesn't stop there; Menino has the most successful passes in the opposition half (440), has won the joint-most fouls (48), completed the second-most dribbles (30) and won the second-most duels (139).

 

A potent attack

Menino has also scored three goals and supplied one assist in the Libertadores this season, but the competition has very much been Rony's domain.

"I will say these two guys [Weverton and Menino] are key players and they must be in the game. But, of course, Rony is one of the top scorers, one of the leaders in assists in this competition," said Zinho.

"Luiz Adriano is a great, experienced, very good player. So in the offensive part, that looks for the goal, there are Rony and Luiz Adriano with more evidence. So I stay with those players."

Rony has more goal involvements than any other player in the Libertadores this season (12 – seven assists, five goals) and two of his assists have been for former Milan striker Luiz Adriano, who has found the back of the net five times in his six appearances in this edition of the Libertadores.

A place in the Club World Cup is on the line and a potential meeting with Hansi Flick's all-conquering Bayern Munich in Qatar awaits.

"If Bayern go with their maximum strength and face the game seriously, man… in football anything can happen," said Zinho.

"In football you cannot say 'it's guaranteed', but the difference between them is so big, it's huge. Bayern is infinitely better. If Bayern go focused and with desire, looking for the title, probably all the favouritism is for Bayern. But this is football, and it's why it's so lovely."

Bayern Munich will face either Al-Duhail or Al Ahly in their Club World Cup semi-final on February 8.

The competition's draw took place on Tuesday in Zurich and confirmed European champions Bayern will tackle hosts Al-Duhail or CAF Champions League holders Al Ahly.

Al-Duhail secured their qualification as hosts by winning the Qatar Stars League in 2019-20, with no Qatari side managing to win the AFC Champions League.

Egyptian giants Al Ahly won African club football's biggest prize in November and qualified for the Club World Cup for the sixth time, having last appeared in 2013, which was also Bayern's only previous appearance.

Al-Duhail received a walkover into the second round after Auckland City, who had been nominated as Oceania's representative, pulled out due to coronavirus quarantine measures implemented by authorities in their native New Zealand.

The other second-round clash drawn on Tuesday will see AFC Champions League winners Ulsan Hyundai face CONCACAF champions Tigres of Mexico, who are making their first appearance.

Tigres or Ulsan will go forward from that tie to play the Copa Libertadores champions – Santos and Palmeiras are due to face off in an all-Brazilian final of that competition on January 30.

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