Breaking records

Atlético-MG overcame all variety of records, statistics and tabus to clinch their first ever Copa Libertadores trophy last night in Belo Horizonte. Not since 1996 has the team with the best record in the group stage gone on to win the tournament. Not since 2002 has a team lost in the first leg and went on to win the tournament. Not since 1989 has a team overcame a deficit of two goals in the final. Not since 1975 has one nation provided four consecutive Copa Libertadores champions.

In the end, they deserved their win. Though Galo had a poor first half, constantly launching aimless high balls against Olimpia’s solid defensive unit, everything changed when they opened the scoring early in the second half. The goal gave them the confidence to shift into Galo doido mode – pressing their opponents high up the field, throwing players forward – as opposed to the apathetic, nervous showing in the opening 45.

The goal came from a cross from the right side by Rosinei, who had just been brought on by Cuca. Football commentators and analysts often give far too much importance to coaching decisions made throughout the game, as if the coach is the sole person responsible for winning or losing a match, but in Atlético’s two recent home legs Cuca has made substitutions that have almost instantly resulted in goals. Coincidence? Maybe.

The most crucial impact of the first goal was how it improved the performance of the goalscorer, Jô. With his confidence increased, Jô was back to the player we saw in the group stage and early knockout phase, competing for every ball, winning every knock down and posing a constant threat to the Olimpia defence.

The Paraguayans went down to ten men after Manzur was sent off, and Atlético began to feed more and more high balls into the penalty box. It isn’t the most efficient of tactics, but with great aerial presence they always threatened to score. With minutes left on the clock, an excellent looping header from Leonardo Silva eventually dropped in at the far post.

Again, Atlético’s fate was decided from the penalty spot and some excellent penalties won them the match.

It could have been so different though. Had Rosinei not delivered the cross that (only after being fluffed by Wilson Pittoni) fell for Jô to score, had Juan Ferreyra not slipped and fell when facing an open goal, had Leonardo Silva’s header came back off the post instead of creeping into the net, had the referee allowed Miranda to retake his missed opening penalty after Victor encroached a good three yards off his line, perhaps there would be a different name on the trophy. Or maybe Atlético would have won regardless, but in different circumstances. Football is full of fine lines, which makes proper, coherent analysis a tricky job.

Meanwhile, at the Morumbi, São Paulo are breaking records of their own after a 1-0 loss to Internacional. They have now gone eleven matches without winning, losing their last eight in a row for the first time in their history. New coach Paulo Autuori has lost all of his first four matches in charge, another record for the São Paulo history books.

Earlier this month, I discussed São Paulo’s problems in more detail.

Juvenal Juvêncio is running a dictatorship at São Paulo FC. They are one of the few clubs in Brazil not to hold direct elections for the role of president (something Juvêncio himself got rid of to hold on to power). The club’s largest supporters group, the Torcida Independente, is essentially hired muscle for Juvêncio, and in the past few weeks there members have been going around the stadium removing banners criticising the president, and starting chants against Juvêncio’s political “opponent” Marco Aurélio Cunha.

Do the common supporters of São Paulo need to rise up and stage a “coup du club”?

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É Galo na final

Apologies for not updating the blog yesterday, with the unprecedented amount of stoppages and a penalty shootout to boot, Wednesday evening’s semi-final sapped me of all energy. After the final whistle, when I would usually be writing, I was sleeping off a heavy Copa Libertadores comedown. For those who can read Portuguese, I recommend Idelber Avelar’s wonderful account over at Impedimento.

In the end, Atlético-MG overcame the odds and a two-goal deficit to eliminate Newell’s Old Boys on penalties in one of the most gripping and tense football matches in recent memory.

Whoever said that ‘penalty shootouts are a lottery’ has no idea what they are talking about. Hours of study and practice go into penalty kicks, while the mental strength and emotional state of the takers also plays a huge part. There is nothing random about it. Atlético goalkeeper Víctor made another penalty save at a crucial moment, and if Galo do go on and win the trophy, he will rightly be remembered as the hero.

Image: UOL

Spare a thought for Newell’s however, who were unlucky not to go through. The Argentinians were superior throughout the first leg, and they were the better team in the second half on Wednesday, at least until the power failure. Head coach Gerardo Martino now leaves the club after two good years in charge, saying he will take an “indefinite rest”. He deserves it.

Coming at such a critical moment in the tie (with 15 minutes remaining in the second half of the second leg) the floodlight failure could have helped or hindered either of the two sides. In the end, it helped Atlético.

With his team struggling to create any chances against a very well-organised Newell’s defence, Atlético coach Cuca used the pause to alter their offensive tactics. He ordered right-back Marcos Rocha to push forward more (he barely crossed the half-way line over the two legs, due to the threat of Newell’s left-winger Maxi Rodríguez) and brought on unpopular forwards Guilherme and Alecsandro in place of fan favourites Diego Tardelli and Bernard.

It’s impossible to know exactly how decisive his changes were (even though Guilherme scored the vital second goal), but Cuca has to be commended for taking the risk.

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Conmebol has announced that the second leg of the final will be played at the Mineirão, instead of the Estádio Independência, Atlético’s current stadium of choice. This is due to the competition’s rule that the final must be played at a venue with a capacity of over 40,000 people. The Independência holds just over 23,000.

The rule is clear, but Conmebol also announced that the first leg will be played in the Estadio Defensores del Chaco, which holds only 36,000. With any luck, both teams will be allowed to play their respective home legs at their preferred stadiums, and Conmebol can do away with this pointless regulation. However, this is Conmebol we are talking about…

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With Wednesday’s 2-1 loss against Bahia, São Paulo completed a run of four consecutive defeats at the Estádio Morumbi – for the first time in their 77 year history. But I thought that the problem was meant to be Ney Franco?

With Muricy unavailable due to his high salary demands, club president Juvenal Juvêncio has brought back another former coach in Paulo Autuori. While the old man at the end of the corridor remains in control, it is difficult to see how things can change.

You can’t repeat the past

At the time of writing, Ney Franco is still the head coach of São Paulo. By the time you read this, he will most likely have been dismissed. In his time at the club (one year to the day) São Paulo has neither worsened nor improved. In fact, the club has been stuck in the mud since 2009, since the sacking of Muricy Ramalho.

In four years at São Paulo, Muricy transformed the club into a winning machine, racking up three consecutive national championship titles, making them the first club to achieve such a feat since Pelé’s Santos in the 1960s. However after a poor state championship campaign in 2009, club president Juvenal Juvêncio gave him his jotters – but more about him later.

Since 2009, São Paulo has been through six different head coaches. Ricardo Gomes, Sérgio Baresi, Paulo César Carpegiani, Adílson Batista, Emerson Leão and now Ney Franco. The club has just one trophy to show for the last four years: the 2012 Copa Sul-Americana, won under the command of Ney Franco.

Each of their six former head coaches has a different style of working. The squad has undergone continuous changes, too. The only constant at the club is the old man at the end of the corridor: president Juvenal Juvêncio.

If there was any doubt about who makes the decisions at São Paulo, then this week’s news of the sale of right-back Paulo Miranda to Olympique Marseille and the arrival of Boca Juniors left-back Clemente Rodríguez should clarify the distribution of power. Both signings have been made while Ney Franco is about to lose his job, with no replacement in line to take over.

In May, the day after São Paulo was eliminated from the Copa Libertadores by Atlético-MG, Juvenal marched into the club’s training ground and presented a list of seven first-team players he decided would no longer play for the club and would be sold immediately.

Paulo Henrique Ganso, signed from Santos months after Ney Franco took the job, was brought by Juvenal and his cronies. It is suspected that Ney Franco was not keen on the transfer, and a struggle to shoehorn Ganso into São Paulo’s line-up has become a stick for which to beat the departing coach.

Juvenal’s authoritarian regime is what is holding São Paulo back. The club has invested millions in their infrastructure, training and medical facilities and the playing squad itself, but it will be for nothing unless proper political change happens within the Morumbi.

It is likely that Muricy Ramalho will return to São Paulo to fill Ney Franco’s vacancy. As an idol of the fans, he would be given more time and patience to try to turn things around. However, when the group disintegrates in Juvenal’s hands once again, Muricy will not be spared.

This week, I went to the cinema to watch Baz Luhrmann’s remake of “The Great Gatsby”. I am reminded of the novel’s famous line in which Nick tells Gatsby that he cannot repeat the past. I picture Juvenal Juvêncio today, sitting on the balcony of his luxury home overlooking the Marginal Pinheiros (a far less glamorous, smellier version of Manhasset Bay) and hearing one of his advisers utter those same words.

“Can’t repeat the past? Why of course you can!”

And with that, São Paulo beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.