So with last weekend’s unprecedented ‘dia dos clássicos’ in which we had no fewer than eight derby matches (nine if you count Ceará x Bahia), we have now reached the half-way point of the 2011 Campeonato Brasileiro season. With most clubs having played eachother once (Santos and Grêmio are still to play in a match that was postponed) the league standings have taken shape and we have a good idea who the championship contenders will be.
Corinthians lead the way with 37 points and secured the symbolic title of Champions of the First Round, but they are closely followed by Flamengo on 36 points, São Paulo and Vasco (both on 35), Botafogo on 34 and fierce rivals Palmeiras on 32 points.
Down at the bottom, newly promoted América-MG assume the unwanted role of the lanterna in 20th position with only 13 points, and rather unexpectedly their rivals Atlético-MG find themselves only two points better off in 19th. Early strugglers Atlético-PR and Avaí have started to turn things around and will be hoping to avoid relegation, but for now they are 17th and 18th place respectively.
This midweek we have Round 20 taking place, with all but one of the matches being played on Wednesday night. As this is the first matchday of the second half of the season, all of this week’s fixtures are the return legs of the opening day matches, so it will be interesting to see how far each team has come since May.
To kick-off the second half of the season we have the leaders Corinthians hosting Grêmio at the Pacaembu. At the start of the season, both Corinthians and Grêmio were regarded as being amongst the teams to finish at the top of the league, so to see Grêmio languishing in 15th place is certainly a surprise. Since the loss of their top scorer Jonas to Valencia (for a paltry sum of €1.25 million), o Tricolor have looked a very different side and have really struggled for results this season. Playmaker Douglas has been practically anonymous since May and they have desperately struggled to find goals in their squad, with the worst goals-for tally in the league. Corinthians will be heavily fancied on Wednesday, but Grêmio are still a huge team with a huge reputation, both sides will have to work hard to win.
Over in Rio de Janeiro, Vasco and Ceará face off against one another, with the home side attempting to stay in the top four, and the away side trying to avoid the bottom four. Vasco have been one of the more impressive sides of the championship so far, and after sealing an automatic Copa Libertadores spot with their Copa do Brasil triumph, they are playing comfortably and without pressure. Matches including either of the two sides usually bring plenty of goals, and a repeat of the 3×1 Vasco victory when the two sides met in May would not be a huge shock.
Next up, we go to the Serra Dourada in Goiânia for Atlético-GO versus Coritiba. At the present time there is only one point separating these two sides, and a win for either on Wednesday would be extremely valuable, especially with the mid-table being so tight. Atlético are one of the leagues form teams, coming in to this game on the back of four consecutive victories. Against Coritiba, Atlético will be expecting another three points.
17th meets 19th at the Arena da Baixada as Atlético-PR face Atlético-MG. After an absolutely woeful start to the 2011 season, the home side are starting to get it together under new coach Renato Gaúcho and are only two points away from escaping the relegation zone. In contrast, Atlético-MG started well but have since dropped down to 19th position, and the way Galo are playing just now they are in real danger of relegation. Atlético-PR are unbeaten in their last seven league games, in contrast, Atlético-MG have failed to win any games in their last seven. May’s 3×0 scoreline to Galo looks very unlikely to repeat itself.
Atlético-MG’s fierce rivals Cruzeiro are in action at the same time, as they host Figueirense. Both sides are in decent positions at the moment, both in the top half of the table and only one point between them. Cruzeiro are the favourites for this one, not just because of their good home form, but also because of both sides’ fortunes in last weekend’s clássicos. Cruzeiro won 2×1 against bitter rivals Atlético, while Figueirense lost 3×2 at home to crosstown foes Avaí despite taking the lead twice. Cruzeiro are without several important players for this one, but I still expect them to pick up the three points.
Later on in the evening we have four more interesting encounters, starting with Avaí taking on second placed Flamengo. When these two sides played on the opening day of the season, Flamengo ran riot, Ronaldinho Gaúcho played a blinder and Flamengo won 4×0. With Flamengo’s attacking talent, there is every possibility that the result could be repeated, but this Avaí side is much more organised than they were in May, especially at home. Goals are expected in this one, and Avaí will be looking to spring a surprise.
In Porto Alegre Internacional and Santos lock horns in what will be a fascinating encounter. On the opening day of the season many looked forward to this tie, but they were left ultimately disappointed as both sides fielded second string sides and played out a dull 0x0 draw. This time it should be different though, as both sides will be going all out for a result. Internacional are without Andres D’Alessandro, but start with their two young stars Oscar and Leandro Damião. Santos have Ibson, Elano and Arouca all missing, but can still count on Neymar (who recently became a father) and Ganso (the godfather of Neymar’s child). I am hoping for the classic match that we missed out on in May, it will certainly be tight.
To round off Wednesday night, we have two high-profile São Paulo-Rio de Janeiro clashes starting with São Paulo against Fluminense at the Morumbi. The home side are happy in 3rd position at the moment, while Fluminense are down in 11th and are desperate to climb back up the table. Both sides are suffering from several injuries and suspensions, but both will still be able to field strong teams. Brasil U-20 star Henrique could start alongside Dagoberto up front for São Paulo, and young River Plate loanee Manuel Lanzini features for Flu.
Our second São Paulo-Rio clash is over in the cidade maravilhosa as Botafogo host Palmeiras in the Engenhão stadium in the west of Rio de Janeiro city. The home side Botafogo have made great viewing for neutrals with their fabulous attacking talent and youthful team spirit. Their last three home matches (wins against Atlético-MG, América-MG and Vasco) have been full of goals and excitement, and their win against city rivals Fluminense at the weekend further underlines their credentials as a top team. Their next challenge is to take on a Palmeiras side who are one place behind them in sixth, and have had a very mixed first half of the season. With the league’s best defence they have conceded only 14 goals so far in the 2011 season, but have recently struggled to find goals. The recent signings of strikers Ricardo Bueno and Fernandão (who scored the winner in their 2×1 victory over fierce rivals Corinthians at the weekend) may signal a change in fortunes for the Verdão. Botafogo are favourites, but morale amongst the Palmeiras side is through the roof. This one is too hard to call.
Finally, on Thursday the round is concluded in the northeast as Bahia take on bottom side América-MG. Bahia have had a considerable dip in form after a decent run of results, and they now find themselves just above the relegation zone. Every single point matters now for América, as they are now seven points adrift of safety. It looks like it’s already too late for o Coelho and I expect Bahia to win this one at home.