David Luiz believes Flamengo "without a doubt" have the quality to play in the Champions League as they prepare for the Copa Libertadores final against Palmeiras.

Former Chelsea centre-back David Luiz joined Flamengo in September, ending a 14-year association with European football after his contract with Arsenal expired. 

Injuries have hampered his return to Brazilian domestic football, but his side have cruised to the final of South America's showpiece event with a perfect six wins beyond the group stage.

Indeed, the 34-year-old made his debut in the Libertadores semi-final against Barcelona SC following a lengthy spell on the sidelines after knee surgery when at Arsenal.

While Palmeiras remain focused on the weekend, David Luiz told Stats Perform how he believes Flamengo are good enough to play in Europe's premier club competition.

"I believe that is right," David Luiz responded when asked whether Flamengo could cut it in the Champions League.

"Flamengo are the first club to be organised to give players the opportunity to represent and do best what we have to do, and that is to play football the best way we can. 

"We have an amazing structure – high calibre players, players who have played in numerous places and have a lot of quality. I believe, yes, we have the quality to play in the Champions League, without a doubt."

Palmeiras are eyeing a title defence in Montevideo after succeeding in last year's final against Santos in CONMEBOL's top-tier club tournament.

Flamengo, meanwhile, are searching for their second South American title in three seasons, and former right-back and now Cruzeiro assistant manager Juliano Belletti told Stats Perform how the pair have reached a class above in Brazilian football.

"It's a fact that Palmeiras and Flamengo have reached another level here within Brazilian football," Belletti said.

"With the signings that were made, the investment, both on and off the pitch. It's interesting to highlight that too. The structure of the clubs has changed a lot, for the better. 

"That's why they deserve to be in the Libertadores final. It's a match of great technical quality, which often goes against the spirit of the Libertadores that many people talk about.

"We see Palmeiras and Flamengo coming through, playing great football. They played good football to reach the final, a well-balanced game, and they deserved to be in this final match."

However, Belletti – who enjoyed spells with Barcelona and Chelsea during his playing days – was more measured in his response when asked the same question about Flamengo's Champions League credentials.

"The technical quality doesn't define a team's capacity to play or not in a competition like the Champions League," Belletti responded. 

"But there are players of quality that could play in teams that compete in the Champions League. That's for sure."

Juliano Belletti believes Barcelona and Real Madrid can make memories to last for many years in Sunday's Clasico as he recalled being on the team that swept aside the famous 'Galacticos'.

Brazilian full-back Belletti spent three seasons at Camp Nou between 2004 and 2007, winning two LaLiga titles and scoring the winner in the 2006 Champions League final against Arsenal.

He featured in four games against Los Blancos for the Blaugrana, winning one, losing one and drawing two.

The 45-year-old, who is now assistant manager at Brazilian club Cruzeiro, reflected on the stature of the historic fixture and cast his mind back to his first Clasico after arriving in Catalonia.

"Most of the best players in the world are [at Barcelona and Real Madrid]," Belletti told Stats Perform. "So, just being involved is already special. Barca and [Real] Madrid have fans all over the world. We are aware of it as football players. And when we are not involved in El Clasico, whether we are from the football world or not, we are watching this game.

"There is top quality football, there is big rivalry. There is so much history and it is something global. It is not only about LaLiga. That's why I believe the impact of the result of this game, winning or losing, is incredible. That's all what makes this Clasico special.

"My first Barca v Madrid was at Camp Nou in 2004. We faced 'Los Galacticos' of Real Madrid. It was very special for me to be there at that time.

"Besides, we won that game 3-0. It was even more special as my first time playing against 'Los Galacticos' and winning the game. And even nowadays my family remembers that day."

 

David Beckham, Roberto Carlos, Luis Figo, Zinedine Zidane and Brazilian striker Ronaldo were all in the Madrid team in that November 2004 game, with Samuel Eto'o, Giovanni van Bronckhorst and Ronaldinho scoring for Barcelona.

Belletti says those that feature in this weekend's game will already feel, with some justification, that they have made it in the game.

"This sport is very competitive," Belletti said. "Reaching Barca or Real [Madrid] is a very high level, so demanding, a very hard-working culture. So, being there, you think: 'Oh my god, I did well. Now it is time to enjoy it.'"

Barcelona have been experiencing a decline of late, with the Catalan giants failing to win the league in their last two seasons and not claiming a Champions League title since 2015.

Furthermore, financial difficulties prevented the club from offering Lionel Messi a new contract, with the six-time Ballon d'Or winner joining Paris Saint-Germain on a free transfer, and Barca started this year poorly in his absence.

They have won their last two games, however, beating Valencia 3-1 in LaLiga and Dynamo Kiev 1-0 in the Champions League as under-pressure head coach Ronald Koeman looks to generate momentum ahead of the first Clasico of the campaign, possibly a pivotal match in his reign.

Barcelona's youngsters can help the club emerge from their transitional period as a stronger side, according to former full-back Juliano Belletti.

The Catalan giants have endured a difficult time of things on and off the field of late, with a solitary Copa del Rey triumph all they have to show for the last two seasons.

Barca finished outside the top two in LaLiga last term for the first time in 13 seasons and are down in seventh place eight games into the 2021-22 campaign.

Due to the club's well-documented financial problems, with their debts amounting to €1.35billion, they were unable to keep hold of legendary forward Lionel Messi during the close season.

As well as being off the pace in LaLiga, Ronald Koeman's men have also kicked off their Champions League campaign with successive 3-0 losses to Bayern Munich and Benfica.

It is the first time Barca have lost back-to-back group games in a single season since 2000-01, putting added importance on Wednesday's clash with Dynamo Kiev.

But while many are questioning whether the 26-time Spanish champions are a fading force, Belletti insists what his former side are going through is completely normal.

Belletti has personal experience of helping Barca return to the top of Spanish and European football after the previous barren spell that saw them go five seasons without a trophy between 1999 and 2005.

Then a Brazil international, Belletti arrived from Villarreal ahead of the 2004-05 campaign and was a regular in that season's LaLiga triumph.

He also lifted the title in a memorable second campaign at Camp Nou that also saw him score the winner in the Champions League final against Arsenal – his only goal for the club.

Fourteen years on from his departure, Belletti can see a similar scenario playing out in Catalonia.

"It is very weird for world football to see what's going on at Barcelona lately," he said. "However, I see it as a transition: from what has happened last season, to a new era of the club. 

"When you change something as Barcelona has done it, there are always difficulties and tough times. And you should know how to deal with them. 

"Barca has already dealt with them at times in their history. It is not the first time. When I arrived at Barcelona in 2004, the club was in a dry titles run for five years. 

"It was seen as a very big crisis, so much pressure, many critics… and we were able to change the way. It is exactly what it is going to happen again. 

"Nevertheless, as Barcelona is very global nowadays, their issues are very global too. 

"It's a very well-known club, with many fans all over the world… so, pressure is different to what it used to be a few years ago. But I think it is normal. 

"They will go through it. There are going to be many tough times, but the current president has experience on how to fix this situation."

Belletti, who made 102 appearances for Barcelona before joining Chelsea in 2007, added: "Nobody is perfect and I can guarantee the work is really hard and complicated when you work in a global company. 

"You need people around you who support you, especially in football. All of us we go through difficulties. We are managing a small, medium or huge company. In that process, there are difficulties. 

"What happens to Barcelona is due to its huge size, meaning that difficulties are huge too. They haven't won trophies and it has been tough to keep youngsters like they used to do it and that affects into the pitch."

One positive for Barca this season has been the continuation of their proud history of transforming academy hopefuls into first-team stars.

The average age of Koeman's side this season is 24.9, considerably down on the 27.2 from four seasons ago. That ranks Barca as the team with the third-youngest side in LaLiga this term behind only Real Sociedad (24.2) and Valencia (24.3).

And Belletti is hopeful the likes of Gavi and Ansu Fati, the latter of whom has taken on Messi's famous number 10 shirt, can help Barca get back on track.

"It is what all of us hope, because La Masia has already proved on being able to solve many issues of the club with its own talents," he said. "That transition from the academy to the pro football is one of the main issues to many clubs in the world. 

"However, Barca knows how to do it. They have to work for getting the benefit of this. Youngsters have the talent, as the club has proved already in the past, for being in a top table of best players in the world. 

"So, it has to be invested on them. And especially protect them when there is more pressure around in order to avoid those direct pressures on their performances. 

"On the other hand, they are aware of that pressure and deal with it because they have been educated in that way, so they become Barcelona players."

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