Thursday, 18 April 2013

Against all odds: São Paulo channel horror film alter ego to progress in Libertadores

São Paulo FC needed a miracle. Two miracles, actually. With one game remaining in Group 3 of the Copa Libertadores, the Tricolor were all but eliminated, requiring a win against Atlético Mineiro to stand a chance of sneaking into the knockout stages. Even a victory wouldn't guarantee anything: they also needed a favour from Arsenal de Sarandí, who hosted Bolivian side The Strongest.

Keeping up their own half of the bargain looked the hardest part. Atlético went into yesterday's match at the Morumbi with a 100 per cent record in the competition, having scored 16 goals in their opening five matches. Led by a rejuvenated Ronaldinho, they have reaped the rewards of having a settled, balanced starting XI, on which coach Cuca, himself in the midst of a career renaissance, has been working for well over a year.

To make matters worse, São Paulo were beset by selection issues. Luís Fabiano was suspended for the millionth time since his return to Brazil, as was Jádson, the player whose understated performances lifted the side to last season's Copa Sul-Americana. In came the bustling Aloísio and Douglas. The latter, a full-back by trade, was asked to play on the right of an attacking quartet – a clear sign that coach Ney Franco has yet to fill the hole left by Lucas since the latter left for Paris Saint-Germain.

Atlético were expected to relish the chance to dump the Tricolor out of the competition but Cuca's team selection suggested a more cautious approach: Serginho started in place of the far more attacking Diego Tardelli. That lack of ambition was reflected in a performance that had very little in common with their previous outings in the competition. Simply put, their hearts weren't really in it. Ronaldinho even admitted as such to reporters at half-time, calling it a "big training session".

That São Paulo hadn't scored by that stage owed more to luck than judgement. The hosts, spurred on rather than daunted by the difficulty of the task at hand, produced their best display of the competition so far. Denílson and Wellington snuffed out the threat of Ronaldinho. Douglas and Osvaldo probed the channels, forcing Atlético full-backs Richarlyson and Marcos Rocha – usually such reliable outlets for the Galo – back into their own half. Paulo Henrique Ganso, a player whose star has waxed and waned over the last two years, put in his best performance in a São Paulo shirt, protecting the ball and ushering team-mates forward with his languid passing.

By the time the second half began, the Tricolor knew that their fate was in their own hands; Arsenal had taken the lead against The Strongest. Urged forward by an uncommonly raucous Morumbi crowd, São Paulo dug deep and soon got their reward. Aloísio was felled by Leonardo Silva in the area, allowing goalkeeper Rogério Ceni to stroke home from the spot. The veteran, who continues to divide opinion ("the Margaret Thatcher of Brazilian football", as one Tweeter recently put it) sunk to his knees in celebration of his 110th career goal. Few have been more vital.

Atlético didn't fight back, instead allowing São Paulo to score a second. Ganso's heart-stopping through-ball (how long I've waited to use a sentence like that again) released Osvaldo, whose cut-back was turned home coolly by substitute Ademílson. Game over.

As injury time began, news filtered through that Arsenal had indeed won in Sarandí. Against all odds, São Paulo were back from the brink. It's not the first time they've cheated fate: when the Tricolor won the Brasileirão in 2006, everyone expected it to be a one-off, but they came back to win it the following year – and the year after that. In so doing, they earnt the nickname 'Jason', after the antagonist from the Friday the 13th films. Like the masked killer, goes the logic, they just won't die.

Atlético's lax approach, meanwhile, could quickly come back to haunt them. The fixtures for the round of 16 are decided not through a draw but by a seeding process: the team with the best record from the group stage plays the team with the worst, and so on. Atlético had already qualified as first seeds. The team that qualified with the lowest points tally turned out to be... São Paulo. "[Ronaldinho] can play how he wants," remarked Ceni, pointedly. "Next time it counts."

When the sequel comes around they may live to regret not putting the final nail in São Paulo's coffin. In Brazilian football, as in horror films, you write off Jason at your peril.

A version of this article was published by The Guardian.

(Photo credit: Tom Dib, LancePress.)


  1. SPFC has no chance in the rematch. I would bet my wedding ring on it. The only reason they won this last match was simply because the Galo didn't need to show up. To me, this game wasn't even worth a blind man's television set... let alone an article

  2. Thanks. I'll be sure to double-check with you which games are worth writing about in the future.