Back to reality

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.

Advertisements

Copa do Brasil

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

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.

palmeiras-valdivia

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.

palmeiras-figueira

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.

==========

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.