By Andrew Downie
(Reuters) – It often felt like Flamengo fans needed divine intervention to recapture the glory days of the 1980s so it is fitting that their new messiah is someone called Jesus.
Jorge Jesus is neither a player nor a Brazilian but the influence of the Portuguese coach, who took over at the Rio club in June, is hard to overstate.
Under his guidance, the Rio side have rocketed to the top of the first division with a 15-game unbeaten run and are 90 minutes away from the final of the Copa Libertadores, South America’s equivalent of the Champions League.
Next Wednesday’s match against Gremio could send them into the Libertadores final for the first time since 1981. The teams are level at 1-1 ahead of the semi-final second leg at the Maracana stadium.
“It’s been three months with this team but it seems like it’s been three years,” Jesus told reporters. “I think that I am going to leave a legacy here not just for Flamengo but for Brazilian football. We play football totally different from all the other teams.”
His methods have shaken up Brazil’s domestic game that was for too long mired in mediocrity.
Jesus’s insistence on a high-tempo pressing game with the onus on possession is common in Europe but not in Brazil and his methods have won him plaudits.
No less an observer than Tostao compared Flamengo’s intensity and movement this season to Liverpool and Manchester City.
“Flamengo is one of the exceptions in Brazil, for their individual quality, their intensity, their movement and for the way they pressure opponents that have the ball,” the former World Cup winner wrote in his newspaper column.
Fans, too, have embraced both the performances and the personality behind them.
Jesus has become a cult figure with Flamengo supporters who are watching their team produce the kind of attacking football they last saw when World Cup greats Zico, Junior and Leandro played for the side almost 40 years ago.
“Jorge Jesus’s work has been sensational, spectacular,” Zinho, a former Flamengo and Brazil midfielder said on Fox Sports. “His stamp has been crucial.”
He has been helped, Zinho added, by a budget that dwarves most of his competitors, and the transfer arrivals that have come with it.
Flamengo already had one of Brazil’s best squads and since Jesus arrived they have added two former Brazil full backs, Rafinha from Bayern Munich and Filipe Luis from Atletico Madrid, as well as influential midfielder Gerson from AS Roma.
Three of the top four goalscorers in the Serie A play for Flamengo, with striker Gabriel Barbosa, on loan from Inter Milan, the stand-out player in the competition and his attacking partner Bruno Henrique equally impressive.
Jesus’s success has surprised many in Brazil, a nation unaccustomed to seeing foreign coaches do well.
In the last few years, Palmeiras, Sao Paulo and Flamengo are among those who hired foreign managers and fired them after a few months in charge.
Many complained about the lack of time granted to them and departed to other high-profile jobs.
Jesus has so far had little to complain about in Rio and neither have fans.
A league title, their first since 2009, looks increasingly likely and would cement his hero status. Another Copa Libertadores triumph would guarantee his sainthood.
(Reporting by Andrew Downie, editing by Ed Osmond)