Thursday, 21 February 2013

Three quick thoughts on Grêmio's win against Fluminense

Grêmio got their Copa Libertadores campaign back on track last night with a 3-0 mauling of Fluminense in Rio de Janeiro. Here are three things that stuck out...



Grêmio win the midfield battle 

Flu's usual attacking strategy is a relatively predictable one – although no less effective for that. After Wellington Nem stretches the play, full-backs Carlinhos and Bruno bomb on and dig out crosses until Fred tucks one away. Grêmio countered that tactic brilliantly at the Engenhão, using Elano and Zé Roberto almost as conventional wide midfielders to provide extra cover on the flanks. As a result, Flu's regular supply line was cut off, forcing them infield, where Jean, Edinho and Wágner (and then Deco) were dominated by Grêmio's two deep-lying midfielders. Souza and Fernando were excellent, with the latter staking his claim for a starting berth with some conviction after being left out against Huachipato.


Barcos and Vargas begin to click

New boys Hernán Barcos and Eduardo Vargas failed to click in Grêmio's Libertadores opener, but there were signs last night that this could prove a potent partnership. Barcos, who is far more accomplished technically than some give him credit for, was busy throughout, dropping deep to hold up possession and bring midfielders into play. Vargas, meanwhile, used his electric pace to drag defenders wide, and was rewarded for his efforts with a well-taken goal in the second period. With Welliton still to come into the side, the Porto Alegre side won't be short on firepower this year.


Dead balls: dead important

Grêmio's delivery from corners and free-kicks was exceptional throughout, with Zé Roberto and Elano using all of their experience to trouble the Fluminense defence. The latter came close to a gol olímpico just minutes before whipping in a devastating in-swinging cross that Bruno turned into his own net. Flu, by contrast, offered relatively little from dead-ball situations, with Wágner, Rafael Sóbis and Deco routinely seeing their deliveries cleared by the first man. Given that his side normally prides itself on doing the basics so well, Abel Braga will surely be seething.

(Photo credit: Cleber Mendes.)

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

The week(end) that was - #3

Join me as I look back upon a fine week of Libertadores and state championship action...



Romarinho punishes Palmeiras. Again

Corinthians forward Romarinho is fast establishing himself as a big game player par excellence. The 22-year-old came off the bench to earn his side a point in the clássico against Palmeiras, slotting home from the edge of the area following Alexandre Pato's square pass. It was his fourth goal in three games against the Verdão – a record that, coupled with his crucial goal in the 2012 Copa Libertadores final, has already earnt him cult status among the Corinthians faithful.


Malandragem não tem fim 

Atlético Mineiro's opener against São Paulo in the Libertadores last week appeared to be the result of sloppiness on the part of the Tricolor defence. Ronaldinho Gaúcho found himself in acres of space at a throw-in and took full advantage, biding his time before squaring for Jô to bundle home. But replays showed Ronaldinho surreptitiously wondering over to share a water bottle with Rogério Ceni in the build-up to the goal, prompting some to claim that this was a premeditated ploy.


Galo coach Cuca naturally denied the allegations ("It wasn't planned; it just happened. I'm just glad we made the most of it!") but either way, it was a potent example of malandragem from Ronaldinho, whose percussive passing was at the centre of a fine Atlético performance. The playmaker's seleção days may be numbered, but he is still more than capable of bossing matches at this level.


Fla flying high on a budget

Flamengo scrapped their way to a 1-0 win over Botafogo on Sunday – their sixth victory in seven matches since the turn of the year. The budgetary constraints imposed by new president Eduardo Bandeira de Mello seem to have engendered a greater sense of team spirit at Gávea, with none of the ego-massaging that defined previous regimes. Dorival Júnior's side looks robust at the back and peddles a nifty line in heart-stopping counter-attacks, utilising the pace of young Rafinha to full effect on the flanks. With striker Hernane continuing to plunder goals (his shinned effort at the Engenhão was his eighth of the season), Fla fans have plenty reasons to be cheerful.



Stranger danger

Grêmio's last-minute pre-Libertadores shopping spree was as thrilling as it was surprising. The Porto Alegre side boasted a settled squad and an experienced coach in Vanderlei Luxemburgo, but few had earmarked them as continental contenders in 2013. But the signings of Hernán Barcos (Palmeiras), Edu Vargas (Napoli) and Welliton (Spartak Moscow) made everyone sit up and take notice; in a matter of days Grêmio had assembled one of South America's most fearsome attacks, and were suddenly being spoken of as major players in this season's competition.

But the Tricolor started their campaign with a whimper, falling to a 2-1 home defeat at the hands of Huachipato last week. The problem was immediately visible: Grêmio played like a bunch of strangers – which, of course, is exactly what they are. Things will doubtlessly improve over time, but time is in short supply: Luxa and his charges travel to Rio to face reigning Brazilian champions Fluminense this week. If they lose that, they might need every last bit of their newly-acquired firepower to reach the knockout stages.

A version of this article was published by The Guardian.

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Copa Libertadores preview

And so it begins. The Copa Libertadores got underway last night with the thrilling draw between Nacional and Barcelona, before Emelec and Universidad de Chile picked up home wins. The Brazilian challenge begins this evening, when Atlético-MG host São Paulo (big game klaxon) and Fluminense travel to Venezuela to face Caracas. Here's my take on how Brazil's six contenders shape up this year...

Palmeiras

Coach: Gilson Kleina
Key players: Henrique, Souza, Wesley
Group 2 opponents: Libertad (PAR), Tigre (ARG), Sporting Cristal (PER)

Libertadores champions in 1999, the Verdão face an uphill task to make their mark on this year's edition. Having won the Brazilian Cup midway through 2012, Palmeiras' season fell apart, culminating in their relegation from Série A in November. A number of key players have since left, meaning that the squad, despite some shrewd budget signings (Ayrton, Kléber, Léo Gago), lacks that air of class. A protracted flirtation with Juan Román Riquelme threatened to change that, but negotiations came to nought – probably a good thing, given the potential cost of bringing the Argentine to São Paulo. If Palmeiras progress to the latter stages of the competition, coach Gilson Kleina will go down as a miracle worker.



Atlético Mineiro

Coach: Cuca
Key players: Ronaldinho Gaúcho, Réver, Diego Tardelli
Group 3 opponents: São Paulo, Arsenal de Sarandí (ARG), The Strongest (BOL)

The surprise package of last season's Campeonato Brasileiro, the Galo embark on their first Libertadores campaign since 2000. They certainly boast the attacking talent to trouble any side; Ronaldinho Gaúcho is still a force to be reckoned with at this level, busy youngster Bernard and beanpole striker Jô provide ample support, and the returning Diego Tardelli will plunder plenty of goals. Crucial to their chances could be home advantage: the club has elected to snub the newly-renovated Mineirão in favour of the Estádio Independência, whose cramped, steep stands tend to create a more intimate – and intimidating – atmosphere.


São Paulo

Coach: Ney Franco
Key players: Lúcio, Luís Fabiano, Jádson
Group 3 opponents: Atlético Mineiro, Arsenal de Sarandí (ARG), The Strongest (BOL)

Winners of the Copa Sul-Americana in 2012, São Paulo look well placed to make the step up to the continent's premier competition this year. Theirs is a squad replete with experience: former seleção captain Lúcio join fellow veterans Rogério Ceni and Luís Fabiano to form a formidable spine. In midfield, a rejuvenated Denílson has formed a promising partnership with Wellington, allowing Jádson to focus on creative duties. Yet there are concerns for coach Ney Franco. The departure of Lucas has left the attack lopsided, whilst Paulo Henrique Ganso appears to be a square peg in a formation of round holes. The failure to sign another attacker – such as Edu Vargas, who was poached by Grêmio – could come back to haunt the Tricolor.


Corinthians

Coach: Tite
Key players: Paulinho, Paolo Guerrero, Cássio
Group 5 opponents: Millonarios (COL), San José (BOL), Tijuana (MEX)

Reigning Libertadores champions, the Timão have done what all great clubs do (and what all other clubs resent): strengthen after success. In have come Alexandre Pato, Renato Augusto and Gil – three players of unquestionable quality, although none is even guaranteed a starting place. Even more significant could be the form of Paolo Guerrero: the Peruvian has begun the year in startling form and will be relishing his opportunity to grace this competition for the first time. With coach Tite's star shining brighter than ever before, it would take a brave man to bet against Corinthians repeating their 2012 triumph.


Fluminense

Coach: Abel Braga
Key players: Fred, Wellington Nem, Diego Cavalieri
Group 8 opponents: Grêmio, Caracas (VEN), Huachipato (CHI)

The off-season passed relatively serenely at Laranjeiras, with no major transfers in or out. This, one senses, is exactly how they like it. Little has changed for the side that won the Brasileirão in 2012, meaning that the steady hand of coach Abel Braga will again be their greatest strength. Not that the Tricolor squad lacks star quality; in Fred they boast perhaps the most ruthless matador on the continent, while the zippy Wellington Nem and goalkeeper Diego Cavalieri also ooze class. Much will depend on whether players like Deco, Thiago Neves and Rafael Sóbis – undoubted talents, one and all – can stay fit and produce the goods on a regular basis.


Grêmio

Coach: Vanderlei Luxemburgo
Key players: Elano, Welliton, Hernán Barcos
Group 8 opponents: Fluminense, Caracas (VEN), Huachipato (CHI)

Until just a few weeks ago, Grêmio unlikely to make waves in this season's competition. While Vanderlei Luxemburgo could count on some solid performers – Elano, Werley and Zé Roberto were especially impressive in 2012 – the Porto Alegre side appeared to lack the sprinkling of attacking quality that separates good sides and great ones. But an astonishing transfer blitz has changed all that. In have come three forwards of the highest calibre: Hernán 'El Pirata' Barcos (Palmeiras), Edu Vargas (Napoli), Welliton (Spartak Moscow). How Luxa plans to accommodate that trio is anyone's guess, particularly given that Marcelo Moreno and Kléber are (at time of writing, at least), still at the club. Expect fireworks.

Monday, 11 February 2013

Brazilian football digest: January

With the Brasileirão over and the state championships yet to click into gear, January provided opportunity to focus on footballers at both ends of the age spectrum. Santos impressed in the Copinha, Brazil disappointed in the U20 South American Championship, and Rivaldo made a welcome return to his homeland at the grand old age of 40.


You can read my take on these stories in my latest article for Betting Expert.

Saturday, 9 February 2013

Pressure on Scolari as Brazil flatter to deceive

Expectation is a strange beast. When managed well, it can spur teams on; when allowed to grow unchecked, it can be a yoke around their necks. In Brazilian football, the default level of expectation is "sky high". Sometimes this is due simply to excitement; sometimes the clumsy hand of partisanship is at work. Either way, no one feels the breath down the backs of their necks more than football managers in Brazil. You're the coach of a modest, bottom-of-the-table club that LOST to a title contender?! Here's your P45. You lost two games out of six despite half your first team being injured and having no budget to replace them? On your bike.


Luiz Felipe Scolari is not unaccustomed to lofty expectations. He's probably had a tour of one of Roman Abramovich's mansions/boats/oil fields, after all. When he was reappointed Brazil manager in November, he knew exactly what he was letting himself in for.

Read the rest of this article at Unibet by clicking here.

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

The week(end) that was - #2

Football itself ceded centre stage to Brazil's stadiums this week, as the Arena do Grêmio and the Mineirão hogged the headlines for all the wrong reasons...


Stadium woes (part one)

"But can we still do the avalanche?" This was the first question asked by most Grêmio fans when plans for their new stadium were unveiled in late 2009. Their (in)famous goal celebration – which involves members of the Geral supporters' group rushing to the front of the terrace as one – was deeply associated with the Estádio Olímpico, whose shallow stands lent themselves to the idea as well as any. To maintain the tradition, one terrace of the Arena do Grêmio – which opened this year – was designed with the 'avalanche' specifically in mind – despite reservations voiced by the local military police corps over the safety of the celebration.

Those fears came flooding back last week. The safety barrier at the bottom of the stand dedicated to the 'avalanche' gave way as fans celebrated Grêmio's goal against LDU, leaving eight people requiring medical attention. Thankfully none were seriously injured, but in a state still in shock following the tragic events in Santa Maria, a hard truth seems to have hit home: tradition it may be, but a crowd of thousands piling down steps towards a barrier (sturdy or otherwise) is simply not safe. With local authorities and Conmebol investigating the incident, the addition of seats in the area is likely.

Miralles finds his feet at Santos

One of a number of Argentines to have come to prominence in Chilean football (see also: Darío Conca, Walter Montillo, Darío Bottinelli), Ezequiel Miralles made an inauspicious start to life in Brazil, making just nine Brasileirão starts for Grêmio before being shipped off to Santos in the deal that took Elano to Porto Alegre.

There are signs, however, that he could be ready to make a bigger impact in 2013. Miralles looked sharp in the seasiders' 3-1 derby win against São Paulo, scoring twice and linking up well with both Neymar and fellow hermano Montillo. With his waspish movement, the 29-year-old certainly provides a more subtle threat than André, his main competitor for a starting role. Much will depend on whether he can be similarly ruthless in front of goal, but Sunday's performance bodes well.

Stadium woes (part two)

After over a thousand days of restoration work, the Mineirão in Belo Horizonte was reopened by Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff in December. The new-look stadium was used for the first time this weekend, with the clássico between Cruzeiro and Atlético-MG expected to be a celebratory affair.

But the football itself was overshadowed by a host of problems reported by fans. The more serious allegations – a lack of drinking water (in water fountains and subsequently even from taps), understaffed bars which then closed due to overcrowding, no toilet paper in bathrooms – provide significant cause for concern. The distress evident on the face of one man caught on camera, desperate for water to give to his son, was particularly troubling.

"The idea that these are just little teething troubles doesn't cut it," seethed Estadão's Antero Greco. "Fans were treated with disrespect – like they were litter. And they have the cheek to put up banners that say things like 'Enjoy the party!' It's lamentable."


Home sweet... oh


Paulo Henrique Ganso played against Santos for the first time since his acrimonious departure last year. To celebrate the occasion, the Peixe fans printed fake bank notes with his name and face on them, threw coins and even made a Ganso 'Judas doll' (don't ask) to punch, scratch and curse. At least somebody was a little more forgiving.

Like a duck to water

It's fair to say that Alexandre Pato knows how to make a good impression. (Insert Barbara Berlusconi joke here, if you're so inclined.) It took the striker just three minutes – and three touches – to open his account for Corinthians after coming off the bench against Oeste. Incredibly, he has now scored on début for every team he had represented at senior level, having made similarly positive first impressions for Internacional, Milan and the seleção. Whether he can maintain the early momentum, of course, will depend largely on his fitness – as both he and the Timão medical department will well know.

A version of this article was published by The Guardian here.