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.

Related items

  • Wigan Warriors reveal interest in buying Wigan Athletic Wigan Warriors reveal interest in buying Wigan Athletic

    Wigan Warriors have announced their interest in buying financially troubled football club Wigan Athletic.

    The Championship side went into administration last week and the English Football League confirmed a 12-point deduction would be imposed, though only if they finish outside the bottom three.

    However, an appeal has been launched over the penalty, as confirmed by joint administrator Gerald Krasner on Tuesday. 

    Wigan Athletic sit 16th in the table, six points clear of the relegation zone.

    Led by Warriors chairman Ian Lenagan and chief executive Gary Speakman, as well as former Oxford United owner Darryl Eales, the rugby league club have outlined their plan to purchase the Latics, with the bid backed by the local council.

    "Being born and bred in Wigan, Ian Lenagan and Gary Speakman understand what both clubs mean to the local community," a statement from the Warriors said.

    "We strongly believe that Wigan Athletic is better being locally owned.

    "As sustainability and ownership of the stadium is equally important to both clubs, we are currently working with our long-standing advisers KPMG and talking to external parties.

    "Our intention is to identify other investors quickly and start due diligence on the football club with the intention of making a bid in due course. We have made the administrators aware of our interest and hope to explore this with them further over the days ahead.

    "Wigan Warriors and Wigan Athletic are both local sporting institutions and it is our belief that this is a unique opportunity here to bring the ownership of these two great clubs together under one roof, each operating independently as before, but under a 'Wigan Sporting Partnership' banner."

    "It is envisaged that each club would retain all its training grounds, management and facilities."

  • Guardiola hopes Messi stays at Barcelona Guardiola hopes Messi stays at Barcelona

    Pep Guardiola has reiterated he wants to see Lionel Messi stay at Barcelona.

    Barca talisman Messi is out of contract in 2021 and there is fresh speculation the six-time Ballon d’Or winner may wish to leave the club, who have not won the Champions League since 2015.

    The forward has often been linked with a move to Manchester City to play under his former Camp Nou coach Guardiola.

    But the City boss was reluctant to discuss transfers ahead of Wednesday's Premier League home match against Newcastle United.

    He also stressed his stance on Messi has not changed, having previously expressed his hope the Argentine remains with Barca when questioned on the topic.

    "I'm not going to speak about transfers until the end of the season," he said. "My wish is that Messi is going to stay in Barcelona."

    Asked if a new centre-back was in his plans, he added: "At the end of the season. We still have incredible targets to fight for."

    Meanwhile, Guardiola insisted he had no influence on where City's Champions League last-16 second leg against Real Madrid will be played, with a decision due this week.

    City lead the tie 2-1 after a win at Santiago Bernabeu before the coronavirus lockdown and reports suggested Guardiola had lobbied UEFA over playing the return leg in Manchester rather than at a neutral venue.

    "I am not strong enough to have this impact," he said.

    "I am not a president. They have protocols. I have never spoken with UEFA. I have said many times that we want to play in Manchester but we are going to accept wherever UEFA decide to play.

    "What I want is to play against Madrid. This is what I want but I didn't make phone calls, I don't have this power."

    The club are also getting closer to finding out the verdict from the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) as they appeal against their two-year Champions League ban.

    "On July 10 it is the [Champions League quarter-final] draw and [July] 13 will be the sentence," Guardiola added.

    "After that, I will give my opinion. We wait for the resolution from UEFA. This season is not going to change. It is so beautiful what we have in front of us."

  • Guardiola: Man City cannot afford same mistakes against Arsenal and Madrid Guardiola: Man City cannot afford same mistakes against Arsenal and Madrid

    Pep Guardiola has warned his Manchester City players that failure to turn dominance into goals and making mistakes will cost them if repeated against Arsenal and Real Madrid.

    City fell to a shock 1-0 defeat at Southampton on Sunday, their ninth loss of the Premier League campaign leaving them 23 points adrift of champions Liverpool.

    Che Adams lobbed goalkeeper Ederson after City lost possession and despite 26 shots from the visitors – just six of which were on target – it proved to be the only goal of the game.

    Guardiola feels one-off mistakes and his side being unable to take their chances has proven damaging this season.

    He insists there is no room for a repeat ahead of key upcoming matches against Arsenal and Madrid in the FA Cup semi-final and Champions League last 16.

    "We played really good in terms of what we wanted to do, the commitment with the players after two or three successful seasons is still unbelievable," Guardiola said ahead of Wednesday's home league game against Newcastle United.

    "But we are in the point that sometimes we make a mistake that we have to avoid in some games and are punished as a team. And in some games the lack of goals punish us as a team.

    "In the semi-final against Arsenal and Madrid this is the reality. We can play the way we played, I don't have doubts this is going to happen and if we are consistent in both boxes, we have a big chance or opportunity to go through.

    "But if what happened against Southampton and other games this season like Tottenham home and away or Norwich away, where we dropped points, we will be out and Arsenal and Madrid will go through.

    "That is the reality we have to accept. We can be lucky to convert what we produce and defend the less we concede.

    "But I don't have any doubts that the team will be there to compete like we have done all season. That is my feeling. We still have incredible targets to fight for."

    Guardiola acknowledged a lack of consistency compared to title rivals Liverpool was what really set City back.

    He added: "Our consistency has been missing. We've not converted our game plan and in this business you have to win. 

    "When you lose nine games you cannot win the Premier League right now – maybe years ago. The champions have to score above 90 points so when you lose nine games you cannot win the league. 

    "I was not able to solve the problem that we have had since the beginning. I remember the game against Tottenham at home, they had two shots on target and we shot more than 20 and we drew. 

    "It happened in the second game in the league and the last game against Southampton was similar. I was not able to change this dynamic."

© 2020 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.