Flu champions, Palmeiras (almost) relegated
Fluminense clinched a thrilling late victory in the torrid Presidente Prudente sun to seal their fourth national championship trophy. With three rounds still to play in the Campeonato Brasileiro 2012, the Tricolor knew that a win against Palmeiras and a home win or draw in the Vasco x Atlético-MG match (which ended 1-1) would see them create an insurmountable lead over the chasing pack.
Palmeiras, on the other hand, are battling against a seemingly inevitable relegation, and had other results in the round gone against them they could have been condemned to Série B earlier than expected. Fortunately for them, Portuguesa and Bahia lost their respective matches, keeping Palmeiras’ hopes alive (albeit hanging by the tiniest of threads) even after their latest defeat.
Fluminense took a 2-0 lead, but conceded twice through set-pieces in the second half. Just as the title champagne was being put on ice for another day, league top scorer Fred converted his 19th goal of the season to win the match 3-2.
In a nation that traditionally had their national championships decided by play-offs followed by a grand final, television companies did everything they could to bill this match as a must-see title (and relegation) decider. National broadcaster Rede Globo even drafted in commentator extraordinaire Galvão Bueno to call the game, a talent usually reserved for national team matches.
The fixture has a thorny history. The two sides met in the Maracanã at a similar point in the 2009 season; instead it was Palmeiras challenging for the title and Fluminense trying to escape the drop. Fluminense won that match 1-0 – thanks in part to Palmeiras forward Obina having a perfectly legal goal disallowed in the first half – and managed to avoid relegation, while Palmeiras threw away the title.
Selections and formations
Despite ‘confirming’ Palmeiras with three forwards before kick-off, Verdão head coach Gilson Kleina had a last-minute change of heart and opted for a more balanced 4-4-2. Ex-Werder Bremen midfielder Wesley started the match at right-back in place of Artur, who had struggled in recent matches and offers little attacking threat. Palmeiras’ midfield was arranged in a diamond, with 20-year-old Patrick Vieira at the tip, attacking down the left and right channels.
With no new selection problems, Fluminense head coach Abel Braga maintained his starting XI from last week’s draw with São Paulo. They lined up in their usual 4-2-3-1 formation with Thiago Neves as the central attacking midfielder in place of the injured Deco.
Palmeiras were the more creative side in the first half, and they showed more attacking intent through Patrick Vieira and Wesley. Fluminense struggled to settle into the match, and Abel said after the final whistle that they had been preparing to face three attackers instead of two. They looked lost in the first 30 minutes of the half, while Palmeiras enjoyed a handful of opportunities from set-pieces and crosses from the right.
The home side should have taken the lead from one of those opportunities. Fluminense’s marking was poor throughout, and Palmeiras’ Argentine forward Hernán Barcos passed up a particularly good chance, putting a free header clear over the crossbar.
Short passes good, long passes bad
Despite the baking heat in Presidente Prudente taking its toll on the athletes, Fluminense looked more comfortable as the first half came to a close, exchanging passes and tentatively creating opportunities. Here was where we saw one of the main differences between the two sides. Fluminense stayed compact and were able to make short and relatively quick passes with ease, while Palmeiras were spaced further apart and were consistently forced to make longer passes.
The longer the pass, the higher its level of difficulty, and as a result Fluminense were able to string passes together while Palmeiras’ moves broke down quickly. Throughout the 90 minutes, Palmeiras attempted 39 fewer passes than Fluminense (315-354), yet they managed to misplace 29 more than their opponents (41-18).
The league leaders scored an unexpected opening goal minutes before the half-time whistle. It started with a slick passing move in midfield and a strong forward burst from central midfielder Jean. Palmeiras’ defence struggled to keep up with Fluminense’s movement, and even though goalkeeper Bruno managed to parry Wellington Nem’s attempt on goal, centre-forward Fred was on hand to convert the rebound.
At the beginning of the second half, news filtered through to the travelling support of Vasco’s equalising goal against Atlético-MG, a goal which (providing Fluminense maintained their lead) would guarantee them the title. With chants of ‘é campeão!’ coming from their fans, Fluminense appeared more relaxed on the field and were happy to control possession and commit fewer players forward.
To make things even worse for the Verdão, Fluminense scored a fortuitous second goal after an attempted cross from Fred deflected off of Palmeiras’ Maurício Ramos and looped over the goalkeeper and into the net.
Set-pieces finally pay off
With nothing to lose, Palmeiras brought on wingers Maikon Leite and Luan, shifting to the 4-2-1-3 formation with which many had expected them to start the game. Despite making no real improvement to their performance, the Verdão managed a quite spectacular comeback.
They scored twice through set-pieces, the first coming from Barcos (his 28th goal of 2012) and the second from Patrick Vieira (his first-ever goal for Palmeiras). The two goals in quick succession took most by surprise, but this was an example of the law of averages rather than any sort of dramatic resurgence.
As was referred to earlier, Palmeiras focused their attacks on set-pieces and crosses into the penalty area. Fluminense marked poorly throughout the match and Palmeiras were able to complete eight crosses from open play, not including the several set-piece opportunities. For Palmeiras to score twice from so many successful crosses is not particularly surprising.
This is where Gilson Kleina got his team selection spot-on. With Corrêa and Wesley operating on the right side, the quality of delivery was greatly improved from previous weeks. Instead of repeatedly banging their heads against a brick wall with poor crosses, Palmeiras were able to use their wing play as a genuine weapon.
With the scores at 2-2, we were left with the fascinating scenario of having both teams desperate to score a winner. Stretched and essentially down to ten men after João Denoni suffered a shoulder injury after all substitutions had been made, Palmeiras couldn’t hold on and Fred scored a late goal to win the title for Fluminense.
With three games left to play, Fluminense were crowned champions of the Brasileirão 2012. Their form throughout the season was nothing short of spectacular, suffering only three defeats from 35 matches played. However they were helped by the unexpected (yet still inevitable) capitulation of title rivals Atlético-MG.
Fluminense have often been regarded as the side who have played the most attractive football in 2012. In my opinion, this is a myth. Fluminense’s playing style is based on solidity and organisation above all else. Atlético-MG have arguably been a more entertaining team.
Of course, the idea of ‘attractive football’ is subjective. There are some who see this current Barcelona side as unattractive and boring, while others hail them as the most aesthetically pleasing side ever to have played the game.
When Fluminense have ex-Barcelona and Chelsea playmaker Deco in their side, they are capable of playing some marvellous football. Sitting in the No.10 position, Deco organises the entire match and dictates the tempo. Asked what it was like to play with him in the side, team captain Fred said: ‘With Deco, you just need to be in the right place. He always guarantees the pass.’
Unfortunately for Fluminense, Deco has only been able to start 16 matches this season due to injuries. In those 19 matches without their maestro, Fluminense were merely efficient and deadly on the counterattack.
Although not yet rendered mathematically impossible, Sunday’s defeat puts Palmeiras seven points away from safety with only three games remaining and leaves them all but resigned to playing Série B in 2013.
So how did this all happen? In June, Palmeiras won the Copa do Brasil, handing them their first major trophy in over a decade. More significantly, it also earned them a place in the group stages of the Copa Libertadores 2013.
Knowing that they did not have a squad capable to challenge for the title and with continental qualification already assured, Palmeiras took their foot off the gas.
As their league position fell, the number of games increased and Palmeiras began to resemble a car stuck in a dirt trench. With matches scheduled every three days, the Verdão struggled to establish a rhythm and continued to drop points. Soon it was clear relegation was a real possibility.
Behind the scenes, Sociedade Esportiva Palmeiras is a mess. Internal politics and exhausting power struggles have left Palmeiras devoid of any squad plan. Perhaps that is a story for another day.
Fluminense’s triumph and Palmeiras’ (possible) demise serve as wonderful illustrations for the Campeonato Brasileiro’s transition to a pontos corridos format. In 2003, the national championship ditched their end of season play-offs and followed the European style, becoming a traditional 20 team, 38 match league with a running points (pontos corridos) total.
There has been plenty of opposition to the pontos corridos format, but mainly from those who have not been successful since its introduction. Put simply, pontos corridos rewards planning and consistency; it punishes complacency and short-termism.