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.

Santos set up an all-Brazilian Copa Libertadores final with an impressive 3-0 win over Boca Juniors on Wednesday.

Goals from Diego Pituca, Yeferson Soteldo and Lucas Braga saw Santos to a comfortable home victory against Boca, sealing a semi-final success after the first leg finished goalless.

Frank Fabra was sent off in the second half for the visitors, Santos moving into the Copa Libertadores final for the first time since 2011.

They will meet Palmeiras at the Maracana on January 30 in the first all-Brazilian decider since 2006.

After flares were parachuted onto the pitch ahead of kick-off, Marinho hit the post for Santos inside the opening minute.

But amid penalty shouts for a handball, Pituca scrambled in the first goal of the tie for Santos in the 16th minute.

Soteldo doubled the lead early in the second half, stepping inside from the left before powering a finish into the top corner at Esteban Andrada's near post.

Santos sealed their win in the 51st minute, Braga tapping in after brilliant work down the right from Marinho.

Boca's chances of a comeback were ended when Fabra saw red five minutes later after stomping on Marinho's stomach.

Palmeiras reached their first Copa Libertadores final since 2000 after edging River Plate despite a thrilling second-leg loss on Tuesday.

First-half goals from Robert Rojas and Rafael Santos Borre had River on track to sensationally overturn a 3-0 deficit in the semi-finals in Sao Paulo.

Champions in 2018, River had a goal ruled out early in the second half and a penalty call overturned after Rojas' red card, Palmeiras holding on for a 3-2 aggregate victory.

River found their way back into the tie before half-time.

Rojas produced a brilliant header from a Nicolas De La Cruz corner before Borre nodded in a Matias Suarez cross in the 44th minute.

River thought they had levelled the tie in the 52nd minute, but Gonzalo Montiel's volley was ruled out for offside following a VAR check.

There was more drama to follow.

Rojas was sent off in the 73rd minute after being shown a second yellow card.

But River were awarded a penalty just two minutes later for a challenge by Alan Empereur on Suarez, only for the decision to be overturned following a VAR check.

There was another check for a penalty for River in the 100th minute, but Palmeiras held on to move into the final against either Santos or Boca Juniors.

Boca Juniors were held to a 0-0 draw by Santos in the first leg of their Copa Libertadores semi-final on Wednesday.

Neither team was able to find a breakthrough in a cagey clash at La Bombonera.

The goalless draw, in which there were just four shots on target, leaves the tie wide open ahead of the return leg in Santos on January 13.

Sebastian Villa hit the crossbar for six-time champions Boca in the eighth minute, although the forward was offside.

Both teams pushed for a goal but struggled to create much of note.

Santos, who last reached the Libertadores final in 2011, had a late penalty shout turned down after Marinho appeared to be brought down by Carlos Izquierdoz.

Palmeiras closed in on their first Copa Libertadores final appearance since 2000 after a stunning 3-0 win over River Plate on Tuesday.

The Brazilian outfit produced an emphatic display in the first leg of the semi-final in Argentina.

Rony opened the scoring and Luiz Adriano doubled the lead early in the second half, with Matias Vina sealing the win after Jorge Carrascal was sent off for River.

River, finalists in the previous two editions of the Libertadores, fell behind in the 27th minute after a huge error.

Franco Armani dealt poorly with a cross, his clearance with his feet falling to Rony, whose volley beat the River goalkeeper via a slight deflection.

Palmeiras – who had another effort ruled out for offside in the first half – doubled their lead shortly after the break.

Luiz Adriano easily turned Robert Rojas after a pass from Danilo before producing a fine composed finish past Armani.

Making matters worse for River, Carrascal was sent off for a rash challenge on Gabriel Menino on the hour-mark.

And the hosts were punished almost immediately, Vina heading in a Gustavo Scarpa set-piece to make it 3-0.

Palmeiras went close to adding a fourth late on, but River have a huge mountain to climb in the second leg in Sao Paulo on January 12.

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