Just over five years ago, River Plate boasted two Copas Libertadores in their trophy cabinet and were celebrating their first Primera División title, following the humiliation of dropping down to the Nacional B. Having beaten out Boca Juniors to that crown in May, 2014, Millonario idol Ramón Díaz stepped aside to make way for young, untested Marcelo Gallardo to take over.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Under Gallardo, River Plate have become an irrepressible force in South American football, reaching the Libertadores semi-finals in four of the coach's five campaigns. On Saturday, they take the field in Lima's Estadio Monumental in the hope of an incredible third win since the coach assumed his position, a feat that would seal Gallardo's place among the likes of Carlos Bianchi, Tele Santana and Luis Cubilla as one of the greatest coaches in the competition's illustrious history.
It will not be easy, of course. Standing between the Millo and another triumph is fearsome Flamengo, a team stacked with talent recruited from among Brazil and Europe's best and directed by another wily tactician, Portuguese veteran Jorge Jesus. Not always do such continental finals bring together the two sides who can claim to be the best around; but it is hard to argue that either River or Flamengo are unworthy of their spot in this first-ever one-off Libertadores decider.
Unlike their opponents, the Rio de Janeiro outfit only have faint memories of lifting South America's most coveted club trophy. Not since 1981, when the incomparable Zico led them to glory, have Flamengo gone all the way in the Libertadores, and those 38 years of disappointment have been made all the harder to digest given the procession of Brazilian sides that, along with their Argentine counterparts, have dominated the medal count in the interim.
“They are great opponents. We are two very good teams. We have the same chance – two teams which are similar with respect to players and tactics,” Gallardo explained to reporters when quizzed on Flamengo. “We have a chance, I'd say we're might even be level. We will see later if a final with good football comes out.”
Although they may be a team that thinks first of attack and later about how to stop goals, River will have to be alert at the back. Fla duo Gabriel 'Gabigol' Barbosa and Bruno Henrique have smashed 69 goals between them in 2019 alone and will have to be nullified should Gallardo's charges stand a chance.
The Millo, in turn, will look to their stellar midfield and the likes of Enzo Pérez, Exequiel Palacios and Nacho Fernández to control the pace of the final, in the hope that the Brazilians' forward threat is starved through lack of service and that likely starting forward pair Rafael Borré and Matias Suárez can make the difference at the other end.
It will be an intriguing clash between two of South America's biggest, most talented clubs and a fitting stage for this first one-off final – which almost ended in debacle when its original venue Santiago was stripped of hosting rights just weeks before the ball starts rolling due to protests in Chile.
On one side Flamengo are gunning for the relief of title glory; for River and Gallardo, another step towards immortality.
Kick off: 5pm, this Saturday