A year to forget

A century after the club’s foundation by a group of Italian immigrants in São Paulo, 2014 was meant to be a year of celebration for Palmeiras. However, thanks to a string of woeful executive decisions, their centennial turned out to be their annus horribilis, with Verdão fans left desperate to ring in the New Year as soon as possible.

With their return to Brazil’s first division, the impending inauguration of their gorgeous new stadium Allianz Parque and the small matter of the club’s centenary celebrations, Palmeiras supporters demanded the board spare no expense and think big for the 2014 season. Initially, it seemed those in charge would oblige. Prestigious managerial candidates were interviewed and potential multi-million signings were floated, but club president Paulo Nobre’s obsession for austerity spoke louder.

The quality reinforcements did not come, Palmeiras instead brought in aging world champion centre-back Lúcio on a free transfer (out of action for six months after being dropped by rivals São Paulo) and loaned Uruguayan defender Mauricio Victorino (on the sidelines for over a year with a heel injury) and midfielder Bruno César, who arrived from Saudi Arabia comically overweight. Jobbing head coach Gilson Kleina, who led the team to the second division title in 2013, was kept on, although it was made abundantly clear he was not their first choice and would walk the plank should results falter.

The nightmare began with the São Paulo state championship: Palmeiras progressed from the first stage without any major surprises, but in their quarter-final match against minnows Ituano, they were beaten 1-0 and eliminated in front of their own fans. Kleina kept his job, but would receive his inevitable marching orders two months later, after only three matches of the Brazilian championship campaign.

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As if that was not sufficiently suicidal, Paulo Nobre then pulled off his most ambitious (and under the circumstances, short-sighted) move of a disastrous year and brought in Argentinian coach Ricardo Gareca to replace Kleina. Intelligent and forward-thinking, Gareca came highly recommended after some great years in his homeland with Vélez Sarsfield, but when thrown into the hectic environment that is the Palmeiras training ground, with the league season already well underway, he was destined to fail.

Gareca’s Palmeiras showed some promising signs, their midfield looked more organised than it had been in a long time, but a leaky defence, lack of mental toughness and a complete inability to hold onto results saw them plummet to the lower half of the table. There was also reports that some members of the squad were less than happy about playing under an Argentinian manager.

Foreign coaches are almost unheard of in Brazilian football and Ricardo Gareca’s scandalously brief stint in São Paulo will do nothing to help that. Granted, the universal preference for home-grown coaches in Brazil is not a matter of prejudice or intolerance, there are practical motives behind it. In general, Brazilian players respond best to coaches who are able to relate to and mentor them. The harsh reality is that many footballers in Brazil come from poorer backgrounds and may have had to leave their family at an early age. In these cases, the football coach fills the role of a father figure, something which cannot be achieved across a language barrier.

The Argentinian was given a grand total of nine league matches over the space of six weeks before getting the sack, this coming after the club had spent an approximated R$ 30 million (around £7 million) to bring in four Argentinian players, Fernando Tóbio, Pablo Mouche, Agustín Allione and Jonathan Cristaldo on Gareca’s request.

Trying to salvage something from an already disappointing centenary, Paulo Nobre rushed to appoint Gareca’s replacement, announcing Dorival Júnior, the bespectacled former Palmeiras midfielder fresh from a string of managerial failures at Flamengo, Vasco and Fluminense, as the man tasked with keeping the Verdão in the first division.

Thanks to some naïve tactical choices, bad luck with injuries, his reluctance to play his four unhappy Argentinians and a crippling mental inferiority that spread throughout the entire squad, Dorival very nearly commanded Palmeiras to their third relegation in the 21st century.

After some embarrassing results (a 6-0 defeat to Goiás, a 2-0 defeat at home to Atlético Mineiro’s B team and losing 2-0 to Sport Recife in the inaugural game at the stunning Allianz Parque), Palmeiras went into the last match of the season needing (at the very least) a point at home against Atlético Paranaense to avoid the drop. Their opponents had no stake in the result and fielded a reserve side, but Palmeiras coughed and spluttered to a 1-1 draw with the help of a dubious first-half penalty kick. The Verdão’s salvation came when news filtered through that Santos (traditionally one of Palmeiras’ rivals) had scored a last-minute winner to relegate north-eastern club Vitória. The club ended the division in 16th place with 20 losses and 40 points. Since the Brazilian championship made the switch to the 38-game season, no club had ever avoided relegation with 40 points.

As it was when they won the second division last year, when their place in the first division was confirmed for 2015, there was no celebration from Palmeiras fans, with the team booed off the field accompanied by chants of “time sem vergonha!”, literally “shameless team”.

Palmeiras’ woeful performance in 2014, amid centennial celebrations, is another dent in the reputation of one of Brazil’s proudest football clubs. In the words of Brazilian journalist Mauricio Savarese, despite remaining in the first division, Palmeiras were relegated in 2014.

Next year could well be the most crucial in Palmeiras’ 100-year history. Another relegation fight (or worse, another relegation) could see them reduced to yo-yo club status, and at a time when the country’s better-run big clubs (Cruzeiro, Corinthians, Atlético Mineiro, São Paulo) are threatening to distance themselves from the rest in a way Brazilian football has never seen before, such a step down could create an insurmountable gap between Palmeiras and Brazil’s elite.

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Dérbi days

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.

The return of the Little Slipper

Palmeiras have made a solid start to this year’s Série B, with yesterday’s win away to Figueirense taking them to four victories in a row. Although leading the league comes as absolutely no surprise for a club of their size and wage budget, in this recent run of good form head coach Gilson Kleina appears to have done something once thought impossible: reinvigorate Jorge Valdivia.

In his first spell at the Verdão between 2006 and 2008, Valdivia became an idol to the Palmeiras fans; since he returned in 2010, he has been nothing but trouble. High wages, absent performances, suspensions and a never-ending series of injuries transformed the playmaker into a target for abuse from the fans, especially during some of Palmeiras’ most abject seasons in recent memory.

After his last injury in mid-March, Palmeiras torcida organizada Mancha Alviverde decided to create a “chinelômetro” (literally “slipper-o-meter” as injury-prone players are mockingly known as “little slippers” in Brazil) in Valdivia’s honour, tracking how many games the Chilean was missing and how much it was costing the club. The page still exists, although it hasn’t been updated since his return to form.

Since that last injury however, Palmeiras have been extremely careful with Valdivia’s recovery in an effort to ensure some return on the millions of reais spent since 2010. The Chilean returned to light training months ago, and while his team-mates were resting during the Confederations Cup in June, Valdivia was training every day.

When the Série B returned in early July, Valdivia went straight into Palmeiras’ starting line-up and was given a standing ovation in a 4-0 demolishing of Oeste. He has looked close to his old self, creating space for his team-mates, picking out near-unthinkable through passes and carrying the creative workload. His winning goal in yesterday’s match (albeit a simple finish into an empty net) drew a line under his return.

It has been interesting to see how Palmeiras have altered their system to accommodate Valdivia’s return. Though he is traditionally a number 10, he has been playing in a role approaching that of a false nine, between two quick wide forwards. When Palmeiras are in possession, he steps back and leaves gaps in the opposing defence to be exploited by forward runs from the wide players, central midfielders or full-backs.

However when Palmeiras lose the ball, it is the wide players who track back to defend, leaving Valdivia as the furthest man forward in a 4-5-1 shape. This could be an effort to conserve the Chilean’s energy by sparing him from any defensive duties, but having being closer to goal allows him to be more decisive.

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Palmeiras started yesterday’s match against Figueirense in that shape, but on a slow, wet surface they were forced to play long, aimless balls out of defence and midfield. Without a proper reference point in attack and minimal space to exploit behind the Figueirense defence, Palmeiras were giving away possession constantly and Valdivia barely got near the ball.

One-nil down at half-time, Gilson Kleina decided to bring on centre-forward Alan Kardec for his debut, and he brought Valdivia back into the midfield three. Kardec’s presence gave Palmeiras someone to aim for up front, meanwhile Valdivia and Wesley stayed close to the forward to receive any knock-downs. The game opened up considerably at that point, and Palmeiras eventually came back to win 3-2.

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Tomorrow evening I will be recording a guest appearance on the Clube Mondo Verde podcast, an excellent internet radio show created by Palmeiras fans, for Palmeiras fans. The other guest on the show will be none other than Gilson Kleina, so if you have any questions you would like me to put to him, leave them in the comments below or on the Facebook page.

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.

Palmeiras 2×3 Fluminense

Flu champions, Palmeiras (almost) relegated

Fluminense clinched a thrilling late victory in the torrid Presidente Prudente sun to seal their fourth national championship trophy. With three rounds still to play in the Campeonato Brasileiro 2012, the Tricolor knew that a win against Palmeiras and a home win or draw in the Vasco x Atlético-MG match (which ended 1-1) would see them create an insurmountable lead over the chasing pack.

Palmeiras, on the other hand, are battling against a seemingly inevitable relegation, and had other results in the round gone against them they could have been condemned to Série B earlier than expected. Fortunately for them, Portuguesa and Bahia lost their respective matches, keeping Palmeiras’ hopes alive (albeit hanging by the tiniest of threads) even after their latest defeat.

Fluminense took a 2-0 lead, but conceded twice through set-pieces in the second half. Just as the title champagne was being put on ice for another day, league top scorer Fred converted his 19th goal of the season to win the match 3-2. Continue reading Palmeiras 2×3 Fluminense