Sunday saw the first legs of the finals of a number of Brazil's state championships. Stangely though, with rather few games, and the absence of a final in Rio (Botafogo won both stages of that Campeonato Carioca, so were crowned automatic champions), it was a somewhat muted weekend.
Santo André 2-3 Santos (Paulista)
In a packed Pacaembu, Santos faced the surprise package of the São Paulo championship; Santo André. The latter had snuck into the final at the expense of their more illustrious local rivals Corinthians and São Paulo, thanks in large part to the goals of striker Rodriguinho. Santos, of course, are not short of firepower themselves, but were dealt a huge blow in this game when Neymar was forced off with a injury to his...eye. By that point, Santo André had taken a deserved lead; Bruno César with a low free-kick. At half-time, Santos coach Dorival Júnior sent on André to replace Neymar, and the move immediately paid off, the former heading in at the far post after good work from Paulo Henrique Ganso. Santos quickly added two more, thanks to the pace of and finishing of youngster Wesley. Just 8 minutes remained when Rodriguinho pulled one back; a fortuitous effort off his knee leaving all to play for in the second leg.
Ipatinga 2-3 Atlético-MG (Mineiro)
The Campeonato Mineiro too saw a small provincial side sneak in to battle with one of the area's big boys. Ipatinga, like Santo André, took a shock early lead, with Fabiano diverting past his own 'keeper from a corner. Galo soon equalised; star player Diego Tardelli slotting home from the spot after Correa had been sent tumbling in the box. In the second half, two Muriqui goals for Atlético were split by Luizinho's free-kick that snuck in at the far post. On this evidence, Atlético really need to firm up their defence from dead balls before the national championship begins.
Internacional 0-2 Grêmio (Gaúcho)
This year's Campeonato Gaúcho somewhat predictably produced a Grê-Nal final; these two are comfortably the best sides in Rio Grande do Sul. The intense rivalry between the two, however, often translates into patchy, attritional games of football, and this was no different. Grêmio gained the lead with a Rodrigo header from a corner, and added a second soon after. A lovely free-kick from Fábio Rochemback (remember him, Middlesbrough fans?!) was met with a diving header from Borges, who watched the ball clatter off the bar, onto the floor, and back into the roof of the net. Advantage Grêmio.
Elsewhere, victories for Vitória, Avaí, Fortaleza and Atlético-GO put them in pole position to win the Baiano, Catarinense, Cearense and Goiano championships respectively. Botafogo beat a Corinthians side missing most of its stars in an exhibition game, and proceeded to wildly celebrate both the winning the Rio championship and the news that their coach, Joel Santana (who, if you haven't seen it, demonstrates a glorious mastery of the English language here), is ignoring advances from Flamengo to stay at the club. Flamengo have been in the news too, due to the soaring demand for tickets for the club's Libertadores date with Corinthians on Wednesday. This should be a great match, especially given the extra spice added by the Flamengo fans' hatred of Ronaldo, who signed for Corinthians after having trained for months with the Rio giants.
In Europe, my worries about the form of some of Brazil's stars were appeased this week, with Kaká returning to score the winner for Real Madrid, and Diego starring in Juventus' 3-0 win over Bari.
(Photo credits; (1) Gustavo Tilio/GloboEsporte, (2) Agência/Estado.)