Game of the Week: Fluminense 3×2 Santos

The Campeonato Brasileiro is renowned for being one of the most competitive leagues in world football. With Brazil’s recent economic boom allowing their top sides to pay astronomical wages for players, the league’s quality has never been better. When you combine this quality with the naturally competitive style of the league, you get one of the most exciting editions of the Brasileirão in a long time.

The league table has seen countless permutations since the start of the season, and even now in October with ten rounds left to play, we still have no idea who will end the season as champions. With an abundance of attacking talent up and down the league, we have seen some really thrilling matches, and it has got to the stage that this week’s five-goal thriller between Fluminense and Santos is almost a regular occurence.

Fluminense, last year’s champions, have had a disappointing 2011 season so far. Failure to win the Rio de Janeiro state championships and elimination from the Copa Libertadores cost manager Muricy Ramalho his job (he left to join this week’s opponents Santos), and Abel Braga took over with Flu floundering in the bottom half of the table. Since Abelão assumed charge, Flu have steadily improved their form and now miraculously find themselves in the hunt for the Brasileirão title once again.

The story of Santos’ season is all too familiar in Brazilian football. Earlier in the year, they won the 2011 Copa Libertadores, booking their place in the World Club Cup in Japan at the end of the year. Now, with their 2012 Copa Libertadores place already confirmed as the reigning champions, they have taken their foot off the gas in the national championship and their form has suffered significantly. A few months ago, it looked like they might even have to contest a relegation battle, and although that is no longer the case, their record has been very disappointing and they are stuck in the bottom half of the table.

The two sides met on Saturday evening in Volta Redonda (the game was moved from Rio de Janeiro because of a Justin Bieber concert at the Engenhão…), and despite the poor quality of the pitch and creaking stands at the Raulino de Oliveira stadium, the Fluminense support turned out in great numbers, with delighted chants of “o campeão voltou!” (the champion has returned) ringing around the ground after the final whistle.

The match was intriguing, five goals, a red card, a late winner, and plenty of momentum shifts throughout the ninety minutes. Neither side managed to control the game for any extended period of time, and in the end it was Fluminense’s determination that helped them to keep going and nick the three points at the death.

Santos lined up in a 4-3-3 shape with Neymar, Alan Kardec, and Borges forming their forward trio. They are absolutely key to Santos’ team, and their movement in attack is not too dissimilar to that of the Uruguayan national team, where the trio of Suárez, Cavani, and Forlán interchange positions freely, with one of the three dropping back into an attacking midfield/trequartista role. Despite having three central midfielders, they really lacked elaboration and they were restricted to playing long balls out of defence, which fortuitously led to their opening goal when Mariano missed his header and lost track of Neymar.

Fluminense stuck to their 4-2-3-1 formation that has been providing them with so much success recently, with their ultra-attacking full-backs and three tricky midfielders behind Seleção forward Fred. Their shape seemed to be working quite well, and they were getting the better of Santos in all of the key areas. The only problem was the woefully poor performances of Argentine midfielders Lanzini and Martinuccio, who failed to create anything and were easily picked off by their opponents. The understanding between Marquinho and Fred was a huge positive though, and before half-time a slick move between the two, cut the Santos defence open and drew Fluminense level.

With neither side really managing to get going in the first half, Flu grabbed the initiative in the second forty-five, replacing Lanzini and Martinuccio with Deco and Rafael Sóbis. Their opponents stagnated, Alan Kardec and Borges looked extremely tired, and Neymar ended up being the only Santos player really looking for the ball and trying to make things happen.

Flu tweaked their shape slightly to a 4-2-1-3, with Deco playing as a more stationary playmaker behind the front three of Sóbis, Fred, and Marquinho, Santos failed to deal with them and Flu took the lead on 71 minutes through a stunning strike from Rafael Sóbis. It was a lovely turn and shot from the former Real Betis man, but it was another example of the terrible positioning of the Santos back-line. For Fluminense’s first goal, Santos’ back four stood still as Fred threaded a lovely pass through to Marquinho, and again they were caught napping as they allowed Sóbis far too much room on the edge of the penalty area.

The momentum then changed once again, as with Flu sitting back attempting to protect their lead, Santos made a double switch with Ibson and Wason Rentería replacing Arouca and Elano. This prompted a formation change for the away side, and when Fluminense centre-back Digão was sent off for dangerous play, the outlook of the game had changed dramatically.

Searching for a way back into the match, Santos moved to a 4-2-3-1, with debutant Rentería moving into an attacking midfield role and Ibson and Henrique left to marshal the midfield. Flu reacted to going a man down by taking off centre-forward Fred and bringing on centre-back Márcio Rosário. They arranged themselves in a 4-1-3-1 shape, leaving Sóbis up front on his own.

Flooding the attacking third paid off quickly for Santos, and they drew level through substitute Rentería with less than a minute of the ninety remaining. It was a simple example of Santos making their man advantage count, Neymar advanced down the left flank, and cut the ball back to Rentería in space who finished well from the edge of the box.

Santos looked content with the draw, and while Fluminense’s Marquinho was recieving treatment for an injury mid-way through stoppage time, they Santos players were acting as if the game was already over as they exchanged high-fives and joked amongst themselves. Their opponents knew better though, and attacked one last time, winning a last minute corner kick.

Rafael Sóbis flighted the ball in from the right, and substitute Márcio Rosário rose to head the ball into the corner of the net to seal the victory for the home side. Once again, the blame lies with the Santos defence as they marked terribly, providing very little challenge to the towering Rosário and ultimately costing them the match.

The result leaves Santos miles away from any discussion about the league title, and firmly thrusts Fluminense into the hunt. The determination and team spirit shown by Fluminense has been typical since Abel Braga took over, and with more results like this and a little luck, they could be an outside bet for a second consecutive championship.

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