The second coming of Flamengo superstar Gabigol means all of Europe should be paying attention

Gabriel Barbosa Gabigol Flamengo
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The ex-Inter forward fought off injury to play a crucial role in his side's retaining of the Brasileirao crown, his seventh title in two years

Retaining Brazil's Serie A title represents the stiffest of challenges even for the nation's strongest, most popular football institutions.

Just three teams had successfully defended their crown in the last 30 years, while Sao Paulo and Cruzeiro were the only two sides to have recorded back-to-back Brasileirao wins since the tournament took on its current 20-team format in 2006.

Now, though, Flamengo belong to that illustrious list of repeat champions – and while it was far from a single-handed effort, the Rio de Janeiro giants owe a large part of that success to Gabriel 'Gabigol' Barbosa.

The Inter flop pitched in with 14 goals across this delayed, extended Serie A season to help his side to glory. The title was clinched at the death, despite a 2-1 defeat against Sao Paulo, due to Internacional's failure to overcome Corinthians after seeing a 97th-minute goal ruled out for offside in a thrilling finale.

It was in the final stretch of the season, moreover, that Gabigol really showed his mettle. Six goals in as many games, including the winner against Inter in the penultimate fixture, helped Rogerio Ceni's charges to five wins and a draw.

That left them in an almost unassailable position going into the decider, even if they were made to sweat watching the action in the other match via cellphone on the Maracana pitch.

Gabigol now boasts seven major titles with Flamengo, picked up in little over two years , and has shown in that same time-frame that he would be a worthy acquisition for any European giant interested in his services.

“The Europe option will arise when the time is right, when it is good for me and Flamengo,” the striker, still just 24, told AS back in July. “Now I feel I am far better prepared to face the professional and personal challenges of a change in country.”

With the benefit of hindsight, moving to Inter from boyhood club Santos, where he had earned inevitable comparisons to fellow Vila Belmiro alumnus Neymar due to his exploits, was too much, too soon.

Gabriel Barbosa Gabigol Flamengo GFX

Gabriel foundered at San Siro and barely featured during the single season he stayed at Inter as Mauro Icardi's deputy, an adaptation period further hampered by the Nerazzurri's chronic instability; both Frank de Boer and Stefano Pioli were sacked over the course of 2016-17 as Inter finished a lowly seventh.

A loan spell at Benfica the following campaign was similarly underwhelming, but as soon as he landed back on Brazilian soil, reunited with Santos, the goals started flowing again.

Gabigol began to live up to his name once more, netting 27 in 2018 at Santos; an incredible 43 for Flamengo the following year as the Rio outfit were crowned State, Brazilian and South American champions; and 27 again this past term in just 42 games despite various injury struggles to confirm the Mengao's status as the kings of Rio and Brazil.

It was that brilliant record in front of goal, added to his ever-growing tendency to pitch in with the team effort and go looking for the ball rather than wait in the area, that convinced Flamengo to part with €17 million (£14m/$19m) in January 2020 and make his arrival from Inter permanent.

Flamengo will be determined to make a considerable profit on that outlay before letting their star striker go, and that may be a tall order given all that has occurred in the 13 months that have since passed.

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There is precious little money to burn in this post-Covid-19 football world and Gabriel's muted first spell in Europe will serve as a warning for nervous suitors wary of wasting transfer funds they can ill afford.

To dwell on the past, though, would be both unjust and wholly mistaken. The Flamengo superstar has already written his name into the club's history books thanks to his two goals to down River Plate in the 2019 Copa Libertadores final, but he has also benefited from the football education handed down by Jorge Jesus and now Ceni, and become a more complete, mature player who excels when the stakes are highest.

Today's Gabigol bears almost no resemblance to the inexperienced, over-hyped Gabriel that first left his homeland barely out of his teenage years. He is now arguably the best forward currently active in South American football and only improving, a worthy investment for any top team willing to take a gamble on his services.