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Argentina has drawn first blood in South America’s 2021 calendar of international club football, with Defensa y Justicia beating Palmeiras of Brazil on penalties to win the Recopa on Wednesday.

And blood was nearly more than a metaphor in a bad tempered affair that featured a flare up between the two substitute benches.

Defensa y Justicia‘s triumph was quite a surprise, given that Palmeiras were hot favourites to win this title for three reasons.

While this is the annual clash between the winners of the Copa Libertadores, the continent’s Champions League, and the Copa Sudamericana, the Europa League equivalent, the difference in prestige between the two trophies is enormous. The Libertadores is by far the main event, while the Sudamericana is something of a consolation prize. As Libertadores holders, Palmeiras have been crowned the best team in South America.

There is also a massive difference between the two clubs. Palmeiras are a big outfit, a giant team from Sao Paulo, the biggest city in South America, with the backing of the huge local Italian community. Defensa y Justicia are basically a neighbourhood club, one of many in the suburbs of Buenos Aires. Well managed, they have made remarkable strides in the last few years, but they cannot match Palmeiras in tradition or resources.

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And third, Palmeiras won the first leg away from home, returning from Buenos Aires with a 2-1 win. A draw in Brasilia would have been enough to put another trophy in the cabinet.

That first leg win for Palmeiras was the fruit of the style of play they have developed under Portuguese coach Abel Ferreira, with a dependence on counter attacks and set pieces. It has been very effective on their home continent — Palmeiras won the Brazilian Cup as well as the Libertadores — but its limitations were brutally exposed just over two months ago in the Club World Cup, when they finished fourth after failing to score, and barely creating a chance, in two matches. Theirs is a low risk model which is not always easy on the eye.

It looked like being enough to seal this title when they took an early second leg lead from the penalty spot. Perhaps, though, the goal gave them an extra reason for caution. As they sat back, Defensa y Justicia started to hit their stride.

This little club have shown an encouraging commitment to an expansive, possession based game, using the full width of the pitch as they circulate the ball intelligently. Former international striker Hernan Crespo was in charge when they won the Sudamericana back in January. He then moved on to Sao Paulo in Brazil, opening up space for the return of the young and talented, if somewhat hot-headed Sebastian Beccacece.

Coaches have come and gone, but the idea remains similar. They cannot hope to match the likes of Palmeiras for individual talent but, if they have the ball, the opposition cannot shine. The Argentines passed their way back into contention, equalised before the half hour and started to impose themselves on the game. But they still seemed to be heading for aggregate defeat, despite Palmeiras having left-back Matias Vina sent off halfway through the second half.

There was plenty of passing and lots of probing, but a dearth of real chances — until, deep in stoppage time, a clearance fell to left-back Marcelo Benitez. He had already tested Palmeiras keeper Weverton with the power of his left-footed shooting, and now he blasted a beauty into the corner, forcing extra time.

Palmeiras soon had their second penalty of the night, like the first given with the aid of VAR. But Raphael Veiga, who had scored from the spot, had already been substituted. Up stepped Paraguayan centre-back Gustavo Gomez. He had a long wait. Tensions on the touchline boiled over, and there was a mass fracass after which Braian Romero, the first goal-scorer for Defensa y Justicia, was also sent off.

The wait perhaps unnerved Gomez, whose weak shot was saved. And with both sides now down to 10 men, and lots of tired limbs on the field, there were no further chances.

Palmeiras lost a penalty shootout to Al Ahly of Egypt two months ago in the third place off match of the Club World Cup. And last Sunday they blew two match points on this very Brasilia pitch and lost another one when the Brazilian Supercopa against Flamengo went to penalties.

Might it be third time lucky? It seemed so when Gomez took the same penalty, apparently with the same result — keeper Ezequiel Unsain diving left to make the block — but the ball somehow squirmed behind him and into the net. Was it a sign? It was not. Striker Luiz Adriano shot wide, keeper Weverton took his chance and blazed over the bar — and little Defensa y Justicia could celebrate a famous night.

Palmeiras will not have to wait long for revenge. The two clubs are in the same group in this year’s Libertadores, which gets underway next week.

There has already been one Brazilian success over Argentina in the qualifying round, with last year’s beaten finalists Santos riding out a late wobble to eliminate San Lorenzo 5-3 on aggregate.

Since the format of the competition was lengthened in 2017 to cover the entire year, Brazil and Argentina have dominated the Libertadores.

Since then there has been one all Brazilian final, one all Argentine affair, and two times when Brazilian clubs have beaten opposition from Argentina to claim the title.

Brazil, then, have shaded the dispute when it really matters. But Wednesday night in Brasilia belonged to little Defensa y Justicia of Argentina.



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