It was another busy, busy week in Brazil, with Copa Libertadores qualifiers and South American Youth Championship games jostling for space among two rounds of state championship action. In the Paulistão, Santos and Palmeiras continue to set the pace, but São Paulo sit just one point adrift after an inspired second half comeback against Americana. In Rio, Vasco da Gama continued their catastrophic start to 2011, slumping to two disheartening defeats against Nova Iguaçu and Boavista; results that today cost coach PC Gusmão his job. The other three big guns in the Carioca - Flamengo, Fluminense and Botafogo - maintained their 100% records. In continental competition, Grêmio and Corinthians both drew in the first legs of their Libertadores qualifiers.
Americana 3-4 São Paulo
São Paulo have become somewhat of a conundrum in Brazil over the past two years; theirs is a squad of undoubted quality, but one which has routinely underachieved both domestically and in the Libertadores. The problem, to some extent, is one of inflated expectations; the three consecutive Brasileirão titles that the club won between 2006 and 2008 under the stewardship of Muricy Ramalho represent - rightly or wrongly - the yardstick against which the Tricolor's achievements are bound to be judged. But even considered in isolation, São Paulo's ninth place finish in last year's Série A is hugely disappointing, especially once one glances at the players at their disposal; Dagoberto, Miranda, Fernandão, Ricardo Oliveira, Marlos and Jean would all find their way into most Brazilian sides.
As well as undergoing some managerial turmoil (neither Ricardo Gomes and Sérgio Baresi even began to approach the kind of impact that Ramalho had at the Morumbi), São Paulo have suffered from the lack of a consistent tactical system; often switching between three and four defenders, shunting players (like Jean, Fernandinho and Fernandão) into a range of different positions, and failing to find a way of properly allying nippy forwards (Dagoberto, Marlos, Fernandinho) with beanpole giants like Fernandão and Washington. New boss Paulo César Carpeggiani, by his own admission, is still grappling with such issues, and spent the post-season break searching for, and moaning about his inability to locate, a bona fide No.10 for his side. That particular problem was solved this week by the sensational signing of Rivaldo, whose 38 years apparently proved no barrier to a return to the top table of Brazilian football. Whether this coup helps Carpeggiani to construct a stable system in his image remains to be seen.
Wednesday's clash with Americana, then, despite being São Paulo's fourth Paulistão game (they lost 1-0 to Ponte Preta four days earlier), still had a whiff of pre-season about it, with players staking their claim to a starting spot ahead of the real restructuring of the side. On the evidence of the first half, during which Americana earnt a deserved 2-1 lead, Carpeggiani needs to focus on his defence; Xandão, Alex Silva and the Atlético Madrid-bound Miranda were at sixes and sevens as Marcinho and Rafael struck for the hosts. The Tricolor required a slice of luck to even get on the scoresheet; Gercimar turned past his own goalkeeper after good wing play from Fernandinho.
São Paulo, though, inspired by the diminutive Dagoberto, took control in the second period. The man they call Dagol lofted a classy finish over the Americana 'keeper (and, according to the linesman, over the goal line) to get the visitors back on level terms, before bagging his second from Fernandão's cross. With 15 minutes remaining, Jean's long-range effort cannoned off the post and the unlucky Jaílson to put São Paulo 4-2 up. Fumagalli's injury time effort would prove no more than a consolation for the home side. A hard fought victory for São Paulo, then, who will hope for greater stability both on and off the pitch in the coming months.
Campeonato Carioca Round-up
The state championships have claimed their first major victim; Vasco boss PC Gusmão was fired today following his side's abject start to the Carioca. Club president Roberto Dinamite actually promised on Thursday that Gusmão's position was safe, but after further talks with the club's directors, evidently decided to renege on that commitment. Talk is cheap in football, especially when one has (both metaphorically and, in Vasco's case, quite literally) a baying mob of fans to appease. Gusmão enjoyed a relatively succesful 2010, overachieving with Ceará before guiding Vasco to mid-table safety in Série A, but a run of three straight defeats brought his reign at the São Januário to a close.
The Gigante da Colina faced Nova Iguaçu on Sunday, and found themselves 2-0 down within twenty minutes, due to some laughable defending. Rômulo and Marcel dragged Vasco back into contention, but with time running out, Nova Iguaçu striker William waltzed into the box unchallenged to slot home the winner. Things went from bad to worse on Wednesday, when Boavista romped to a convincing 3-1 win over the Cruzmaltino. Vasco's supporters must be seriously apprehensive about the coming year.
There are no such concerns for Série A champions Fluminense, who have hit the ground running this term. There were two goals apiece for Fred, Marquinho and Rodriguinho in Sunday's 6-2 win over Olaria, which was followed by a comfortable 3-1 win over Macaé. Recent acquisition Souza got off the mark for the club with a brace in that second game. Flamengo also racked up two wins, against the similarly-named América and Americano. Thiago Neves made his début for the Rubro-Negro in the latter clash, but it was Wanderley who hogged the headlines with two tap-ins.
Despite some problems behind the scenes (star striker 'Loco' Abreu and coach Joel Santana don't appear to be singing from the same hymn-sheet), Botafogo continued to impress, picking up 5-0 and 4-1 wins against Cabofriense and Madureira respectively. Young forward Caio netted in both games, and must be close to securing the regular starting spot which has thus far eluded him, whilst new signing João Filipe has tightened up the Fogão backline. Spare a thought, though, for Cabofriense midfielder Goeber, who had to explain to his daughter that the two goals he managed to score on Sunday were both at the wrong end of the field, and hence didn't merit her congratulatory cheers.
Campeonato Paulista Round-up
In the immortal (and awkwardly adapted) words of Crowded House; everywhere Santos go, they always take the goals with them. The net rippled no fewer than twelve times in the Peixe's two games this week, as the early pace-setters beat Grêmio Prudente 4-2 and drew 3-3 with São Caetano. Former Manchester City midfielder Elano stamped his mark on both games, dictating play from midfield and netting no fewer than four goals. There were also signs that Keirrison - that paradigm European transfer flop - is beginning to regain some of the form that brought him into the public eye in the first place; he scored in both games.
Palmeiras, so abject in their opening game last week, suddenly look a force to be reckoned with, and sit level on points with Santos at the head of the table. A hard-fought win over Oeste was followed by the impressive dismantling of Paulista, a game which marked the return of legendary goalkeeper Marcos from injury. Kléber fired home a sumptuous volley in a 3-1 win for the Verdão. Corinthians only had the one Paulistão game this week, due to their participation in the Libertadores; the Timão were held 1-1 by Noroeste.
Copa Libertadores Round-up
Both Grêmio and Corinthians were in action in the qualifying round for this year's Libertadores, which kicks off next month. Corinthians hosted Colombian side Tolima, hoping to build up an advantage ahead of next week's tricky-looking away leg. Tite's side, however, endured a frustrating evening at the Pacaembu, and were unable to break the deadlock. A nervy return tie beckons for the Timão. Grêmio will be far happier, having battled to a useful 2-2 draw in Montevideo against Liverpool. André Lima and Douglas grabbed the all-important away goals for the Tricolor.
South American Youth Championship
The Brazil U20 side secured safe passage into the competition's final stage, despite not producing the fireworks that lit up their opening games in the competition. First up for Ney Franco's side this week were Bolivia, who produced a spirited display to claim a 1-1 draw. The seleção never really got into their rhythm and were somewhat cluttered in the attacking third; Casemiro's powerful forward bursts and Neymar's willingness to drop deep meant that (nominal) No.10 Lucas had little space in which to make an impression. Strikers Henrique and Willian José are, for me at least, too similar, although the former did tuck away a smart finish in the first half.
Henrique was on target again on Tuesday, scoring a fine goal which handed Brazil victory over Ecuador. Franco rested most of his first choice players for the match, preferring instead to hand run-outs to his squad players. Having won Group B, Brazil now enter the six-team final group, hoping to secure qualification for the 2012 Olympic competition.
Best of the Rest
Grêmio somehow also squeezed two Campeonato Gaúcho games into their schedule this week, and emerged with maximum points, following wins over Canoas and São José-RS. The latter game was significant for being Jonas' final match for the club; the striker has joined Spanish giants Valencia after his extraordinarily low €1.25million release clause was met. Internacional, who continue to field a team of reserve players, also picked up two wins. Avaí continued their woeful Campeonato Catarinense form with a fourth loss on the bounce, while a 3-0 win over Trindade extended Atlético-GO's lead in the Goiás state championship.
Selected results. Carioca; America-RJ 1-3 Flamengo, Nova Iguaçu 2-3 Vasco, Fluminense 6-2 Olaria, Cabofriense 0-5 Botafogo, Flamengo 2-0 Americano, Boavista 3-1 Vasco, Fluminense 3-1 Macaé, Botafogo 4-1 Madureira. Paulista; São Paulo 0-1 Ponte Preta, Corinthians 1-1 Noroeste, Grêmio Prudente 2-4 Santos, Palmeiras 1-0 Oeste, Americana 3-4 São Paulo, Santos 3-3 São Caetano, Palmeiras 3-1 Paulista. Libertadores; Corinthians 0-0 Tolima, Liverpool 2-2 Grêmio. Other; Brazil U20 1-1 Bolivia U20, Brazil U20 1-0 Ecuador U20.
(Photo credits; (1) & (2) Miguel Schincariol, (3) Marcelo Sadio, (4) EFE.)