Last Wednesday, Grêmio were crowned champions of the Libertadores, South America’s premier club competition, and the trophy could not have gone to a more deserving home. A combination of young talents and old, experienced players were moulded into the finest team on the continent by manager Renato Portaluppi, who by winning the tournament became the first Brazilian to do so as player and manager.
And they did it playing football. Genuinely attractive, passing, attacking, collective football: something far rarer than it should be in Brazil. Something, hopefully, that is starting to return. The style was first implanted under Roger Machado in 2015 and has been perfected by Renato, who is also a master of managing the psychological aspect of his players’ performance.
From back to front, Grêmio boast a side replete with both resilience and ability, a side that is the envy of many others in Brazil and even further afield.
The goalkeeper Marcelo Grohe was instrumental in the success, producing a save in the semi-final against Barcelona of Ecuador that was widely compared to Gordon Banks’ effort in the 1970 World Cup and another in the first leg of the final, with the score still delicately balanced at 0-0, that was almost as good and even more vital.
Pedro Geromel, the towering centre-back, organiser and general of the side was dubbed the new ‘Captain America’ in the Brazilian press, in reference to the great Gremio captains of their two other Libertadores winning sides, Hugo De Leon, from 1983, and Adilson, who led the side in 1995.
Further forward, there was new blood. 21-year-old Arthur is not a lot to look at physically, but he is perhaps the Gremio player with the brightest future. A composed, cerebral presence, he dictated the tempo of games from the middle of midfield, rarely missing a beat.
Arthur passes and moves into space with the graceful style of Andres Iniesta, constantly searching for angles to give and receive the ball, looking at times like a chess player with the ability to think three moves ahead of his opponent. He was man of the match in the final, despite the fact that he came off injured after just 50 minutes. It is no surprise, following their continental success, that Arthur has been linked to the likes of Barcelona.
For everything you need to know about support striker Luan, named player of the tournament, you need only look as far as the second goal in the return leg of the final, an away game in Lanus’ hostile old ground, referred to in Argentina as ‘La Fortaleza’.
He received a bouncing ball around 35 yards from goal and paused momentarily to observe the situation unfolding ahead. With three Lanus players to beat he took one, two, three touches with the outside of his right foot before a quick flick of the eyes and drop of the shoulder sent two defenders crashing into each other. Then came another gentle touch to take it round the strewn bodies and a little glance towards the advancing Esteban Andrada. With the untroubled manner of a teenager playing in the park he proceeded to gently scoop it over the keeper’s outstretched arm and run towards the 5,000 travelling fans as it nestled deliciously into the corner of the onion bag.
There have been others, too. Veteran striker Lucas Barrios has looked revived under the tutelage of Renato and players that nobody else would take a chance on, like Bruno Cortez, Cicero and Leo Moura have all played significant supporting roles.
The most important part of this journey for Grêmio and their fans, however, still lies ahead. On Tuesday, they travel to the United Arab Emirates for the Club World Cup. This tournament, for South Americans, takes precedence over all others as it is their only chance to prove themselves against top European opposition.
Grêmio will be looking to repeat the feat they managed in 1983, when current manager Renato Portaluppi scored twice in a 2-1 win over Hamburg to lift what was then known as the Intercontinental Cup.
It is no longer 1983, though. The gap between the best European clubs and their South American counterparts has grown wider and wider with each passing year. Gremio go into the tournament as massive underdogs against the all-conquering Real Madrid, winners of the 2017 Champions League.
Before any potential final against Real, mind you, Gremio will have to get past either Wydad Casablanca, this year’s African titleholders, or Pachuca of Mexico, winners of the 2017 CONCACAF Champions League, the game taking place on Tuesday 12th December.
This will be no easy task. Last year, Colombia’s Atletico Nacional went to the tournament full of confidence after winning the Libertadores and getting to the final of the Copa Sudamericana with a delightful, eye-catching side. They could not make it past their first game, falling to Kashima Antlers of Japan by a humiliating 3-0 scoreline.
The last Brazilian team to take part in the tournament also went down at the penultimate hurdle, Atlético Mineiro losing to Raja Casablanca – Wydad’s bitter local rivals – by three goals to one in 2013.
Grêmio will be without the aforementioned Arthur, who ruptured an ankle ligament just before half-time in the second leg of the final, and could also be without Pedro Geromel who has travelled but has a problem in his left shoulder that he picked up in the closing moments against Lanús.
It will, then, be interesting to see how Renato sets out his stall. The last South American side to win the Club World Cup were Corinthians in 2012 and they did so by defending deep and hoping to nick a goal on the counter-attack. It worked to great effect, with goalkeeper Cássio putting in two man-of-the-match performances to win himself the prize for player of the tournament and big centre-forward Paolo Guerrero popping up with two goals, one in each game, to take the trophy back to São Paulo.
It is difficult to see Renato copying those tactics in his quest to repeat what Tite, now manager of the Seleção, did five years ago. If he did it would be turning his back on all the wonderful work he and his team have done this season, building the attractive style that led them to continental success.
Grêmio, with the quality at their disposal, may well be good enough to play their way past Pachuca or Wydad Casablanca. But if they make it to the final, surely it will be a different story. Going toe-to-toe with Real Madrid, despite the fact that they are not in a particularly good run of form, would be suicide, wouldn’t it?
So, that leaves their manager with a dilemma. Will they copy Corinthians’ style, defending deep and hoping to take advantage of space left behind the defence, or will they go and attack, at the risk of leaving gaps for the likes of Benzema, Isco, Asensio and Cristiano Ronaldo to exploit?
Only time will tell, but I certainly hope it is the latter. Sometimes it is more important to stick to your principles than to go for the win at all costs.