Copa do Brasil

The round of 16 of Brazil’s domestic cup competition, the Copa do Brasil, got underway this midweek. For the first time, clubs that were involved in this year’s Copa Libertadores have been allowed to participate, making this the Copa’s most cut-throat edition yet.

The idea of a national cup competition is a fairly new one in Brazil, down in part to the size of the country and the local importance once placed on the waning state championships. However, winning trophies is a fundamental piece of the Brazilian football fan’s psyche, and any competition that allows a club to lift some silverware after only a handful of matches will always have a place in Brazil’s football calendar.

For the less superficial, the Copa do Brasil is still an inviting prospect for clubs. The winner of the tournament earns a place in the group stages of the following year’s Copa Libertadores, and the only other way for Brazilian teams to qualify for the continent’s premier club competition is to finish among the top four in the national championship, the Brasileirão.

Therein lays one of the main problems with the Copa do Brasil: its impact on the Brasileirão. South American football clubs have an inherent problem with juggling multiple competitions at once. Whether by choice or by lack of squad depth, South American sides in general can only focus on one tournament at a time. Mid-table or bottom half teams may well abandon their league exploits and go all in on the cup, a far-more realistic avenue towards Libertadores qualification.

This particular strategy has its risks, however. If a club was to ignore their results in the league in search of a cup win, one contentious red card or a late goal in the final could throw their entire season into turmoil. The Brazilian league calendar is extremely bloated and just a few weeks of bad form is enough to plunge teams into crisis.

Even winning the cup has its dangers. Palmeiras, last year’s champions, completely shifted their attentions towards the Copa do Brasil and away from the league. By the time their title celebrations had died down, they realised that they were entrenched in the relegation zone. More and more league fixtures came thick and fast and struggling to build up any momentum, the cup winners were relegated to Série B.

I was at the first leg of Palmeiras’ last 16 tie against Atlético-PR on Wednesday night and the mood on the stands was altogether positive. This year, Palmeiras are in the unique position of being able to prioritise the Copa do Brasil while standing a good chance of winning the Série B even with a reserve side.

With less pressure on their league form, Palmeiras could conceivably go far in this year’s tournament. Their defensive situation is troubling though and they are conceding far too many goals, especially from their left side. Left-back Juninho has had a good start to the season and his efficiency in attack has improved considerably, but he has never been a particularly good defender. He doesn’t track back well and often leaves vast spaces behind him for the opposition to exploit, and Palmeiras do not have any centre-backs sufficiently adept at covering these gaps.

Had Atlético been more clinical in front of goal, they would have won on Wednesday evening. As it was, Palmeiras scored early and held on to their 1-0 lead until the final whistle.

Later that night, Luverdense’s surprise 1-0 win against world champions Corinthians highlighted another problem with the Copa. Unlike the majority of domestic cup competitions around the world, each round of the Copa do Brasil is contested over two legs. The concept of a giantkilling, of the unpredictability of the cup, is unheard of in the Copa do Brasil, because upsets have been made virtually impossible.

Luverdense, a club less than ten years old from the city of Lucas do Rio Verde in the central-west state of Mato Grosso, sat deep in their own half, frustrated Corinthians and managed to win 1-0. But what should have been a heroic scalp will have been for nothing, as Luverdense are likely to be soundly beaten in Wednesday’s second leg in São Paulo.

The idea of a knockout competition is that the best team doesn’t always win. The cup should award daring and guts, not consistency. Brazil already has the Brasileirão, which determines the best team in the country over 38 rounds.

An honourable mention must go to Botafogo’s 19 year-old midfielder Vitinho, who led his team to a 4-2 victory against Atlético-MG in the Maracanã on Thursday evening.

With no Clarence Seedorf to organise the play (the Dutchman was ruled out through injury), Botafogo struggled in the first half and were picked off on the counterattack by their opponents. Vitinho then took it upon himself to drop deeper and play the “Seedorf role”, constantly looking for the ball and serving as a reference for Botafogo’s fluid attacking system. The teenager had a hand in all four goals, scoring the final one himself.

Vitinho has already made a huge impact this season and looks to be a magnificent talent. He is comfortable beating players on either side and he has a great creative instinct, able to cut in from the left and make things happen. He has been working hard on improving his technique and has developed a wicked shot from the edge of the area with either foot. Under the guidance of Seedorf, Vitinho could be about to fill the gap left by Neymar, Lucas, Wellington Nem and Bernard as the league’s next big thing.

For footage of Vitinho’s assists and goal from Thursday evening, check out I like football me’s Facebook page

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It’s just not the same

Sunday’s game between Fluminense and Flamengo was the first time the two rivals have met in the newly renovated Maracanã.

After construction work began on the iconic stadium in 2010, Flamengo and Fluminense resorted to playing their home games at the Engenhão, another government-owned stadium in Rio de Janeiro and the traditional home of fellow carioca club Botafogo.

When the Engenhão was closed in March of this year after failing to meet basic safety standards (how a stadium can be inaugurated in 2007 and closed six years later is beyond me), three of Rio’s big four became homeless.

One of the two most influential cities in Brazilian football, Rio de Janeiro had only one functional football stadium (the Estádio São Januário, owned by Vasco da Gama) and four top-flight clubs.

But with the reopening of the newer, shinier, whiter Maracanã, Rio is once again hosting regular matches.

The Maracanâ, though, seems to have lost its soul.

On television, the Maracanã looks empty during league matches. This impression is slightly misleading, as Maracanã attendances have been some of the highest of the 2013 Brasileirão so far. The reason for the empty stands is that touchline seats are so expensive (the most affordable middle seat would set you back a cool R$ 150), prompting fans to congregate behind the goals in the so-called “cheap seats”.

Whereas in the past, fans would come down from the nearby working-class neighbourhoods of Mangueira and São Cristóvão to pack the infamous geral section hours before kick-off (often paying only R$ 1 for entry, as recent as 2005) and create that iconic Maraca atmosphere, today fans file in minutes before the match starts, struggling to hear themselves think over the state-of-the-art PA system blasting awful pop music.

The atmosphere during the match isn’t terrible though, and as I mentioned, the demand for tickets has been reasonable, albeit coming from a far more middle-class clientele. But it is not the same, and never will be. The old Maracanã has gone forever, the New Maracana Stadium stands in its place.

For more on the new Maracanã, I suggest following Geostadia.com, where Christopher Gaffney has been closely following every aspect of the new stadium and others around the country.

Now on to the Fla-Flu.

The 3-2 final score was misleading, as Flamengo were in complete control throughout and could just as easily have won the match four or five-nil.

This was probably Flamengo’s best game since Mano Menezes took charge in June. The former Seleção coach has implemented a new system at the club, pressing high up the field in a 4-1-4-1 shape, with Elias and André Santos (formerly of Sporting and Arsenal, respectively) creating play in midfield, and two quick, young wingers stifling the opposing full-backs and providing a goal threat.

flaflu

As the above diagram shows, when Fluminense (right to left) started their first phase of play from their goalkeeper or centre-backs, Flamengo made sure to tightly mark their midfield and full-backs, virtually forcing Fluminense to hand over possession.

When Flamengo won the ball back, they would attack with wonderful combinations on either flank: Elias, Gabriel and full-back Léo Moura on the right; André Santos, Nixon and João Paulo on the left. Fluminense couldn’t get anywhere near their quick one-twos and overlapping runs.

The roles of André Santos and Elias are interesting, but it is hardly a surprise they are performing well considering who is in charge. Mano Menezes worked with both players at Corinthians between 2008 and 2010, and famously called both up to the national team on a regular basis. Menezes knows both players well, and crucially he knows how to get the best out of them.

André Santos, for example, a failure at full-back for Arsenal, is being played higher up the field and more central. Menezes yesterday quipped that André is “like a BMW going forward, but like a Fusca tracking back”.

In the past few weeks, Fluminense have shown the rest of the league the perfect way to beat them. It is all about stopping their full-backs. With Carlinhos, their main attacking outlet from left-back, booked early on and pinned back straight from kick-off, Fluminense’s offensive unit lost its key supply line. With Fred static at centre-forward, Felipe not sharp enough to break away from his marker and both full-backs kept in their own half, Fluminense were completely useless going forward. Whenever their full-backs did manage to get in their opponent’s half, Flu scored.

Last season, whenever an opponent would close down their full-backs, Fluminense could play aimless long balls and rely on the pace and guile of Wellington Nem to keep the ball in attack. Without him, they could be in real trouble.

Clássicos, part two

Footballers have various ways of dealing with pressure on match day. Some are able to use the increased adrenaline in order to produce higher levels of substances in the brain that enhance performance, like emotional doping. Others succumb to the nerves and often try to hide on the field to avoid making high-profile mistakes.

Pressure can manifest itself in other, more visceral ways. In a derby match, when full of adrenaline, some players commit over-zealous fouls and get themselves into trouble. Violence can spoil a good game of football, and this happens so often with fierce rivalries.

A perfect example of this was yesterday’s clássico between Grêmio and Internacional in Porto Alegre. The first half was exciting, with some interesting tactical battles and good play from either side. Grêmio took the lead from a penalty kick, before Inter equalised through Leandro Damião.

Renato Gaúcho’s Grêmio surprisingly went for a 3-4-1-2 system, bringing in new signing Rhodolfo as a sweeper in the back three. This switch from their usual 4-4-2 was to give more freedom to the wing-backs, who pushed up the field and occupied Internacional’s full-backs, leaving their opponents light and narrow in attack. Deep-lying forward Kléber played an important role, drifting wide and creating 2 on 1 situations on either flank.

 
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With pressure levels turned up to eleven, the second half turned scrappy and play was repeatedly stopped for violent fouls. The referee lost control of the players and red cards soon followed. We were robbed of a suitable ending to what began as an intriguing match.

Some people relish this type of game. However while violence is clearly a source of entertainment for many (you just need to look at the popularity of sports like mixed martial arts and boxing), football doesn’t need it.

Clássicos aren’t all bad, though. Sometimes they get it right.

Vasco x Botafogo was a good example of why derby matches can be so enthralling. Spurred on by the pressure, both teams played with higher intensity while staying within the rules. As a result, we were treated to some excellent Sunday evening entertainment.

Botafogo is currently the best team in the Brasileirão. Head coach Oswaldo de Oliveira has built a wonderful 4-2-3-1 system that revolves around veteran midfielder Clarence Seedorf. They work extremely well as a unit, pressing high and with superb movement in attack.

Seedorf got on the score sheet once again, his 18th goal in 29 appearances for Botafogo. Before moving to Brazil, Seedorf had scored less than 100 goals in a club career that comprised over 700 appearances. This sudden surge of goal scoring form has nothing to do with a gap in quality between the Brazilian league and any of Europe’s finest, it comes as a result of Botafogo’s playing style, which has the Dutchman at the centre of everything.

With Botafogo leading 2-1 at half-time, Oswaldo de Oliveira had a decision to make. Last weekend, leading at the break in another clássico against Flamengo, Oswaldo changed his team’s approach for the second half, bringing off attacking midfielder Vitinho and replacing him with defensive midfielder Renato in an attempt to “administer the game”. All that did was remove Botafogo’s only deep threat and invite Flamengo to attack. Botafogo conceded a late equaliser, and Oswaldo was a victim of the clássico pressure.

Though Brazilian coaches and commentators love to use the phrase, it is extremely difficult to administer a football match. There are so many factors to administer in a game, and attempting to do so is futile and often counter-productive.

Excellent coaches learn from their mistakes, and Oswaldo did just that. Yesterday, instead of trying to administer the game, Oswaldo kept Botafogo in their usual system, which is strong enough to beat any team in Brazil at the moment. They went on to win 3-2, and are deservedly at the top of the league.