Who’s up for the Cup?

The quarter finals of Brazil’s domestic cup competition, the Copa do Brasil, get underway this midweek. Recently adapted to include all top-flight teams (those participating in the Copa Libertadores were previously exempt) and align its final stages to the last few months of the league season, the Copa has become one of the biggest attractions of Brazilian football’s long and packed calendar. It provides full stadiums, quality football and quenches the Brazilian fan’s thirst for knockout tournaments.

The Copa do Brasil is quite different from most of the traditional European domestic cups, owing more of a debt to Spain’s Copa del Rey in its two-legged format. Major upsets are rare, while the idea of a “cup run” is alien. Due to Brazilian teams’ overcrowded fixture lists, competing seriously in the Copa is a calculated choice as opposed to naturally building momentum.

Challenging in both the league and cup is difficult. It is no coincidence that at this late stage in the tournament, Corinthians and Atlético Mineiro, 1st and 2nd in the league, are already eliminated from the cup.

Third in the league table, Grêmio have been one of the sensations of this Brazilian season. However, their thin squad has caught up with them and they are seeing their title chances slip away. Their 3-2 loss on Saturday evening against Palmeiras was an excellent example of their lack of depth: creative midfielder Giuliano and marauding right-back Galhardo, both crucial to Grêmio’s attacking play, were missing. The Grêmio side that remained was unrecognisable and unable to contain Palmeiras.

On their day, with all their important players fit, Grêmio are more than a match for any other side in Brazil. Yet their lack of strength on the bench means they much better suited to short tournaments such as the Copa do Brasil.

It will be interesting to see how they treat their quarter-final tie against Fluminense. They are realistically the only team with any chance of challenging Corinthians and Atlético Mineiro for the league title, but the gap between themselves and the leaders stretched to nine points this past weekend. Any hopes of them winning the Brazilian championship are hanging on by a thread.

Meanwhile, the gap between Grêmio and São Paulo in 5th place (the first team outside of the Copa Libertadores qualification zone) is six points. This is a significant cushion, meaning they have the breathing room to take a crack at cup glory.

Another factor surely weighing on gremista minds is how long they have been waiting in the title queue. With plenty of huge football clubs dotted around the country, Brazilian football’s big guns can go for an awfully long time without winning any trophies. Not content with competing every year for the league and the cup, Brazil’s 12 grandes are in constant battle with one another in the fila de títulos, or trophy queue. Sitting at the front of the line are Botafogo, who have watched their rivals skip ahead of them for the last 17 years, when they won the Rio-SP championship of 1998. Grêmio are not far behind – their last major honour came in 2001 when they won the Copa do Brasil, defeating Vanderlei Luxemburgo’s Corinthians in the final*.

*The decisive game of the 2001 Copa do Brasil is notable for the sending off of Corinthians nominative determinist centre-back Rafael Scheidt, back in Brazil after his glorious spell in Glasgow with Celtic.

Grêmio’s fierce rivals Internacional are equally strong candidates, currently enjoying a late surge in an attempt to save a season that looked doomed to mediocrity.

With a strong squad at the beginning of they year, midfield pillars Charles Aránguiz and Andres D’Alessandro (one of Brazilian football’s best playmakers, even at the ripe old age of 34) flanked by some exciting young talents, they were strong title candidates back in May. However, their aspirations lay elsewhere, choosing to focus only on winning the Copa Libertadores.

Everything was going to plan. Inter stormed through the knockout stages playing some inspirational football. Meanwhile, they fielded reserve sides in the league and floundered near the bottom of the table.

All came crashing down when Inter were demolished over two legs in the semi-final against Mexican club Tigres. The defeat was catastrophic. It cost Uruguayan coach Diego Aguirre his job and left the team stuck in the mud of midtable, out of the title race.

Crucially they got a new lease of life in Aguirre’s replacement, the wonderfully named Argel Fucks. When Inter called, he was in charge of Figueirense, an altogether average side who were punching above their weight under his leadership.

Fucks has an explosive and demanding personality. He is always seen on the touchline barking orders at his side and berating the referee. Though this is futile in practical terms, Brazilian footballers often respond well to Fucks’ boisterous, aggressive approach. Furthermore, unlike some of his contemporaries, Fucks has tactical nous. He is one of a handful of coaches who have identified the winning formula in today’s Brazilian game: heavy pressing and quick counterattacks.

Inter’s return to form was underlined by their scintillating home win against Corinthians last week. It was their opponents’ first defeat in 18 league games.

Internacional will face Palmeiras on Wednesday evening, with the first leg taking place at Inter’s Beira-Rio stadium in Porto Alegre.

Palmeiras find themselves in the same boat as their quarter-final rivals: do they push on for a top four finish in the league, or do they try their luck at winning the Copa do Brasil?

This past weekend may have made up Palmeiras’ minds for them. After many rounds on the cusp of the top four, results this weekend left Palmeiras in fourth position with a two-point gap between themselves and São Paulo in fifth place. They will face São Paulo this Sunday afternoon in the league, a match far more important to them than a cup quarter final.

São Paulo, perhaps, do not share their rival’s point of view. Of all the quarter finalists, São Paulo are they only ones to have explicitly made their decision over whether to focus on the league or cup.

On Sunday, away to relegation-threatened Avaí, São Paulo played a weakened side. Rogério Ceni, Pato, Bruno and Thiago Mendes were rested. Luis Fabiano and Michel Bastos were purposefully suspended, picking up yellow cards midweek against Chapecoense. They ended up losing 2-1. Colombian coach Juan Carlos Osorio took full responsibility: “We have a great chance of winning the Copa do Brasil and we are going to go for it. Let’s wait until the quarter-finals to see if I made a mistake [in resting players against Avaí].”

One thing is clear: whether it comes from a cup win or a strong league finish, Osorio must secure Copa Libertadores qualification for next season. His start at São Paulo has been shaky and if the club is not present in next year’s group stage draw, Osorio is unlikely to keep his job.

Also in the mix are Santos – the sensation of the second half of this Brazilian league season. Although their serious financial troubles have not gone away, they have managed to put together some impressive results on the pitch. In their last 13 league matches, they have lost only twice. Current coach Dorival Júnior has abandoned the ultra-negative tactics he employed (and left him unemployed) at Palmeiras in 2014. He appears to have returned to his roots. Santos are playing an attractive, high tempo and attacking style, all knitted together by the great young midfielder Lucas Lima. They should coast past Figueirense.

Photo: Diego Guichard

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