Friday, 29 April 2011

Juninho Seals Vasco Return; Libertadores Loss for Grêmio

We are now, dear reader, getting to the business end of the first half of the Brazilian season; the state championships are finally drawing to a close, and the Copa Libertadores and is reaching its exciting climax. Without further ado, then, I present my weekly round-up...

Vasco 1-0 Olaria
Royalty. A word which provokes, depending on one's worldview, either a lump in the throat or a stomach ache. An institution which has spawned a million commemorative tea sets, a veritable Atlantic of cloying tat. Yes, reader, as you may have heard, a certain Prince got married today, clogging up the airwaves with the inconsequential ramblings of countless "royal experts" (as if that were a legitimate career). Before you reach for the indigestion tablets, however, I have an altogether more heartwarming royal communion for your consideration.

O Reizinho poses in Vasco's latest jersey.

Juninho Pernambucano, a Vasco da Gama idol thanks to a successful six year spell at the club earlier in his career, has confirmed his imminent return to the São Januário; an announcement which sent fans into raptures. Juninho, who has been representing Qatari side Al-Gharafa since leaving Olympique Lyonnais, is lovingly known among Vasco fans as O Reizinho da Colina (The Little King of the Hill... in reference to the location of the club's stadium, rather than to the cult cartoon series).

The good news didn't end there, however. After restating his love for the club ("This isn't a marketing ploy; Vasco and I are partners, in joy and in sorrow"), Juninho revealed that he had agreed to earn a "minimal salary" throughout the new contract. Most people, me included, took this only to mean that his paycheck would be somewhat smaller than the (presumably stratospheric) figures offered by Al-Gharafa. The reality, however, was utterly astounding. Juninho will receive a basic wage of around £55 per week (yes, you did read that correctly); only slightly above Brazil's national minimum.

Juninho during his first spell at Vasco.

This gesture, so at odds with the stereotype of the modern footballer, has cemented Juninho's place in the hearts of Vascaínos all over Brazil. The Reizinho is not simply fulfilling his promise to return to his heartland; he is doing so on terms which take the club's shaky financial position into account, in a manner which acknowledges his own emotional debt to the fans. So while the return of, for instance, Ronaldinho may have generated more press interest (and monetary gain) for the player and his agent, Vasco wouldn't swap their new (old) midfield monarch for the world.

On the pitch, meanwhile, Ricardo Gomes' side booked their place in the Taça Rio final with a 1-0 win over Olaria. Former Benfica striker Éder Luís scored the only goal of an evenly-balanced game at the Engenhão. Things, then, are looking up for Vasco. One minor worry persists, however; what if Juninho snuck a R$500,000 free-kick bonus into that contract?!

Campeonato Carioca Round-up
In the other Taça Rio semi-final, spot-kicks were needed to separate perennial rivals Flamengo and Fluminense after a 1-1 draw. Rafael Moura put the Tricolor ahead in the first half from close range, but a fine Thiago Neves restored parity. Flamengo goalkeeper Felipe was the hero in the penalty shootout, saving from Araújo and Tartá to hand victory to the Rubro-Negro. Fla will meet Vasco on Sunday, hoping to seal the Carioca crown.

Campeonato Paulista Round-up
There were no surprises in the Paulistão quarter finals, with all four big guns booking their places in the final four. Goals from Ilsinho and Dagoberto (the former coming at the end of a lovely passing move) gave São Paulo a comfortable win over Portuguesa, while Santos snuck past Ponte Preta thanks to a Neymar strike. A rocket from Jorge Valdivia (who also gained infamy this week thanks to this amusing dribbling technique) sent Palmeiras on the way to a 2-1 win over Mirassol, and Corinthians beat Oeste thanks to a late Willian effort.

Copa Libertadores Round-up
Grêmio, who muddled through to the knockout phase of the Libertadores without really hitting peak form, were handed a wake-up call on Tuesday night, losing 2-1 at home to Chilean side Universidad Católica. In truth, it could have been far worse; reduced to 10 men after Borges mindlessly elbowed his marker, Grêmio were overrun for long periods, and only got on the scoresheet thanks to a moment of inspiration from Douglas. The Tricolor have it all to do in the second leg. Local rivals Internacional, meanwhile, battled to a creditable 1-1 draw with Peñarol in Montevideo. Leandro Damião's away goal could prove crucial for Paulo Roberto Falcão's side.

Another night, another win for the peerless Cruzeiro; they saw off Once Caldas with some aplomb in Colombia. José Ortigoza scored the goal of the game, chipping nonchalantly over the 'keeper after being released by Walter Montillo. Fluminense also picked up an impressive win, seeing of Libertad 3-1 at the Engenhão. Rafael Moura broke the deadlock, before stunning second half strikes from Marquinho and Darío Conca put the game to bed. At the Vila Belmiro, meanwhile, Paulo Henrique Ganso's low drive handed Santos a narrow victory over Mexican visitors América.

Copa do Brasil Round-up
Take a bow, Marcelo Oliveira. The 56-year-old coach guided Coritiba to a 1-0 win over Caxias on Wednesday, a result which saw the Coxa set a new Brazilian record of 22 consecutive victories. True enough, many of those wins have come in the modest Paraná state championship, but this shouldn't diminish the achievement of a team that spent 2010 in the second tier of the Brazilian game.

All smiles; Coritiba boss Marcelo Oliveira.

Elsewhere, Flamengo booked their place in the last eight with a straightforward win over Horizonte-CE, as did São Paulo, who beat Goiás 1-0. Vasco and Ceará also progressed this week, meaning that the quarter-final lineup is finally complete; Flamengo vs Ceará, Coritiba vs Palmeiras, Vasco vs Atlético-PR, Avaí vs São Paulo. Those games will take place on the 4th and 5th of May.

Best of the Rest
The final of the Campeonato Gaúcho's second stage will (surprise, surprise) pit Internacional against Grêmio; the Porto Alegre pair enjoyed semi-final wins over Juventude and Cruzeiro-RS respectively. In Florianópolis, Avaí managed a 2-0 win over rivals Figueirense, a win that saw them reach the final of the Campeonato Catarinense.

Selected results. Carioca; Vasco 1-0 Olaria, Flamengo 1-1 Fluminense (5-4 on pens). Paulista; São Paulo 2-0 Portuguesa, Palmeiras 2-1 Mirassol, Corinthians 2-1 Oeste, Santos 1-0 Ponte Preta. Libertadores; Once Caldas 1-2 Cruzeiro, Santos 1-0 América, Fluminense 3-1 Libertad, Peñarol 1-1 Internacional, Grêmio 1-2 Universidad Católica.

(Photo credits; (1) Flávio Dias, (2) Renan Medeiros, (3) Hugo Harada.)

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