Tonight sees two of Brazil’s biggest sides Corinthians and Santos face off for a place in the 2012 Copa Libertadores final. Last week, Corinthians won the opening leg 1×0 away from home and go in to tonight’s match knowing that they just need to avoid defeat in order to reach the first Libertadores final in their history.
Santos, last year’s champions, have it all to do under the lights of the Pacaembu, but with the tournament’s most efficient offence and the continent’s best player, they can not be counted out.
Corinthians should make just one change from last week’s starting eleven, with goalscorer Emerson missing out after his second half red card. Emerson’s place on the left will be filled by the energetic yet slightly ineffective winger Willian.
There are also a couple of fitness worries in the squad, with centre back Chicão and left back Fábio Santos recovering from knocks at the eleventh hour. Both should start the match, but they will need to be careful not to over-exert themselves.
Formation-wise, Corinthians will stick to their standard 4-2-3-1 shape that functioned well against Santos last week.
Once again, they will play without a recognised centre forward, with Alex and Danilo interchanging between false nine and number ten roles to try to make space for the wingers to come inside.
The key man in the Corinthians system is central midfielder Paulinho. He performs an integral role in Corinthians’ transition from defence to attack and vice-versa, and alongside Ralf he is part of one of the most effective midfield double pivots on the continent. With incoming offers from Russia and Italy, Paulinho will be desperate to perform in such a high-stakes match.
In selection terms, Santos have a full squad to choose from, having once again played an all-reserve XI in their Brasileirão match at the weekend. Neymar, Ganso and Arouca have all had a week to return to full fitness after injuries and (in Neymar’s case) international duty, and are ready to go.
The only uncertainty in regards to Santos’ starting XI is in their choice of formation, and it seems almost certain that Santos head coach Muricy Ramalho will shake things up and field an attacking 4-3-3 shape in lieu of their familiar 4-3-1-2.
Creative midfielder Elano will be dropped from the midfield and replaced by centre forward Borges. Alan Kardec, the centre forward in last week’s match, will then come out to the right side to form a forward line of three.
It is certainly a proactive switch, but that is not to say that Santos will come out with a gung ho mentality. The choice to play a more attacking player on the right is perhaps more practical than it appears, as in the first leg Elano was finding it very difficult to impose himself on the match up against Corinthians’ aggressive left back Fábio Santos. Alan Kardec’s presence on that wing will help to keep Fábio pinned back, and as Alan drifts inside it may make room for the overlap of Santos right back Henrique.
There is little doubt that Corinthians will adopt a negative approach to this second leg, as they just need to avoid defeat in order to make it to their first Copa Libertadores final in history. The word coming from the Corinthians camp is that they will aim to play exactly the same as they did in last week’s match in the Vila Belmiro.
Their only worry is that they will be in front of their own fans who will be desperate for them to go out and win the match. If Corinthians sit deep within their own half and simply soak up Santos’ pressure, those supporters may get anxious and will start to put pressure on their players. Head coach Tite is not silly though, he will see to it that Corinthians are secure and organised right up until the final whistle.
Santos’ aim is simple, they have to score and they have to win. They will most likely have the lion’s share of the possession and will do their best to press Corinthians all over the field. Neymar is pleading for his team-mates to keep their cool however, suggesting that they “need to work the ball patiently and calmly to get past (Corinthians’) defence”.
The pitch at the Estádio do Pacaembu is a little smaller than that at the Vila Belmiro, which suits Corinthians, so Santos will once again have to work hard to find space in midfield.
1. Ralf vs. Ganso: In the first leg, there was only one winner. Ganso had a fairly poor game by his standards and did not receive any support from players around him, as a result, Ralf ate him for breakfast.
The introduction of Alan Kardec may help Ganso’s cause tonight however, as if he is able to come inside and provide a central attacking threat, he may well distract Ralf and offer Ganso a little more freedom.
2. Paulinho vs. Arouca: Both sides’ key midfield runners will once again line up against each other. I mentioned Paulinho’s importance to Corinthians’ system earlier in the preview, and Arouca’s role is always the same for Santos: to make forward runs into the space left by Neymar.
Both players are tenacious, battling, athletic midfielders, and on their day they are both superb to watch. Unfortunately, there is a danger they will cancel each other out (which would probably be more advantageous to Corinthians than Santos), but if either one manages to get the better of the other, it could decide the entire flow of the match.
3. Chicão & Alessandro vs. Neymar: The Corinthians duo managed to handle Neymar in the first leg, but after a much-needed week’s rest, South America’s best player will certainly fancy his chances of hurting Santos’ fierce rivals. The area in which Neymar excels is between the opponent lines, which in Brazil are usually rather spacious. Corinthians are very aware of that and will force Neymar to play tight up against the Corinthians defence.
However, these are not the most secure defenders Neymar will ever face. As mentioned at the start of the preview, Chicão is recovering from a knock and may well struggle to keep up with the Santos wonderkid. At right back, Alessandro has never been the most convincing and has actually developed a reputation of making idiotic mistakes in big matches for Corinthians. If Neymar is able to get into any 1-on-1 situations with Alessandro, Santos could well find their way in behind the Corinthians defence.