Atlético Mineiro x Corinthians

This year’s Brazilian championship has made for an intriguing race, in which we are approaching the final curve. Corinthians have a significant lead, but before they get their hands on the trophy they must survive one final test when they visit second-placed Atlético Mineiro this Sunday.

Brazil’s 20-team national championship is nothing if not competitive. Since 2003, when the league adopted its 38-game season format (doing away with playoffs), Brazil has had six different champions. The English Premier League has had only five different champions since its inception in 1992, and to find six distinct title winners in Spain one would have to go back to 1983.

The reason for such diversity can be attributed to the geography of Brazilian football. While major European countries have a handful of dominant teams spread across one or two football centres, Brazil’s continental size and population mean the country has 12 clubs considered grandes. Four from Rio de Janeiro (Flamengo, Fluminense, Vasco da Gama and Botafogo), four from São Paulo (Corinthians, São Paulo, Palmeiras, Santos) and the big two from Belo Horizonte (Atlético Mineiro and Cruzeiro) and Porto Alegre (Grêmio and Internacional).

Supporters of the Dominant Dozen are used to fighting over state titles with their local rivals and bring this inflated expectation of silverware with them when their team plays at the national level. With so many contenders under consistent pressure to win trophies and only one champion, the Brazilian league is full of intriguing title races and heartbroken fans.

This year’s early leaders were Sport Recife, one of the three major clubs from the north-eastern state of Pernambuco. Under then coach Eduardo Baptista they played an intelligent and organised style, backed up by the temperamental talents of Rio and São Paulo rejects Diego Souza, André, Marlone and Maikon Leite. They remained unbeaten in their first eleven matches and were still in the hunt by the league’s half-way point in August. By then, however, they had been joined by three of the Big Twelve: Grêmio, Atlético Mineiro and Corinthians.

In September, I wrote about the amazing turnaround Roger Machado has managed at Grêmio. Since then their momentum has steadily decreased, dropping points this weekend would be the final mathematical nail on their title hopes’ coffin.

This year’s Brazilian championship, therefore, will be won by Corinthians or Atlético Mineiro. With six rounds left to play, the former have a seemingly unassailable eight-point lead, opened up thanks to a 17-game unbeaten run from July to September. An Atlético win on Sunday would keep the race alive, though there is a sense it would only be delaying the inevitable.

Corinthians’ surge to the top of the league is made all the more impressive considering their situation at the beginning of the league. Knocked out of the Copa Libertadores, they saw their Peruvian international centre-forward Paolo Guerrero sign for rivals Flamengo and many of their first-team squad complain of unpaid wages. Head coach Tite, after losing 3-1 to Grêmio in early June, claimed the club were “taking a step back this year in order to take two steps forward in 2016”, suggesting they did not hold out much hope for the remainder of the season. They went on to quietly dominate the league, gradually working their way to the top. By the championship’s half-way point, they had a four-point lead in first place.

Whereas Corinthians have been consistent and efficient, Atlético Mineiro’s campaign has been turbulent and unpredictable. For the last few years, Atlético have specialised in playing an intense brand of football, suffocating opponents and fighting for every ball, spurred on by their noisy fans at the Arena Independência. This style, the Galo Doido (“crazy rooster”, a play on the club’s nickname: Galo, or rooster), comes in handy when playing at home in a crucial cup tie (or a decisive league match?). It took them to their first Copa Libertadores title in 2013. However, it’s not sustainable over a 38-game season.

This year they have tamed the Galo Doido somewhat, while still playing a high defensive line and creating many chances. They should control possession in Sunday’s game, with Corinthians content to play deep in their own half.

The idea of a high defensive line is still somewhat new in Brazil, where centre-backs are more accustomed to playing on their own 18-yard lines. As a result, there are few defenders who know how to play in such systems, often being easily caught out by quick counterattacks. Jemerson, Atlético’s 23 year old defender, is a rare exception to this rule. Tall, quick and intelligent, he is the reason Galo have not leaked goals at every turn.

Unfortunately for the home fans, Jemerson will miss Sunday’s game due to a suspension, leaving the creaking Leonardo Silva and Edcarlos to marshal the Galo defence. This is where Corinthians will look to expose their opponents.

  • Sunday, 17:00 (GMT-2)
  • Arena Independência, Belo Horizonte (MG)

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