During Sunday’s derby between Corinthians and São Paulo, I was Eduardo Galeano’s beggar for beautiful football. Arms outstretched, pleading for “one good move, for the love of God!” Unfortunately, seeing me writhing in desperation on my living room floor, the two teams ignored me completely and proceeded to play one of the dullest matches this year. Continue reading Corinthians 2-0 São Paulo
The seeing had become purblind so gradually that they scarcely noticed their loss. They guided the sightless youngsters hither and thither until they knew the whole valley marvellously, and when at last sight died out among them the race lived on.
-H.G. Wells, The Country of the Blind
After a tense 1-1 draw away to Vasco da Gama on Thursday evening, Corinthians were crowned champions of Brazil for the sixth time in their history. Although they stumbled over the finish line somewhat, helped by second-placed Atlético Mineiro losing 4-2 away to São Paulo, Corinthians have been by far and away the best side in the country and are fully deserving of the trophy.
With three matches left to play, Corinthians have the most points, the most wins, the least defeats, the most goals scored and the least conceded. It is rare in any 38-game football season that one team can express such superiority over the chasing pack.
Tite, Corinthians’ coach, is the talk of the town. This is the second time he has won the championship with the club (the last time coming in 2011, preceding Corinthians’ Copa Libertadores and World Club Cup wins the following year), and it would be hard to look beyond him as the greatest coach in the team’s history.
His intense personality, hyperactive touchline behaviour and apparently innovative coaching methods have endeared Tite not just to Corinthians fans, but to supporters of other clubs too. After Brazil’s embarrassing 7-1 loss against Germany in the 2014 World Cup, he seemed to be the national team’s only choice to replace Luiz Felipe Scolari, and deservedly so.
However, his success overshadows his shortcomings. His coaching career pre-2011 was patchy, and his teams often employ an over-pragmatic approach that is not easy on the eye. Furthermore, his efficiency is based on hours upon hours of work on the training ground, something he would not be offered were he to get the Brazil gig.
H.G. Wells once wrote about a mountain valley in South America, cut off from the rest of the world, that had in it all that the heart of man could desire. The only problem was that the people of this valley suffered from a strange disease that made them, and their children, blind.
He tells the story of a man, “who had been down to the sea and had seen the world, a reader of books in an original way”, who happened upon this Country of the Blind. Discovering that all of its inhabitants were in fact blind, the man garnered aspirations to lead and command them, repeating to himself the old proverb: “In the land of the blind, the One-Eyed Man is king.”
Brazilian football is a modern-day Country of the Blind. After decades of inertia and a dearth of new ideas, the quality of the Brazilian game has suffered greatly. Tactical trends that dominate the highest levels of European football only arrive in Brazil four or five years later. For instance, the idea of high defensive lines is still unthinkable in domestic Brazilian football, with centre-backs long accustomed to playing on the edge of their own penalty box, leaving huge gaps in front of them.
Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of those involved in Brazilian football are desperate for something new. Tite, Brazil’s One-Eyed Man, went on a Pep Guardiola-inspired sabbatical in 2014, studying strategy and training techniques while spending time with Real Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti. He has attempted to implement these “new ideas” into his Corinthians team and has been rightfully applauded for doing so.
However, despite their overwhelming dominance in this year’s Brazilian championship, Corinthians are not a world-beating side. They are organised, well-drilled and, crucially, they do the simple things well.
This is not to take anything away from Corinthians’ success, but to criticise their opposition. That simply making fewer mistakes than their peers is enough for Tite’s side to become Brazilian champions says plenty about the quality of the rest of the league.
Tite may well turn out to be an elite-level coach, but he’s not there yet. And without competent opposition, he never will be.
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. Continue reading Atlético Mineiro x Corinthians
“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.
World champions in 2012, Corinthians have failed to build on success and face years of austerity
This is the final post in a four-part series previewing the 2015 Brazilian football season. The first in the series, covering Cruzeiro and Atlético Mineiro, can be found here; the second, looking forward to a promising year for Palmeiras, can be found here and the third, detailing Santos’ financial crisis, can be found here..
In December 2012, Corinthians defeated European champions Chelsea by one goal to nil to win the Club World Cup in Yokohama, Japan. The triumph was the crowning achievement of a marvellous year for São Paulo’s largest club, who had become South American champions for the first time after beating Boca Juniors in an ultra-tense Copa Libertadores final in July. However, becoming champions of the world was just phase one of the Corinthians master plan.
Weeks after Corinthians’ win in Japan, British professional services firm Deloitte released their annual Football Money League report. Corinthians’ revenue of €94.1m saw them reach 31st place, an all-time high for South American clubs. With their brand-new stadium close to completion, the plan was to consolidate their position as the biggest club on the continent and break into the world’s top 20.
The following year, the project appeared to be well on track, with the club jumping seven places in the ranking and becoming the 24th richest club in world football, ahead of the likes of Benfica, Newcastle United and Ajax.
A lot can change in the space of 12 months, however, and with the bursting of Brazilian football’s financial bubble accompanied by underwhelming on-pitch performances, the name Corinthians is nowhere to be seen in this year’s Money League study. As it turned out, the second phase of the Corinthians master plan was far tougher to execute than the first.
In early 2013, in an attempt to flex their financial muscles and show the world what they were capable of, Corinthians prepared a sizable investment to sign AC Milan forward Alexandre Pato. Outbidding clubs in Europe, Corinthians repatriated the 22-year-old, with the €15m transfer fee still standing as the highest paid by any Brazilian club.
Although the club seemed to solve Pato’s chronic injury problems that hampered his career at Milan, his on-pitch performances were not nearly as impressive as Corinthians had hoped. He made 57 appearances for the club in 2013, scoring 17 goals, five of those coming in state championship matches. Despite showing some flashes of quality, Pato was regularly criticised by the Corinthians fans for a perceived lack of effort and commitment to the club’s success. Their patience with the forward completely expired after he missed a crucial penalty in a cup shootout against Grêmio, having attempted a Panenka that went harmlessly into the arms of opposing goalkeeper Dida.
In February 2014, one year after his record-breaking transfer, Pato was loaned to rivals São Paulo, in a deal that sees Corinthians pay 50% of his R$ 800k monthly salary.
Besides the disastrous Pato investment, Corinthians had many other reasons to lament their fortunes in 2013. Their march towards retaining the Copa Libertadores title veered off course in their first group match, an away trip to Bolivia to play San José, a game that ended in tragedy. Only five minutes into the first half, one of the home supporters, 14-year-old Kevin Beltrán, was struck in the eye and fatally wounded by a flare released by a member of Corinthians’ travelling support.
Corinthians coach Tite, a father of two, was visibly shaken by the events, putting the situation into perspective by affirming he would exchange the world championship they had won the year before for Kevin’s life.
Although the punishment handed to the club was remarkably lenient (they were forced to play their three home group matches behind closed doors, a decision later overturned after appeal), the incident did appear to have an effect on the squad. They advanced from their group, but faced Boca Juniors in the round of 16 and were eliminated.
They were equally disappointing in the national championship, quickly becoming known for their uninspiring football and results that read like lines of binary code. The consensus was that the team had gone stale: they had played the same system without variation for a long period of time and became starved of creativity.
Corinthians finished the 2013 season in 10th place, missing out on qualification for the Copa Libertadores. The club chose not to extend Tite’s contract as head coach, and the man who led them to South American and World titles left at the end of the season, tipped for the Brazilian national team job after the 2014 World Cup.
His replacement was an old acquaintance of the Corinthians faithful having managed the club between 2008 and 2010: former Brazil boss Mano Menezes. Born in the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul, Menezes belongs to the escola gaúcha of Brazilian coaches (as does Tite), giving priority to defensive solidity and physicality over flair and creativity.
Menezes did not do a terrible job, largely reproducing Tite’s tactical system with some new faces in the squad, but fans demanded more from the team, unhappy with their ultra-conservative approach in away matches. Corinthians finished 4th in the Brazilian championship, qualifying them for this year’s Copa Libertadores. Despite the reasonable return in his first season back, revolt from radical factions of the club’s supporters and behind-the-scenes power plays led to the sacking of Mano Menezes. Tite, still a free agent since his dismissal the year before, was subsequently brought back to lead the team in 2015.
Corinthians did have some embarrassing results in 2014, but they primarily came off the field. In 2013, even with the disastrous investment in Alexandre Pato and poor performances on the pitch, the club managed to close the year with a slim profit of R$ 1m. In contrast, though balance sheets have yet to be released for 2014, Corinthians are expected to announce a loss of around R$ 90m for the year.
The deficit is largely due to the club’s new stadium, which opened in the middle of last year. The Arena Corinthians, despite being the pride and joy of the fans, has left the club with debt of around R$ 750m (£190m). Money from gate receipts (usually a significant source of income for the club) is all going towards repaying the stadium debt. Corinthians have yet to negotiate a naming rights contract for the stadium, which will be discounted from the R$ 750m, but their short-term future remains bleak. Their wage bill has increased 40% in relation to last season and the club is already behind on image rights payments to players and departed coach Mano Menezes.
Their transfer budget for this year has been set at a modest R$ 10m (£2.5m), with that figure relying at least R$ 38m of income from selling players. To put this into perspective, Peruvian forward Paolo Guerrero, arguably the club’s most important player and whose contract expires in June, is currently demanding a signing-on fee of R$ 18m to renew his deal at the club, almost double the budget Corinthians have set out for the entire year.
Not only is Guerrero the club’s principal goal threat, he is also the central figure in Tite’s vision for Corinthians in 2015. Though they seem unable to afford him, losing such a quality player could be disastrous to their chances on the pitch.
After being scandalously overlooked for the national team job after the embarrassment of the 2014 World Cup, Tite spent his period of unemployment travelling, studying the game and speaking with peers. The biggest influence on his current coaching philosophy comes from the time he spent in Spain, visiting Real Madrid and Carlo Ancelotti.
Wanting to learn more about the 4-1-4-1 system employed at the Bernabéu, Tite went along to matches and training sessions, trying to gather as much information as he could to implement the same style in his next job. The principal virtue of Ancelotti’s Real Madrid team, superbly examined by Michael Cox, is their ability to successfully marry the two most effective philosophies in modern football: possession and counterattacking. It is this mixture that Tite wants to bring to Corinthians.
In the words of Michael Cox, Real Madrid’s attacking unit consists of “three midfield playmakers, two brilliant counterattackers and a hard-working, selfless number nine”. The midfield trio allow the team to establish control of possession, while their wide attackers exploit any space left by their opponents on transitions.
Such a complete attacking force would be too difficult to recreate in Brazilian domestic football, but with some alterations to the standard 2-2 block midfield setup in Brazil, Tite has brought his side somewhat closer to the Real Madrid model. Renato Augusto, for example, usually regarded as an out-and-out attacking midfielder, has been brought back into central midfield, along with Elias and Ralf. For their wide attackers, Tite has proposed playing a playmaker on the right (one of Nicolás Lodeiro, Danilo or Jadson) with a deep option on the left (Emerson, Malcom or Mendoza). Paolo Guerrero leads the line, getting on the end of any service coming his way, while also helping to create space for forward runs from midfield.
It will be interesting to see whether they can achieve the balance between possession and counterattack, pre-season performances indicate that it will be difficult. Against Bayer Leverkusen, Corinthians surrendered possession to their German opponents, mainly threatening from set-pieces, and in last week’s friendly against English non-league outfit Corinthian Casuals, they had the ball but lacked the guile and incisiveness to get behind a part-time defence.
Either way, instant success is unlikely. Though he has some of his old squad, Tite is a coach that requires time to make a team his own. The question is, will he be allowed that time? Since 2012, Corinthians is a completely different organisation, with loftier expectations and even less patience. Tite, partly responsible for the world and continental honours, was not given the chance to rebuild the team in 2013. Mano Menezes, with a proud history in his first spell as coach, was not even allowed to settle at the club before he was sacked. With what are sure to be some tricky and austere years ahead for Corinthians, Tite has to be prepared for much unjust criticism if results do not come along right away.
I regret to inform you that the World Cup has ended.
I know, I know, it’s not fair. Yes, we should have it every year (preferably in Brazil), and no, things will not be the same now that it has gone. Unfortunately, we have to wipe away the tears and get on with our lives.
The 2014 World Cup was a spectacular month of football, friendship and education. A celebration of the best things this wonderful sport has to offer, as well as pages and pages of narratives and subplots. As usual, it was great to see teams from all around the world, principally those outside of my region. Costa Rica were a surprise and a joy, with their superb spine of Keylor Navas, Giancarlo González, Celso Borges and Joel Campbell. Algeria’s first half performance against South Korea was one of the best moments of the tournament, only Germany in their first half against Brazil were more deadly.
Speaking of the German side, everyone was left in no doubt that the best team came out on top. This current Germany setup has given an example of planning and organisation which every footballing country around the world can learn from – their fourth World Cup trophy was more than deserved.
Anyway, it is time to return to reality. The wallchart has been folded away and kept in a safe place, the flags have been taken down from the windows and the television is showing soap operas and awful films in the slots the football has vacated.
Many football fans have expressed their desire to take a rest from the game, a couple of weeks of recovery and relaxation, allowing for a smooth comedown and a fresh appetite for the start of the European season. Fans in Brazil, however, have no such luxury.
Due to the Brazilian FA’s complete ignorance of how to create a spectacle, the Brazilian championship gets back underway this evening, only two days after the World Cup final was played at the Maracanã.
Six of the 12 World Cup stadiums will be in use in this midweek round of games, although only three of those are for top-flight matches. In the second division, Recife’s Arena Pernambuco will host Náutico v Sampaio Corrêa, Arena das Dunas in Natal will see América-RN v Bragantino, while the Arena Pantanal in the centre-west city of Cuiabá is strangely hosting Vasco da Gama (from Rio de Janeiro, in the south-east) against Santa Cruz (from Recife, in the north-east).
Why would Vasco choose to play a home match around 1,000 miles away from Rio de Janeiro? They are serving the final match of a punishment handed to them by the CBF for fan violence, forbidding them from playing at their home stadium. Instead of staging the game just outside of Rio, they are trying to ride Cuiabá’s World Cup wave and squeeze as much money as they can out of the situation.
In the first division, Corinthians will take on Internacional in their first match at the brand-new Arena Corinthians since Fifa handed over the keys last week. Bahia will host São Paulo at the gorgeous Arena Fonte Nova in Salvador, while Cruzeiro return to the Mineirão in Belo Horizonte (the site of Brazil’s 7-1 loss to Germany) to play Vitória.
In the weekend rounds of the first and second divisions, only four of the stadiums will be in use.
More frustrating than this are the ticket prices stipulated for these matches. In tonight’s second division matches, the cheapest ticket to the Arena Pernambuco is R$ 50 (around £13), while any Vasco or Santa Cruz fans willing to make the trek to Cuiabá will have to fork out R$ 60 for the cheapest ticket to the Arena Pantanal.
The first division matches are not much better, Corinthians and Cruzeiro have set their cheapest tickets at R$ 50, bearing in mind that this only accounts for a small section of the stadium. Seats with reasonable views are going for anything between R$ 80 and R$ 180.
This might not sound like much compared to British prices, but when put up against the average monthly salary in Brazil, these are the most expensive tickets in world football. In 2012, a study was conducted to this end and showed the Brazilian league to have the highest ticket prices compared to average earnings, using a mean price of only R$ 38. If this post-World Cup trend continues, the average will increase further and more and more will be excluded from the sport.
Turning attentions to on-pitch matters, the expectation for this post-World Cup stage of the Brazilian championship is that we will see a group of title challengers begin to pull away from the rest over the next few weeks. Leaders and reigning champions Cruzeiro will be looking to open up some space between themselves and second-placed Fluminense, while Corinthians, São Paulo, Internacional and Grêmio will battle for one of the four Copa Libertadores places up for grabs.
The transfer window has been positive for most of these top-half teams, especially Corinthians and Grêmio. The former have made some impressive signings, bringing in experienced defender Ânderson Martins, Uruguayan playmaker Nicolás Lodeiro and hard-working midfielder Elias. All three will go straight into the starting lineup.
Grêmio have also strengthened their team considerably, repatriating midfielder Giuliano, who was extremely promising when taking Grêmio’s rivals Internacional to the Copa Libertadores title of 2010 and has been playing in Ukraine since. Winger Fernandinho has joined from Atlético Mineiro and flying right-back Matías Fernández signed from Sampdoria. The southern side already had a decent squad before the World Cup break, with some exciting young talent breaking through. They will be worth keeping an eye on between now and December.
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.
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.
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.
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
One of the more frustrating clichés in football is that on derby day, the form book goes out of the window. Derbies are different, but only because of the increased levels of pressure. The way in which the players deal with this pressure often has an impact on the final result, though that applies to any match against any opponent.
When faced with the prospect of playing against their rivals, some professionals are able to build themselves up mentally and use the increased adrenaline to produce higher levels of substances that enhance performance, like a form of emotional doping.
Others can be overwhelmed with nerves and opt instead to hide on the field, afraid of making a mistake. There is a Japanese proverb that says “the stake that sticks up gets hammered down”.
This weekend in Brazil we were treated to three clássicos that did a good job of illustrating exactly why playing your rivals is so important.
On a historic run of eight defeats in a row, São Paulo managed to stop the rot with a 0-0 draw against Corinthians. With confidence at an all-time low and coach Paulo Autuori’s job hanging by a thread (after only four matches in charge), São Paulo’s prime objective was not to concede and therefore, to avoid a ninth consecutive defeat.
Autuori dropped World Cup winner Lúcio from the centre of defence after a series of bad performances and repeated indiscipline. Though it is impossible to doubt Lúcio’s quality, São Paulo looked more secure without him. His absence allowed Rafael Tolói to return to the right centre-back role where he is most comfortable, and it gave their defence more shape and discipline.
São Paulo started the match with three defensive midfielders and though they did have space to attack into (Jádson and Fabrício often had two-on-one situations in the middle against Corinthians midfielder Ralf), they did not seem interested in bringing numbers forward.
Corinthians were in control for most of the match and kept the play in São Paulo’s half, but they didn’t create many clear chances and appeared to believe a goal would come along naturally. Alexandre Pato was once again disappointing coming off the bench, and many in Brazil are now coming to terms with the fact that he will never become the excellent forward they once thought he was.
Corinthians appear to be on auto-pilot mode in the Brasileirão and they have dropped far more points than expected at this early stage. They will most likely focus heavily on winning the Copa do Brasil to ensure a place in the 2014 Copa Libertadores.
It wasn’t another defeat, but São Paulo have now gone twelve matches without a win, and they now embark on a trip to Europe and Asia to play the Audi Cup and Suruga Bank Championship respectively, facing teams like Bayern Munich, Manchester City, Milan and Benfica. That winless streak will probably go on a bit longer.
In Belo Horizonte, Cruzeiro battered Atlético-MG 4-1, only days after watching them lift the Copa Libertadores trophy. Still in the party mind-set, Atlético fielded a largely second-string side, with only Júnior César and Michel remaining from the team that beat Olimpia in midweek.
Often when a squad is as close-knit and successful as Atlético’s, the reserve players are able to step into the first team and perform well, having trained side-by-side with the starters on a daily basis. However, Atlético’s sluggish centre-back partnership of Gilberto Silva and Rafael Marques struggled against a dangerous Cruzeiro team.
Since last season, Cruzeiro have conducted some superb business in the transfer market. Dedé, Nílton, Souza, Éverton Ribeiro and Dagoberto are all top-level Série A players, and their attacking unit has plenty of depth with Luan, Ricardo Goulart and Martinuccio keeping the starters on their toes. The signing of Júlio Baptista could also be decisive, and If they can keep him fit he should do well on his return to Brazil.
At this stage, Cruzeiro is one of the three or four teams who has what it takes to win the Brazilian championship.
The third match, Flamengo versus Botafogo, was a fascinating game in the new Maracanã. However the event raised further questions about the “elitization” of the Brazilian game, about which I would like to go into more detail tomorrow.
Finally, I would like to pay tribute to Ecuadorian forward Cristián Benítez, who died today in Qatar, aged just 27. Benítez was a wonderful, intelligent and powerful striker who could lead the line on his own and was a class-act on and off the pitch. Earlier this year I suggested he would be reaching his peak just in time to lead his nation in the World Cup in Brazil next year, so it is hard to fathom that he is now no longer with us. My thoughts go out to his family, friends and team-mates.
Adiós Chucho, you will always be remembered.