Time will tell

On Sunday evening, this year’s Brazilian championship reaches its half-way stage. Cruzeiro currently lead the way with 37 points, four clear of their nearest rivals. Regardless of their result against Flamengo this weekend, the Minas Gerais side has already won the symbolic title of “campeão do primeiro turno”, or first term champions.

Although there is no trophy or financial reward for being on top of the league after 19 matches, in Brazil, the “winner” of the first term usually ends up holding on to their place come the 38th round. In fact, in the last ten editions of the Brasileirão, seven of the first term champions have gone on to win the trophy.

It is not by chance that Cruzeiro are in front. They play some of the most attractive football in the country and have one of the most talented squads to back that up. Since Marcelo Oliveira (a forward for Cruzeiro’s bitter rivals Atlético-MG in the 1970s) took charge in January, he has implanted his successful playing style and tactical system: a 4-2-3-1 built on constant movement and quick passing triangles. This approach brought good results during Marcelo’s two years at Coritiba and now with a more talented group of players at his disposal, the Belo Horizonte-born coach is finally getting the recognition he deserves.

One impressive quality of this Cruzeiro team is the vast number of options they have in attack. For the line of three behind the centre-forward, there are nine relevant players able to occupy the three positions. Éverton Ribeiro, Dagoberto, Luan, Martinuccio, Willian, Lucca, Élber, Ricardo Goulart and Júlio Baptista. Their team is missing a craque to organise the play and serve as an attacking reference, like Seedorf at Botafogo or Alex at Coritiba, but by that same token they are not over reliant on one player to make the team tick.

cruz

There have been some defensive troubles, however. Since joining from Vasco, centre-back Dedé has struggled to regain his form and has made several high-profile errors, while his defensive partner Bruno Rodrigo is little more than an average stopper.

The real issues appear to be in midfield, where first-choice pairing Nílton and Souza have only started together in half of Cruzeiro’s matches. When they are at full strength, the team looks solid and rarely concedes, but substitutes Leandro Guerreiro and Lucas Silva are not up to the job, as they demonstrated at home last weekend by allowing Vasco to score three times.

The only other team that looks genuinely equipped to challenge Cruzeiro is current world champions Corinthians. The Timão made a slow start to the national championship, but have now lost only one of their last eleven league matches.

While his starting eleven has been more or less constant for the last two years, Corinthians coach Tite has been varying his tactics a lot this year, trying to find a suitable balance in the wake of bellwether midfielder Paulinho’s departure to Tottenham Hotspur.

Their defensive solidity has remained however, thanks in part to the signing of former Cruzeiro centre-back Gil from French side Valenciennes. Corinthians have the most secure defence in the league by some distance, conceding only eight goals in eighteen matches. The second best defence is that of Santos, who have conceded fourteen goals after playing two fewer games.

Antithetical to the league leaders, Corinthians have been responsible at the back yet shy in front of goal. At times they seem content to stay strong in defence, getting bodies behind the ball, hoping that they can win the match on a stray counterattack or set-piece. This approach has worked for them before, namely in the 2012 Copa Libertadores and Club World Cup final against Chelsea, but when you are inviting pressure and not creating many chances it becomes an ineffective way to play.

Alexandre Pato has yet to live up to the expectation of being the most expensive signing by a Brazilian club, but at the very least Corinthians have got him playing and injury-free, something Milan were never able to do. Pato is a strange case, in that he is regarded as an elite centre-forward without having done anything in his career to properly merit such a status. Fame and his lengthy injuries have contributed to this, making us see something that was never there.

Behind Cruzeiro and Corinthians, there is a small group of outsiders comprising Botafogo, Grêmio and Atlético-PR.

Botafogo started the season extremely well, playing a modern, attractive style of play led by veteran playmaker Clarence Seedorf. The surprise departure of Vitinho leaves them a little sluggish in attack though, they will miss his direct threat.

21 year-old Hyuri made his debut for the club on Thursday night against Coritiba, scoring twice in a 3-1 win. I don’t know much about the player, who joined the club on loan last month from Audax after an impressive state championship campaign, but Botafogo’s knowledgeable coach Oswaldo de Oliveira seems to believe Hyuri has what it takes to fill Vitinho’s absence. Time will tell.

Renato Gaúcho has made a good start to his time at Grêmio, as has Vagner Mancini in charge of Atlético-PR. Both teams are organised and on a good run of form, Grêmio playing a 3-5-2 system that focuses on width and attacking support from their wing-backs, while Atlético have constructed a dangerous attacking unit, with plenty of speed and off-the-ball movement, spurred on by the evergreen Paulo Baier.

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

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.

 
grenal

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.

The Lone Star on top of the tree

After six rounds, the Brasileirão table has yet to take shape. Many sides are struggling for form, with only four teams in the top ten winning their matches this weekend (and only one in the top five). However, it comes as no surprise that Oswaldo de Oliveira’s Botafogo are leading the way.

The current Rio de Janeiro state champions possess three qualities fundamental to form a good team. Firstly, they have an effective tactical system; secondly, they have players with the relevant characteristics and qualities to fit into that system; and finally, they have formed a cohesive team unit.

Botafogo defeated Fluminense yesterday in the clássico vovô thanks to superior strategy. Against the current Brazilian champions, Bota were content to position themselves deeper on the pitch, tightly marking Fluminense’s midfield and full-backs and allowing their centre-backs to remain unchallenged, but without any passing options.

For years now, Flu’s game-plan has been dependant on the support they receive from the flanks. Their two full-backs, Carlinhos and Bruno (Mariano, in 2011), are the most attacking in Brazilian football and it is their energy and attacking thrust that has so often tipped the balance in Fluminense’s favour.

On Sunday that supply line was cut, and Fluminense ran out of ideas. Centre-forward Fred confirmed this after the match, suggesting that they played too much of their football through the middle of the field.

Botafogo sealed the 1-0 win with a lovely right-footed strike from Clarence Seedorf, and in the end they were good value for the three points.

Seedorf’s Brazilian adventure is now just over a year old, and in that time he has made such a profound impact on this Botafogo team. When Seedorf first arrived from Milan, head coach Oswaldo de Oliveira was worried that he would not be able to fit him into their system. However, after a bit of trial-and-error, Oswaldo stopped trying to fit Seedorf into the system, and instead adapted the system to fit around Seedorf.

The Dutchman is the number 10 in Botafogo’s 4-2-3-1, but as he pushes forward or drifts wide, the other three attackers instinctively reposition themselves around him, still managing to maintain their attacking shape. This way, Seedorf has more freedom, he is involved more in the match, and the opposition never get the chance to man mark.

At this point, Botafogo is among the strongest and best prepared sides in Brazil, along with Corinthians, Atlético-MG, and at a stretch, Cruzeiro. That is no guarantee that they will form the top four come the end of the season, though. The Brasileirão is a gruelling campaign, with a high volume of games in a short space of time. Often, staying injury free is half the battle.

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In Série B, Palmeiras were impressive in their 4-0 home win against Oeste. The match saw the return from injury of Chilean playmaker Jorge Valdívia, who has been perpetually out of action since returning to the club in 2010. In these past three years, Valdivia has featured in 92 matches for the club, missing 110 through injury or suspension.

On Saturday however, Valdívia was playing with a point to prove. The Chilean was instrumental in all four of Palmeiras’ goals (including a wonderful passing move for goal number three) and was roundly applauded when substituted in the second half.

Palmeiras coach Gilson Kleina altered his team’s system slightly for Valdívia’s return. For most of the match, Palmeiras operated in their usual 4-3-1-2 shape, with Valdívia as the enganche, however when wide forwards Vinícius and Leandro worked back to mark, Valdívia was left as the furthest man forward, in a shape resembling a 4-3-3.

Having Valdívia in the line-up, accounting for the majority of the creative workload, all of Palmeiras’ other attacking players gave better performances, Wesley in particular.

New Mirror Football post

Just a little reminder that my most recent post on the Mirror Football website was published today, a little look at the crazily competitive season we have had in the Brasileirão, with a mind-blowing stat to back it up.

You can find the post here, have a read, and if you have any opinions or anything you’d like to discuss, drop me a comment on the site, or here at the end of this post.

I’ll be back in mid-week (probably Thursday, Wednesday is a national holiday) with the Game of the Week from this weekend, and I will also have another Twenty to Watch profile going up. Stay tuned.

Twenty To Watch: Elkeson

Kicking off the new Twenty To Watch feature here on I like football me, where we will be profiling twenty players from the Brasileirão, I’d like to welcome my first guest contributer, Stefan Kelly. Stefan has developed a passionate interest in the Brasileirão, and today he will be talking about one of his favourite players, Botafogo’s Elkeson. Continue reading Twenty To Watch: Elkeson

Game of the Week: Botafogo 2×2 São Paulo

Good afternoon and welcome to the all-new Game of the Week feature on I Like Football Me. The premise is simple, I take a close look at a top-level match from the week passed and provide some of my own analysis. This time it is a game from the Campeonato Brasileiro but who knows, in future I may take a look at one in the Argentine Primera, or a midweek Copa Libertadores clash, or even a good old international match. Now, this may become a regular once a week feature, it may not, it depends on how it is received. So if you like it/don’t like it or if you have any suggestions, leave a comment at the bottom.

“Football is a game of two halves”

                                        Countless football-enthusiastic pedants since 1980

It is one of the most excruciatingly overused football clichés available, but its relevance has never ringed truer than it did on Sunday afternoon at the Engenhão. A 2×2 draw between two exciting and energetic sides like Botafogo and São Paulo sounds like a real classic spectacle, end-to-end, and with the momentum to-ing and fro-ing constantly throughout the ninety minutes. In fact, what we got was two distinct forty-five-minute periods of startlingly one-sided football. Continue reading Game of the Week: Botafogo 2×2 São Paulo