Copa Libertadores final: Europe beckons again for rejuvenated Flamengo star Gabigol

By Sports Desk November 22, 2019

When Gabriel Barbosa made his senior debut as a 16-year-old in Neymar's emotional Santos farewell in May 2013, it was anticipated an avalanche of goals and glory would follow.

Not many would have foreseen that expectation borne out six years later at Flamengo – Santos' opponents that tearful day – who he will hope to inspire to Copa Libertadores glory against defending champions River Plate in Lima on Saturday.

There were trophies initially and, predictably for a player nicknamed 'Gabigol' for his prolific finishing in the youth ranks, goals. Two Campeonato Paulista titles arrived before a pair of international campaigns of differing success; after a frustrating Copa America Centenario, he helped Brazil claim an eagerly awaited gold medal at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. That, and a record of 56 goals in 153 appearances for Santos, convinced Inter to part with a reported €25million and give Gabriel a five-year contract on his 20th birthday.

Things did not go to plan at San Siro, though. He was used for just 16 minutes during Frank de Boer's abysmal 85-day tenure and continued to figure largely from the bench under Stefano Pioli for the majority of 2016-17. An angry outburst at not being brought on against Sampdoria was followed by an ill-advised walk-out against Lazio, with the game ongoing, after the third substitute was used.

It was the final straw for Inter and he was shipped out on loan to Benfica. However, his attitude remained an issue. After finding out he was not in the squad for a Primeira Liga match against Vitoria Setubal in November, Gabriel was photographed at a nightclub where he had reportedly been drinking and remained until 06:00 local time on the day of the game.

Then-Benfica coach Rui Vitoria has since suggested Gabriel arrived at the wrong time and perhaps needed "another context", which he found by cutting his stay at the Estadio da Luz short. After accumulating 106 minutes across four appearances in five months, the Menino da Vila went home to Santos in January 2018.

Unabashed by his shortcomings across the Atlantic, Gabriel thrived in familiar surroundings. He scored his first hat-trick in a Copa do Brasil clash against Luverdense the following May and struck 18 times in the league, earning recognition as the competition's best striker.

"It was an important year for me individually. I increased my goalscoring averages and was the top scorer in the Brasileirao and the Copa do Brasil," said Gabriel.

The striker's displays led to links with Premier League side West Ham, but he remained in Brazil and joined Flamengo for his next loan stint. He has retained the momentum he was desperate to establish at Inter and reached new levels at the Maracana.

Gabriel has been at his predatory best, scoring a stunning 38 goals in 53 appearances in all competitions as part of Jorge Jesus' formidable, free-flowing attack. The Flamengo fans have become so feverish that a cry of 'Hoje tem gol do Gabigol' – Gabigol is going to score today – was heard when the crowd at the O2 Arena in London hushed as Stefanos Tsitsipas readied a serve in his ATP Finals victory over Dominic Thiem.

Leading them to a second Libertadores title this weekend would no doubt secure him a place as an icon in the club's history.

However, questions still remain for Jesus. Gabriel scored the only goal in a victory over Gremio on Sunday but a hot-headed moment earned him two yellow cards in quick succession – the first for berating the assistant referee and the second for sarcastically applauding the initial booking. As he walked off, he provoked the opposition supporters by counting to five on his right hand, a reference to the 5-0 thrashing Jesus' side handed Gremio to book their place in the Libertadores showpiece in Lima.

"Gabi is the top goalscorer in the league, he wanted to play for many reasons and mainly because he wanted to score goals, but if I knew this would happen I wouldn't have played him," said Jesus, whose side will be crowned champions of Brazil if Palmeiras fail to beat Gremio on Sunday.

"The situation worries me a lot. I haven't been able to make him a great player emotionally yet, as he is technically and tactically. I haven't done it yet, but I think it has to go little by little.

"I have time to make him a great player. For example, [Lionel] Messi and [Cristiano] Ronaldo don't have this aspect in their career."

Gabriel is by no means the finished article and while he has developed into a mature forward physically, he remains prone to petulance.

However, he has packed a lot into his career and is still just 23 years old. His performances at Flamengo suggest that with the right man management he is far more likely to make a success of an inevitable second stab at Europe. A positive role in a victory against River will underline that.

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