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.

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Muricy and the Ganso question

Two months ago, on the eve of Ney Franco’s dismissal from São Paulo, I floated the theory that Muricy Ramalho would soon return to the club after four years away. And I wasn’t the only one.

It soon emerged that a return for Muricy would be too costly for the São Paulo board at that moment and another former coach, Paulo Autuori, was called in to fill the vacancy instead. Three wins in 17 matches later, Autuori was sacked and with desperation kicking in, Muricy was brought back.

With São Paulo entrenched in a relegation fight, Muricy has nothing to lose upon returning to the Morumbi. If he manages to steer them to safety, he will be the hero; if they eventually suffer relegation, he will argue that the damage was done before his arrival.

The 1-0 win in his first match in charge, at home to Ponte Preta, proves very little. Ponte Preta did not pose much of a threat to São Paulo, and footballers often give above-average performances under a new coach in an attempt to impress and consolidate their place in the team. São Paulo has a difficult month of fixtures ahead and once the “Muricy novelty” wears off, it will be interesting to see where they stand come October.

São Paulo has long been recognised as having one of the best squads in Brazil, an invention with which I struggle to agree. They do have some supremely talented players, like Luis Fabiano and Ganso, and several with great work-rate and fitness, but few are well-rounded or complete. In fact, I regard Jadson as being the only complete player in São Paulo’s squad, someone who has talent, technique, ability and creativity.

Besides Jadson, the São Paulo squad is bursting with creative players who can’t mark, quick wingers with no creativity and hard-workers with no ability. Even more worrying is that Jadson’s role in the squad is being marginalised and he is played out of position (or left on the bench) in order to make space for Paulo Henrique Ganso.

Ney Franco and Paulo Autuori struggled with the Ganso question and their inability to find a suitable solution ultimately contributed to their downfall. When the club’s backroom staff brought the playmaker to the Morumbi for R$ 24 million in 2012, São Paulo already had Jadson playing in Ganso’s position and on magnificent form. Due to the exceptional amount of money spent on the transfer, there was huge pressure placed on the head coach to select him and get him playing well. However, one year into his São Paulo career, Ganso has yet to look comfortable in the tricolor shirt.

Not long before he was given his marching orders, Paulo Autuori uncovered a potential solution to the Ganso question. Two weeks ago, with Luis Fabiano suspended for an away match against Botafogo, Autuori set up São Paulo in a 4-2-3-1 shape with Ganso as a false nine. With Jadson and Lucas Evangelista marking the opposition full-backs and Osvaldo making bursting runs from attacking midfield, Ganso was allowed the freedom to focus on his own game, staying in advanced positions and organising São Paulo’s attacking moves.

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The match finished 0-0, but it was one of São Paulo’s most convincing performances of the season and they successfully neutralised an excellent Botafogo team.

Unfortunately, this was the one and only time São Paulo has played that way, as Luis Fabiano returned from suspension for the following match and went back to his role as centre-forward. Luis Fabiano is a poacher who, like Ganso, contributes nothing to defensive phases. When they play together, the rest of the team is left with much more work to do and they are easily overrun in midfield.

That is not to say that they cannot play together, but when a team plays with these talented “luxury” players, these players need to make up for their lack of defensive work by scoring goals or providing assists.

Brazil is full of good examples of this type of attacker, such as D’Alessandro at Internacional, Douglas at Corinthians, Valdivia at Palmeiras and Alex at Coritiba. Neither of them make much of a contribution to their team’s defensive play, but all of them consistently create goals.

Paulo Autuori’s last match in charge, a 2-0 away defeat to Coritiba, highlighted this perfectly. On one side there was Luis Fabiano and Ganso; on the other, Alex.

Luis Fabiano and Ganso were easily marked and made next to no impact on the match. Alex organised his entire team, created several chances and scored both of Coritiba’s goals. He didn’t mark, he didn’t need to.

Against Ponte Preta on Thursday evening, Ganso played a good through ball for Luis Fabiano to score the only goal of the match, justifying their selection.

São Paulo bow to (Ney) Francoism

There has been a distinct lack of tactical interest in this year’s Campeonato Brasileiro. A large majority of teams play a similar style of football, heavily based on long balls, aerial play, and individualism. Petty fouls and simulation are also rampant, resulting in several drab, stop-start matches which are often reduced to two or three players repeatedly attempting individual moves until they inevitably get one right. Few sides actually play as a team, with the exception of (strangely enough) the top four.

Top of the pile – and with good reason

First and second-placed respectively, Fluminense and Atlético-MG play more or less the same system – a compact 4-2-3-1. What makes this formation so effective are the rapid transitions from defence to attack and vice versa. Continue reading São Paulo bow to (Ney) Francoism

São Paulo 1×3 Santos: Poor Piris positioning sinks sorry São Paulo

Brazilian football is certainly not short on rivalries, ranging from the friendly to the somewhat poisonous. In São Paulo state, the most populous of Brazil’s 27 federative units, the biggest clásico is between Corinthians and Palmeiras, two blue-collar clubs with huge fan-bases. The state’s other two grandes – São Paulo and Santos – class Corinthians as their biggest rivals, but while the Timão are more bothered about their green neighbours across town, São Paulo and Santos have resolved to forge a rivalry of their own, the San-São.

While the San-São falls far behind the Dérbi Paulista (Corinthians vs. Palmeiras) in intensity and cultural importance, it often totally outstrips the Dérbi in terms of quality and excitement. On Sunday the two sides faced each other in the semi-finals of this year’s Campeonato Paulista at São Paulo’s Morumbi stadium, adding yet another decisive clash to the history of the San-São rivalry. Continue reading São Paulo 1×3 Santos: Poor Piris positioning sinks sorry São Paulo

Mano’s Brasil searching for their first ‘grande’ victory

Brasil take on Germany on Wednesday evening in the first of a long stretch of pre-World Cup qualifiers. As you may or may not be aware of, as the hosts to the 2014 tournament Brasil already have their place reserved and thus do not need to go through the long and arduous South American qualifying system. That may sound like a positive thing, but in truth it may well turn out to be a bright yellow banana skin waiting to trip up the Seleção as they try to win the World Cup on home soil in 2014.

With no qualifying tournament to play, that means that the only competitive football remaining for Brasil between now and the tournament’s opening match will be in the 2013 Confederations Cup, and even that is rarely one hundred percent competitive. Their South American rivals start their qualifying campaign in October and each team has sixteen matches to play, such match experience that Mano Menezes craves for his Seleção. Continue reading Mano’s Brasil searching for their first ‘grande’ victory