Getting in the way

On Wednesday evening, at the same time as the Copa Libertadores final between Olímpia and Atlético-MG, Corinthians and São Paulo will decide the 2013 Recopa Sul-Americana.

I’ve never understood the Recopa. It’s South America’s answer to the Uefa Super Cup but unlike its European equivalent that serves as a harmless introduction to the league season, the Recopa strikes me as being poorly planned and frankly, it gets in the way.

The problem, like many things in South American football, is the space it takes up in the calendar. It is played just as the Brazilian national championship is trying to gain momentum and after the other major South American leagues have come to a close. It is also contested over two legs, home and away.

My other qualm is with the name. Tomorrow evening will determine the winner of the 2013 Recopa, even though São Paulo won the Copa Sul-Americana in December of 2012, and Corinthians won the Copa Libertadores over a year ago, in July 2012. The fact that the second leg clashes with the 2013 Copa Libertadores final tells you everything you need to know about how well-thought out this trophy really is.

So, why do people pay any attention to it? Before the first leg, I asked a friend of mine – a São Paulo fan – this very question.

“We only have to play these two matches, and we can win a trophy. The Brasileirão takes 38 matches…”

Therein lays the Brazilian mentality toward sport. You could argue that many fans don’t love football; they just love cheering the winner. For the clubs involved, the Recopa is a notch on the proverbial bedpost. It might not be the Libertadores, but they all count, right?

Here in São Paulo, extra importance has been placed upon this year’s edition as not only do we have two Brazilian teams in the final, we have two of São Paulo city’s trio de ferro, and both are desperate for a result.

I have discussed São Paulo FC’s problems on more than one occasion over the past few weeks, and Sunday’s demoralising 3-2 defeat away to Vitória only served to drag them deeper into the thick stuff. In truth, 3-2 was kind on the tricolor, who were outplayed for the entire 90 minutes by Caio Júnior’s gutsy Vitória. While the home side were pressing hard, making overlapping runs and contesting every loose ball, São Paulo were absent, lethargic and looked mentally exhausted (see diagram below).

Vitória's mobile midfield versus São Paulo's static diamond
Vitória’s mobile midfield versus São Paulo’s static diamond

Perhaps they could take a leaf out of Santos’ book and instead of indulging certain overrated and overvalued first team players, they could look to their youth squad and promote from within. It certainly couldn’t be any worse than their current situation, that’s for sure.

Their opponents Corinthians hold a 2-1 aggregate advantage from the first leg, but they are also in a precarious situation. They have had few decent performances since the national championship got underway, and Sunday’s 1-0 home loss to a mainly second-string Atlético-MG side has made Wednesday’s second leg crucial. In Brazilian football, crisis is never more than two bad results away.

Corinthians problem is different to that of their rivals. The effort is there, but the team is making too many mistakes in front of goal and in defence. Alexandre Pato, the most expensive signing in the history of Brazilian football, has underwhelmed, while goalkeeper Cássio is still living off his heroic performance against Chelsea in the World Club Cup final.

The loss of Paulinho has also hit them hard. Tottenham Hotspur’s new midfielder was the lynchpin of this current Corinthians side, and replacements Ibson and Guilherme look to be a considerable step down in quality.

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The correct approach

After a three-week break for the Confederations Cup, the Copa Libertadores got back up and running last night with Olimpia’s spirited 2-0 home win against Independiente Santa Fe.

Credit must go to Olimpia coach Ever Almeida, as it was his tactical approach to the match that allowed the Paraguayans to remain on the front foot throughout. Almeida arranged his side in a 3-5-2 formation which annulled Santa Fe on several fronts. Firstly, Olimpia had an extra centre-back to protect against the Colombians’ rapid forward duo of Jefferson Cuero and Wilder Medina. The system also allowed them to play three men in central midfield to compete with Santa Fe’s own midfield trio, which is notoriously physical. Finally, against the narrow 4-3-1-2 shape favoured by Santa Fe, Olimpia’s wing-backs were allowed to operate with vast spaces in front of them, ideal for attacking the flanks and delivering crosses into the penalty area.

Santa Fe paid the price for procrastination and in failing to make changes in the second half they allowed Olimpia to stay in control of the game and ultimately score their two goals. It was naïve of them to remain with three forwards, especially when 1-0 down. It may have cost them a place in the final.

The other semi-final kicks off this evening, as Newell’s Old Boys host Atlético-MG in Rosario. Currently Newell’s are by far and away the best side in Argentina, but the gap in quality is so large between the domestic leagues of Argentina and Brazil, that it is Atlético who must be considered as favourites to reach the final.

Both sides play a similar style of football: direct, high tempo and with plenty of pressure on the ball. The main difference between them is that Atlético favour long, sweeping balls to their quick forwards, while Newell’s prefer to play short, fast, vertical passing moves.

Away from home and without either of their first-choice centre-backs (Leonardo Silva is injured and Réver suspended), I expect Atlético to adopt a more withdrawn approach than usual. With a more static defence, they can position themselves deeper in their own half and use Ronaldinho’s vision and technique to release Bernard and Diego Tardelli in the attacking third.

Though most of the attention is being placed on the central players of each side, this match may well be won on the flanks.

For Atlético, Marcos Rocha pushes so high from right-back that he often acts as an extra attacker. If the Brazilians are willing to open up in search of an away goal, they may be able to create something on that wing. Newell’s left-back Milton Casco is not the best marker, and their left-sided centre-back, former Argentina international Gabriel Heinze, has poor lateral movement and does not cover well. If Atlético can create some 2 vs. 1 situations on the right, they could cause their hosts real problems.

While all this is going on, the first leg of the Recopa Sul-Americana will be played between São Paulo and Corinthians, at the Morumbi. The Recopa is South America’s answer to the Super Cup, but as the two major continental tournaments (the Copa Libertadores and Copa Sul-Americana) are played at different times of the year, I’ve never understood the relevance of this particular trophy.

For what it’s worth, it will be interesting to see how Corinthians function without Paulinho, who has sealed his transfer to Tottenham. There were similar discussions after the departures of Jucilei and Elias, but Paulinho will be more difficult to replace. He has been the heartbeat of Tite’s Corinthians team for so long now, and they may require a significant amount of time to adjust to his absence.