Dérbi days

I’ve never made a point of concealing my allegiences within sport. Doing so, even in the realm of sports journalism, strikes me as odd and begs the question as to why one would withhold such information. To hide bias? To appear more professional or respectable?

There is a suggestion that by revealing the club you support you run the risk of estranging a large portion of your audience, opposing fans. However, the best examples of sports journalism in this country have all tied their colours to the mast at one point or another. Whether that be the corintiano Juca Kfouri, the palmeirense Paulo Vinicius Coelho, the cruzeirense Tostão or going further back to diehard Fluminense fan Nelson Rodrigues.

The honesty of revealing your favourite club is not unprofessional, most people, in fact, find it endearing. It shows that beneath the match reports and byline pictures, the journalist is a supporter, too.

I grew up in Glasgow and became a Celtic supporter at an early age. However, since becoming passionate about Brazilian football, to eventually moving here some years ago, I have developed a strong attachment to Palmeiras.

It is often said that supporting more than one football team is impossible. It certainly is possible, although it’s a gradual process. It took me a while to genuinely care for Palmeiras, initially it was more of a fondness, a preference, but as time went on (and realising the fact that my two favourite clubs have virtually zero chance of competing for the same title) that fondness became a passion.

With Celtic out of the Champions League and plodding along unchallenged toward the Scottish title, and Palmeiras stuck in the second tier throughout last year, Sunday’s dérbi paulista between Corinthians and Palmeiras was the first match in a while that I could genuinely get worked up about.

Seeing as I had no journalistic responsibilities during the match, I allowed myself to get a bit carried away. The referee was called every name under the sun (in both English and Portuguese, for a bit of variety), my head was in my hands at Romarinho’s opener and I shouted far too loudly at Alan Kardec’s late equaliser. Those are truly some of the best moments in football, and a part of me is disappointed that I can’t get so involved every week.

In my moments of clarity, I did my best to analyse the game, as after all, the dérbi came at an interesting time for both sides.

What I did notice was a big improvement from Corinthians. Under pressure, coach Mano Menezes broke away from the 4-2-3-1 system that has been used religiously by the Timão in recent years, opting instead for a 4-5-1 with three defensive-minded central midfielders. Newly-instated club captain Ralf held the fort in front of the defence, while Guilherme and debutant Bruno Henrique took turns pushing forward to attack.

Menezes’ objective was clearly to crowd the midfield, seeing as the vast majority of Palmeiras’ attacking play originates from Jorge Valdivia and Wesley. In this respect they were successful and they bossed possession for most of the match.

It will be interesting to see if Menezes sticks to this system outside of the clássico environment. I think the change could suit them: they have some fresh blood in Jadson and Bruno, as well as a different system that doesn’t make drastic changes to their general playing style.

Speaking of Jadson, the on-loan São Paulo man had a strong debut and played an important role as one of Corinthians’ wide midfielders. Without possession, he marked his opposing full-back and pressed centre-backs with the ball, while in attack he looked to drift infield and create attacking moves. He was always aware of his positioning though, which stopped Corinthians from losing their shape.

Palmeiras weren’t anywhere near as dominant as they were in their last clássico, winning 2-0 against São Paulo, but they showed signs of a maturing team and once again proved to be a close-knit unit. Aware that they were forced to surrender the midfield battle to Corinthians’ three centre-midfielders, Gilson Kleina set up his Palmeiras side a bit deeper in order to soak up Corinthians pressure.

Some of their defensive work in the first half was excellent, with a special mention to young centre-back Wellington, who was terrific and looks to be a high-level defender in the making.

Their threat on the counterattack could have been better however. Valdivia and Wesley played fairly decent games, considering the circumstances, and came close to completing some killer passes behind the Corinthians defence, but they were almost always cut out. When Palmeiras did get the ball in advantageous situations, wide attackers Mazinho and Leandro were indecisive, wasteful and generally played poorly.

A disappointing second half cost the Verdão a chance at victory, but their late equaliser shows that they are a committed and mentally tough squad, something which has been lacking at the club in recent years.

Palmeiras coach Gilson Kleina has come under a lot of unwarranted criticism at the start of the season, as the board’s choice to extend his contract during the club’s centenary year was seen by many as being unambitious. The ‘ambitious’ alternative to Kleina was Vanderlei Luxemburgo, a manager, wrapped in an ego, inside an Armani suit, who in 2013 was fired from Grêmio and relegated (albeit not for long) with Fluminense and whose last major trophy came in 2004. Go figure.

Kleina is a relatively new face at the top level of Brazilian football, despite starting his coaching career in 1999 as an assistant to Abel Braga at Coritiba. His first high-profile job came at Campinas club Ponte Preta in 2011, where he won promotion to Série A and had them punching above their weight in 2012. Palmeiras signed him to replace Luiz Felipe Scolari in a doomed attempt at escaping relegation, and last year he brought the Verdão back to the top division, comfortably winning the Série B.

He’s popular amongst the players and has managed to create a healthy atmosphere at the club, despite the presence of some inflated egos. Tactically, he isn’t the most adventurous coach, though his teams always have a defined objective and playing style, which goes a long way in domestic Brazilian football. 

It’s difficult to tell how Palmeiras will fare this year, as they have largely been tested against sides at Série B level or lower, but if their performance in these recent matches against São Paulo and Corinthians are anything to go by, palmeirenses such as myself can hope for a very respectable season indeed.

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