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CONMEBOL Libertadores

The new Mourinho? Palmeiras boss Abel Ferreira taking inspiration from 'the Special One' with second Copa Libertadores triumph

12:00 GMT 01/12/2021
Abel Ferreira Palmeiras
The Portuguese coach's tactical excellence proved crucial for the Verdao as they upset Flamengo to clinch a second consecutive continental title

Abel Ferreira is not your run of the mill football coach.

The 42-year-old Portuguese has become famed for his unorthodox behaviour and hyperactive touchline manner since taking over at Palmeiras.

Whether he is jotting down tactical notes on the palm of his hand, checking up on potential signings via Football Manager or dedicating big victories to his annoying neighbour - “He's a pain... but he's quiet now!” he said of the mystery resident after downing Atletico Mineiro in the Copa Libertadores semi-final – Ferreira's off-field antics are often more entertaining than the football his side plays.

But you cannot argue with success. Palmeiras retained their Libertadores title on Saturday with a nail-biting 2-1 extra-time win over favourites Flamengo, sealing Ferreira's spot in the pantheon of the competition's greatest coaches.

Only four trainers have managed to win multiple Libertadores crowns since the start of the 21st century.

In the last 30 years, moreover, just two teams prior to Palmeiras had successfully defended their South American title: Tele Santana's great Sao Paulo side of the early 90s, led by the likes of World Cup winners Rai, Zetti, Cafu and Muller, and Boca Juniors, who under Carlos Bianchi and with Juan Roman Riquelme pulling the strings came out on top in 2000 and 2001.

The Sao Paulo side were on the back foot for much of the final, mustering just 36 per cent possession. Nevertheless, they still created most of the best chances of the match, keeping the likes of Gabriel Barbosa, Giorgian de Arraescaeta and Everton Ribeiro largely under wraps with their formidable low block, while punishing their opponents when the opportunity arose with a dazzling display of rapid counterattacks.

It was a similar story in the semis, too, when highly-rated Mineiro were disposed of, and in a crushing last-eight victory over two legs against city rivals Sao Paulo. All those victories were achieved while seeing significantly less of the ball than their adversaries – as was 2020's final victory over Santos, courtesy of a last-minute winner in the Estadio Maracana.

Comparisons with one Jose Mourinho might seem simplistic, even lazy, given the pair's shared nationality, but they are certainly not far off the mark when it comes to grinding out victories with ruthless efficiency, not to mention getting under the skin of their opposite numbers.

And just like Mourinho's best teams, Palmeiras are blessed with the unerring ability to score crucial goals precisely when they most need them.

Indeed, Ferreira freely admits that Porto's 2004 Champions League victory over Manchester United, perhaps the quintessential Special One performance, was an inspiration for his game-plan at the semi-final stage. 

“We [Portugal] have one of the best coaches in the world, Mourinho, and one of the best players, Cristiano Ronaldo,” he pointed out to reporters following that triumph.

“When you look at Ronaldo, what do you see? Huge mental strength, an insatiable work ethic, the will to win and do your best. That is the Portuguese mentality and I will never lose it.

“That calm and experience inspired me in the game between United and Porto... that is what I told my players, we were here to defend, through hard work and discipline, which is sometimes lacking here in Brazil, to show discipline, hard work and daily commitment.

"That is the price to pay to reach a final, and the players were willing to pay that price.”

This uncompromising mentality may not make for a particularly enthralling spectacle at times, but it has won the Portuguese the unstinting loyalty of his charges.

Palmeiras' squad, composed largely of Serie A journeymen, steady performers who did not quite make the grade in Europe like defender Gustavo Gomez and final match-winner Deyverson, a group of promising young talents, and veterans such as 38-year-old Felipe Melo and ex-Shakhtar Donetsk and AC Milan striker Luiz Adriano, lacked Flamengo's star power, but compensated with a tactical superiority and efficiency that proved sufficient to take victory against the odds in Montevideo.

“Abel is very intelligent, he can read the game very well,” Raphael Veiga, who finished off a brilliant team move to net the first goal of the final on Saturday, told AFP before the game.

“He understands how the opponent plays and what style best fits.”

Team-mate Dudu underlined to SporTV the borderline-obsessive preparation under Ferreira. “Everything that happened in the game, above all the opening goal, was covered in training,” he explained. “I came inside to open up space for Mayke (Palmeiras' right-back), we did all that on the training pitch.

“We trained on it the day before, we trained in the week. [Ferreira] arrived, gathered us together and asked how we would beat Flamengo.

“We knew that Filipe Luis would come after me on the right, to open the space, and we know that David Luiz likes to come out. That was what Abel told us, to force that wing. And we had several chances. Everything we worked on in training was right, and we are even happier because of having made what we trained for happen.”

The next step for Ferreira remains to be seen. While under contract at Palmeiras until June, he was characteristically careful not to reveal too much on his future, only saying that he planned to “reflect” on whether to stay at the club or not over the coming days. 

Given that Saturday's clash was his side's 88th of the year, and with three more rounds of Brazil's Serie A to play after it, the coach would be forgiven for seeking a rest following this marathon 2021 season.

According to Globoesporte, since the final Ferreira has already received (and rejected) a mammoth offer to move to Saudi Arabia with Al-Nassr, which would have netted him $22.5 million over two-and-a-half years. Turkish giants Besiktas and two unnamed MLS clubs are also reportedly considering an approach, although no other formal offer has yet been made.

The most likely move, however, will be one closer to Portugal, home and family. At 42, Ferreira is already a double continental champion, and while success in South America does not always guarantee instant interest on the other side of the Atlantic, that glittering resume for someone of his age – Mourinho, for example, was only a year younger when he clinched his first Champions League with Porto – makes him a very interesting prospect indeed.