“Ghosts don’t frighten me.”
No, not a rejected line from the Ghostbusters theme song, but the words of Corinthians coach Tite after seeing his side destroy Colombian opponents Once Caldas 4-0 in the first leg of their Copa Libertadores first round tie, last night in São Paulo.
The ghost in question was that of Deportes Tolima. Four years ago, at the same stage of the competition, Corinthians faced Tolima, a modest club from the Colombian city of Ibagué. Despite the Brazilians having a squad that included World Cup winners Ronaldo and Roberto Carlos, they were held to a goalless draw in São Paulo before going down 2-0 in Colombia.
Their failure to negotiate their way past such average opposition and precocious elimination (or, as their rivals saw it, “tolimanation”) from the Copa Libertadores plunged Corinthians into a mini crisis. Fans protested, fingers were pointed and both Ronaldo and Roberto Carlos decided to part ways with the club.
A lot has changed at Corinthians since Tolima, they have since won the Brazilian championship, the Copa Libertadores and even the Club World Cup. Despite that, when these two teams were drawn together Brazil’s sports press ran amok with Tolima comparisons.
While the first leg in 2011 was a tense, uneventful affair, last night’s match at the Arena Corinthians was anything but. The action started from the very first minute, with the home side taking the lead after only 30 seconds of play. Three red cards, a wrongly disallowed goal and two wonderful passing moves later, Corinthians all but sealed their place in the Copa Libertadores group stage.
This was an overwhelmingly impressive performance from Tite’s men. Straight from the first whistle they pressed Once Caldas very high up the pitch, giving their defenders no time on the ball and forcing them into several mistakes. After winning back possession, they looked comfortable, patiently looking for openings in the Once Caldas defence.
Their real merit came in the second half however, as they were playing with a man disadvantage after Paolo Guerrero’s red card. As Once Caldas threw players forward, Corinthians remained extremely compact in a 4-2-3 shape and managed to keep their opponents at bay.
As the Colombians’ desperation became evident, Corinthians began punishing them on the counterattack and we were treated to two magnificent examples of quick passing football, ending in goals for Elias and Fagner. The comprehensiveness of the result perhaps was not an accurate representation of the 90 minutes, but was a testament to Tite’s marvellous adaptability and the squad’s determination so early in the season.
Corinthians’ performance was not perfect, gaps behind the full-backs and poor defensive positioning, already evident in the weekend’s state championship match against Marilia, reared their ugly heads once again. Once Caldas identified these weaknesses early on, and had they been able to count on a centre-forward more talented than the lumbering Sebastián Penco, it is likely they would have scored an away goal.
It is too early to tell, but after apathetic performances from the Brazilian clubs in last year’s Copa Libertadores, it is refreshing to see a motivated and energetic Corinthians side, while the group stage clássico against São Paulo on Ash Wednesday has the potential to be one of the games of the year.