Going into the first-leg of their crucial Libertadores Final tie against heavyweights of Argentina, Boca Juniors, Corinthians were in a fortunate position as their league season had just begun. Fitness wasn’t as much of a problem, compared to a Boca side that had just finished their domestic season, with several ageing players in the squad, such as 39-year-old centre back Rolando Schiavi.
Tite had changed the formation to a 4-2-4-0, with one wing-back and wide midfielder on each wing. Emerson had gone out to the left-wing, with Jorge Henrique on the right. Danilo and Alex acted as two false nine’s, with Paulinho and Ralf behind them in midfield.
The plan was to overrun Boca in midfield and block any chance of a counter-attack. It seemed for the opening 20 minutes that Tite had got it spot on. Paulinho was coming forward from midfield and had a decent effort saved on seven minutes from 30 yards out by Agustín Orión. Riquelme wasn’t getting much space on the ball, and was also being cancelled out by Paulinho, and it seemed like Corinthians were in control.
But as the final settled down, Boca took more control of the game. Santiago Silva had a bicycle kick saved by Cássio ten minutes from half time, and the pendulum had begun to swing in favour of Boca.
Several minutes after that opportunity, Tite made a strange substitution, with Jorge Henrique coming off for Liédson. Although Jorge Henrique didn’t have the most inspiring of first halves, it was a strange decision to take someone off that wasn’t injured and could still have had a large impact on the outcome of the final.
The intimidating atmosphere of La Bombonera was appearing to impact the referee as well. 18 minutes in, Boca’s Facundo Roncaglia was booked for a challenge on Emerson, and then 20 minutes made another reckless challenge on the Corinthians winger. Despite there being absolutely no clear attempt to win the ball at all, Roncaglia escaped a second yellow.
As like most finals tend to be, this one was extremely tight. Boca were having the majority of possession but weren’t exactly being clinical with their time on the ball. The game was theirs if they could break down the resolute and organized block that Tite had set up.
Inevitably, that did eventually happen. 72 minutes in, Roncaglia (who should’ve been off the pitch) made it 1-0 after tapping in a corner from Pablo Mouche. The experience that Boca had in major finals seemed to be showing. They hadn’t been playing at their best but were managing to win.
Corinthians needed to find a goal. With no away goals rule in the final, a draw still wouldn’t give Timão the advantage on aggregate. The momentum couldn’t be in Boca’s favour going into the Pacaembú. It would mean such a cruel end to a run for Corinthians that had sacrificed the first few weeks of their domestic season for this.
For their fans, it would mean more humiliation and more heartbreak. For a side that was so big in Brazil, their success in the Libertadores was so embarrassingly meagre.
With six minutes to go and Boca in control, Tite took off Danilo for Romarinho, as a last roll of the dice. Romarinho hadn’t played a single minute in the entire competition. He had scored in a league match the previous weekend in a rested squad, but was a squad rotation player, not someone that was expected to change the outcome in the final of the Libertadores.
A poor touch in midfield from a tired Riquelme had given Corinthians a lifeline with a counter-attack. Paulinho drove the ball forward and found Emerson. Emerson spun past two Boca defenders on the turn and slipped in Romarinho one-on-one with Orión. With his first touch of the entire tournament, Romarinho etched his name into Corinthians folklore by lofting the ball over Orión’s head and into the empty net.
La Bombonera had been completely stunned. The trophy that would’ve been theirs if they could draw 0-0 away had been put into the hands of Corinthians. A 1-0 win at home, where Corinthians had been so strong throughout the tournament would give them their first-ever Libertadores.
All Corinthians had to do now was just to keep their heads and win. As long as they stopped Riquelme on the ball and didn’t leave gaps going forward for Boca to counter-attack, they would at last, have their first Libertadores title.
It was the opposite of the first leg; Corinthians dominated from the first minute and were on top for the whole game. Two second-half goals from Emerson put Corinthians’ name on the Libertadores trophy for the first time.
It was a performance that summed up Corinthians’ run in the tournament. Alex and Danilo as the false nines created havoc for the Boca defence and provided several opportunities for Emerson and Jorge Henrique throughout the game.
It was Alex that set up the first goal of the night through a free-kick. His delivery caused confusion in the Boca penalty area and as the ball fizzed around, Danilo backheeled it into Emerson. He stabbed home to make it 1-0 eight minutes into the second half.
Boca’s ageing squad had eventually caught up with them. Riquelme tried to initiate chances but was clearly exhausted and Schiavi gifted Corinthians their second goal on the night. As Boca searched for an equaliser, Schiavi took too long on the ball and his pass was intercepted by Emerson. He then ran half the length of the pitch before burying the ball in the bottom-right corner.
His night was slightly marred after footage later found him biting the finger of Boca’s Matías Caruzzo, but that shouldn’t take away from how good Corinthians were on the night. Now there were to be no more jokes from Santos or Palmeiras fans at the expense of Corinthians because finally, the Libertadores trophy had been lifted at the Pacaembú.
Corinthians weren’t stopping at continental glory. The Club World Cup in Japan was five months away, and it would be the only opportunity that this special team would get to test itself against a European side. After winning the UEFA Champions League against Bayern Munich, Chelsea could be the potential side that Corinthians could play if both sides won their semi-finals.
Al-Ahly of Egypt (winners of the CAF Champions League) were Corinthians’ opponents in the semi-final. Peruvian forward Paolo Guerrero had joined in the summer from Hamburg and Tite had changed the formation back to a 4-2-3-1, with Guerrero up front on his own.
After Al-Ahly were seen off comfortably 1-0 in the semi-final, Corinthians were now able to have one of the biggest games in their history. 30,000 fans had travelled from São Paulo to see this, the Fiel wasn’t going to miss out on this match. The players they had treated like legends since their Libertadores victory now had the chance to become gods.
It was a good time to play Chelsea as well. Despite their Champions League title, the English side wasn’t in a great place. Roberto Di Matteo had been sacked despite winning the trophy and Rafael Benítez was taking a while to adapt to the job. If Corinthians were to beat a European side, there wouldn’t be a better chance than to beat a Chelsea side in transition.
Although there was a throwaway attitude towards the tournament in some areas of the UK press, to say that Chelsea didn’t care was simply not true. David Luiz, Ramires and Oscar, three Brazillian players in the Chelsea squad, wanted to desperately win the trophy. A professional football side doesn’t travel halfway across the world to play in a competition and then doesn’t care about it once they’ve started to play. It mattered to them.
Corinthians took the game by the scruff of the neck. The drive and sweat that they had weren’t matched by Chelsea’s side. This wasn’t a side that was camped inside their own box. Sure, Tite still played a defensive style but it was one that had the intention to chase the ball down and attack on the counter, not to hang on for penalties for 120 minutes.
Benítez had completely underestimated the strength of the double pivot that had served Corinthians throughout their run in the Libertadores so well. Ralf and Paulinho bossed the midfield and were comfortably winning the battle against Ramires and Frank Lampard.
The defence that had been so strong in the Libertadores also helped on the night in Yokohama. Cássio had kept Corinthians in the game in the first half, with a magnificent save from Gary Cahill’s shot from a Chelsea corner. Victor Moses was also denied from just outside of the box with a curling effort, that Cássio was at full reach to palm away.
Just like every other side, Corinthians had played in the Libertadores, Chelsea began to get frustrated with not being able to break down the low block that had been so effective in Corinthians’ road to the final.
As Chelsea started to try and create more chances, they left more space open for Corinthians to hit them on the counter. Emerson hit the post in the first half after a long throw from Alessandro, which should’ve been the chance that made Benítez switch things up.
Chelsea continued to give Corinthians more space to hit them on the break and were eventually punished for it. 20 minutes from the end of regular time, Paulinho picked up the ball from Chicão in midfield and played a one-two with Jorge Henrique.
After quickly receiving the ball back, Paulinho dribbled the ball out wide into the box and found Danilo. Danilo cut inside with his left foot to create an opening and his attempt was deflected off Gary Cahill and into the path of Guerrero. The Peruvian headed home from inside the six-yard box past the three Chelsea defenders on the line, to make it 1-0.
The unthinkable was now a genuine possibility. Corinthians just needed to make sure they didn’t get carried away and prevent Fernando Torres and Juan Mata from creating any openings. If Tite could get his team to contain Neymar for 90 minutes, then an out of form Torres. who hadn’t been involved much in the game, shouldn’t have been an issue.
Two minutes from time, César Azpilicueta’s long throw had managed to pinball its way around the penalty area and had found Torres six yards from goal. Torres’ poor effort was kicked away by Cássio.
Corinthians’ strong defence wasn’t going to let Chelsea have another clear-cut opportunity to equalise. Torres’ had another effort that did find its way past Cássio, but was ruled out for offside.
The time-wasting was being used to full-effect now from Corinthians. With minutes to go, the ball was starting to enter the corner and throw-ins were taking an age to be completed. It worked a treat though, Cahill got frustrated and got a second yellow for a kick on Emerson.
Several moments later, for what must have seemed an eternity for the Corinthians fans, Cüneyt Çakır put his mouth to his whistle. Corinthians were champions of the world for the second time.
Boyhood Corinthians fan, David Luiz dropped to the grass in tears. The other Chelsea players were crestfallen. Especially Ramires and Oscar (who was also annoyed at being dropped for the final)
Corinthians had done something that was incredible. Not only had they ended their hoodoo with the Libertadores, but they had also managed to destroy the UEFA stronghold on the club game. The financial might that Europe has still wasn’t enough to beat the compact and counter-attacking force that Tite had assembled.
“This was a real battle between the third world and the first world. For our people, for our fans, who have a difficult life, it’s so important to show the world we can beat teams like this. And that we can be the best in the world. Just once.” – Paulo Andre.
After 2012, Corinthians have never been able to repeat their success. A new move to the Arena Corinthians that was built for the 2014 World Cup has drained the club’s finances and they haven’t been able to compete as a result.