The 2023 Copa Libertadores final is nearly upon us.
Argentinian giants Boca Junior are looking to win South America’s most prestigious cup competition for the seventh time – but the first time since 2007. Doing so would see them draw level with fellow Argentinian club Independiente as the Libertadores’ all-time most successful side.
Standing in their way are Brazilian club Fluminense, who have never won it. They’re coached by the innovative Fernando Diniz, who is also currently in charge of Brazil and favours a style of play heavily influenced by futsal and individualism.
Unfortunately, former Manchester United defender Marcos Rojo is suspended for the final after (shock horror) receiving a red card in the semis. But there are plenty of other players worth looking out for. We’ve picked out six.
You’ll know Romero as the goalkeeper who curiously spent the prime years of his career turning out as Argentina’s No.1 while warming the benches of clubs across Europe; most notably Manchester United, where he served as David de Gea’s backup between 2015 and 2021.
But now he’s back in his home country and turning out regularly for one of Argentina’s biggest clubs, enjoying an Indian summer at the age of 36. Romero already has the Argentinian Primera Division title and a Supercopa under his belt since signing for Boca in 2022. Now he’s on the cusp of what would be his biggest achievement of his career.
Regular watchers of Boca will tell you this isn’t a vintage Boca side. They sit 10th in the 2023 Primera Division Group B, having taken just 11 points from 11 games. They’ve won just two of their last 16 matches in all competitions over 90 minutes. And yet they’re through to the semi-finals of the Copa Argentina and the final of the Libertadores.
In the cup competitions they’ve shown a great knack for making it through by hook or crook – and Romero has been vital in that. In recent weeks they’ve won no fewer than five penalty shootouts, with their ‘keeper emulating the World Cup heroics of his compatriot Emiliano Martinez.
Romero has been pretty handy in open play, too, conceding just five goals shots worth expected goals rate of 8.8xG (via Opta) in the competition– he boasts a stunning save ratio of 87%, having saved 34 of the 39 shots on target he’s faced. It’ll take some beating a ‘keeper in inspired form.
Sergio Romero: “Today is the most emotional day of my football career, along with the semi-final against Netherlands in 2014.”
He has saved 6 penalties in this edition of Copa Libertadores.
No goalkeeper has ever done something like this in a single edition of the tournament. pic.twitter.com/c0Snqomrni
— All About Argentina 🛎🇦🇷 (@AlbicelesteTalk) October 6, 2023
It’s fully expected that the 19-year-old will become a regular for Argentina and spend his career turning out in one of Europe’s major leagues. Tune into the Libertadores final and you can win hipster points saying you knew Barco was destined for the top from when you watched him at Boca.
Chelsea, Manchester City and Brighton are all reportedly chasing the teenager’s signature and it would be no surprise at all to see him cross the Atlantic in January.
Barco made his name as a left-back but he’s played more of an advanced winger role of late. How he fares up against veteran Fluminense right-back Samuel Xavier could potentially be one of the final’s defining battles.
You won’t miss him with that hair. Surely there’s some Scottish heritage there. Steve Clarke, call him up.
Valentín Barco, 19 anos, do Boca Juniors, tem uma cláusula de rescisão de € 10 milhões. 👀 pic.twitter.com/HhL6sIr9O0
— GonçaloDias17 (@goncalo_diass17) November 3, 2023
You can tick off ‘ageing South American superstar’ off your Copa Libertadores bingo card.
Cavani reportedly wanted to join Boca back in 2021 before he was convinced to stay at Manchester United. The arrival of Cristiano Ronaldo meant that was all a waste of time, while his year with a Valencia side that only narrowly avoided relegation wasn’t much better.
Better late than never though, and the experienced Uruguayan in that iconic strip just looks right.
Unfortunately it looks as though age is finally catching up with him, though. Marcelo Bielsa doesn’t call him up for the national team and a record of three goals in 13 appearances for Boca is pretty ordinary.
Still, you wouldn’t be at all surprised if he turns up for the big occasion.
Set to play his 100th Copa Libertadores match, Fluminense’s goalkeeper is 43 years old(!) and made his professional debut back in 1997.
Fabio played almost 1000 matches for Cruzeiro and has added another hundred since signing for Fluminense back in 2022.
He was part of Brazil’s Copa America-winning squad all the way back in 2004 and finished a Libertadores runner-up with Cruzeiro in 2009 but this would be the crowning glory of his wonderfully lengthy career.
Liverpool reportedly pushed hard to sign the defensive midfielder in the summer, but he didn’t want to depart Fluminense while they remained in South America’s biggest club competition.
That loyalty has been rewarded as they’ve made it all the way to the final. Andre has developed into one of his boyhood club’s best and most important players; he could yet have the perfect send-off, with reports suggesting that everything has been agreed for the move to Anfield in January.
He looks the real deal.
The striker has never received a cap for Argentina and at the age 35, time is running out. But he’s aged like a fine wine and Lionel Scaloni could do worse than calling up Cano, who has scored 80 goals in 123 Fluminense appearances.
He’s been particularly lethal in the Libertadores, with 12 goals in the run to the final. That’s the best goalscoring run of any player in the competition since Palhinha almost half a century ago (1976).
We also like him because he named his daughter ‘Leonella’ in honour of Lionel Messi and his wife Antonella after Argentina’s World Cup triumph last year. Sweet.