Monday, 31 May 2010

Corinthians Batter Peixe; Fla and Grêmio Remain in Bottom Half After Draw

São Paulo giants Corinthians continue to set the early pace in the Campeonato Brasileiro, after beating fellow contenders Santos on Sunday aftertoon. Flamengo and Grêmio, both of whom also harbour title ambitions, could only manage a draw at the Maracanã.

Corinthians 4-2 Santos
The country's most in-form teams produced an enthralling spectacle and plenty of goals at the Pacaembu. Despite the absence of Robinho and Ronaldo (the former in South Africa, the latter rested for reasons both physical and psychological), both managers fielded strong sides; Santos lined up with Wesley, Arouca, and Marquinhos in the middle, freeing up Paulo Henrique to push forward, while Corinthians packed the midfield behind Jorge Henrique and Dentinho in attack.

Bruno César; Corinthians' new star?

Barely two minutes had passed when the home side took the lead. Bruno César, making his first start since arriving from Santo André, rifled in a low shot which Felipe could only palm away. Jorge Henrique reacted the quickest, and snuck a shot under the Corinthians 'keeper before he could regain his bearings. The Timão continued to press, and were unlucky not to get a second when Jorge Henrique's header hit the bar. Santos gradually built up some momentum towards the end of the half, but entered the changing rooms 1-0 down.

The Peixe finally levelled just after the break, when André received a pass from the underrated Marquinhos and hit a shot that trickled in via the inside of the post. Parity lasted for only a minute, however. Jucilei's cross to the far post found Bruno César, who took a touch before drilling home emphatically. The goal marked a promising performance from the midfielder, one which suggested that he could fill the creative boots vacated by Douglas nearly a year ago.

Corinthians extended their lead through Ralf, who profited from some static defending to stride forward and stroke home. He and Dentinho celebrated in amusing fashion, pretending to reel in fish on invisible rods. Substitute Madson should have brought Santos back into the game soon after, but inexplicably sliced wide with only the 'keeper to beat. Corinthians were in ruthless mood, and duly punished their opponents' profligacy; Paulinho scored with a powerful header following Roberto Carlos' cross. Santos did manage a second in the dying moments, but Marcel's headed effort was little more than a consolation by that stage.

Flamengo 1-1 Grêmio
An exciting game at the Maracanã was lit up by Flamengo's veteran playmaker Dejan Petkovic, who celebrated his new contract with the club in style. It was the Serbian who gave the Rubro-Negro an early lead on Saturday night, arrowing an impeccable left-footed volley into the roof of the net after Vágner Love's header had hit the post. 'Pet' was at the centre of everything Flamengo created, carving out some lovely through-balls and making well-timed bursts into the box. Fla could have ended the half three or four goals up, but some poor finishing and the linesman's flag (Vágner Love had a goal chalked off for offside) meant that the score remained 1-0.

Pet rescue; can Petkovic drag Fla into title contention?

Early in the second period, Vágner Love really should have doubled the advantage. Receiving a defence-splitting ball from Petkovic (who else?!), the striker could only shoot into the 'keeper's legs with the goal begging. Minutes later, Grêmio were level. Fábio Rochemback curled in a corner from the right, and Rodrigo climbed highest to score with a header. Things could have got worse for the home side; Hugo twice tested Bruno with stinging efforts, and Jonas contrived to smash over when it looked easier to score. By the end, Flamengo were probably happy to cling on to the draw, despite it leaving them 12th in the table.

Gameweek 5 Round-up
The Brasileirão looked to be suffering from a hangover after a midweek goal binge; the other two games on Saturday both ended 0-0. Avaí, Vitória, Palmeiras and Grêmio Prudente were the guilty parties. Guarani and São Paulo followed suit on Sunday.

One team, however, can always be relied on to score and/or concede plenty. Step forward Atlético-MG, who slipped to a 3-1 home defeat to Fluminense. Muriqui finished off a typically flowing move involving Ricardinho and Coelho to put the Galo ahead, but it was Fluminense who dominated the second period. Marquinho's corner was headed home by Gum, before Alan's shot from a tight angle was fumbled in by Atlético goalkeeper Marcelo. In injury time, Fred exchanged a intricate set of passes with Alan before smashing home to seal the win.

Internacional also came to life in the second half, beating Atlético-PR 4-1 at the Beira-Rio. The opener was tapped in by a combination of Alecsandro and Walter, both of whom tried to claim the goal by celebrating more convincingly than the other. Gonzalo Sorondo made it two from fully three centimetres out, before Andrezinho volleyed home following slick build-up from Guiñazu and Walter. Alecsandro smashed home from a tight angle for Inter's fourth, and Manoel nicked a late consolation for the Furacão.

Romerito (left) goes wild after netting Goiás' equaliser.

Ceará remain in second place after an impressive 1-0 against Cruzeiro. The only goal flew into the roof of the net from Lopes, after another lovely run and assist by the skillful Misael. The newly promoted side are unlikely to remain near the top of the table, but their early season performances have rightly drawn plaudits. Lowly Goiás claimed their first win of the season, beating Atlético-GO 3-1 away from home. Elias scored from the spot for Atlético following the most clear-cut penalty decision you're ever likely to see, but the Esmeraldino responded in style. Romerito slammed in their equaliser, and grabbed a second following a determined run. Bernado wrapped up the victory after receiving Douglas' smart pass.

At the Engenhão, Vasco doggedly earnt a draw against Botafogo. An exciting opening period saw Herrera and Nilton waste clear chances, and Lúcio Flávio denied a clear penalty after tunbling in the box. Vasco took the lead through Ernani, who dribbled from deep, swapped passes with Philippe Coutinho, and calmly finished past Jefferson. The lead lasted for just ten minutes. Botafogo were awarded a spot-kick after Nilton handled in the box, and Herrera made no mistake, powerfully finishing from 12 yards. Jéferson appeared to have netted a second for Vasco in the second period, but his goal was oddly ruled out by the linesman. The away side were rightly aggrieved, but in truth, 1-1 was a fair reflection of a balanced clash.

(Photo credits; (1) Miguel Schinchariol, (2) Maurício Val/Vipcomm, (3) Agência Estado.)

Friday, 28 May 2010

Stunning Comeback Gives Vasco First Win; Fluminense Beat Flamengo in Clássico

There was a full midweek programme in Série A, with important wins coming for two Rio clubs who have endured a tough start to the campaign.

Vasco da Gama 3-2 Internacional
An inspired second-half comeback saw Vasco get their first win the Campeonato Brasileiro, to the relief of fans and new boss Celso Roth alike. Visiting Inter had established a 2-0 lead at the break, thanks to a quickfire brace from Andrezinho. The first came on 38 minutes, a deflected effort after the midfielder had cut in from the right. Barely two minutes later, the left-hand side of the Vasco defence lapsed for a second time, allowing Andrezinho far too much space to collect Alecsandro's pass and clip a delicate finish over Fernando Prass.

Rocket man; Élton celebrates his opening goal for Vasco.

The São Januário club's revival in the second period was as impressive as it was unexpected. They dragged themselves back into contention thanks to a fabulous goal from Élton, who turned on the edge of the box and lashed an unstoppable volley over Pato Abbondanzieri. Belief appeared to pulse through the Vasco players, but they were made to wait until the final fifteen minutes until their pressure paid off. The equaliser came with a generous dollop of luck; the Gigante da Colina were awarded a penalty when Ernani tumbled under pressure from Inter defender Nei. The replay showed it to be a shameless dive, but Philippe Coutinho didn't care, sending the 'keeper the wrong way with his spot-kick.

With six minutes to go, Vasco got their winner. The ball broke to burly midfielder Nilton, who crashed a drive into the top corner from the edge of the area. The home players celebrated wildly, and for good reason; every point will be vital in what's shaping up to be a long battle against relegation. If Celso Roth can get more performances like this one from his men, especially at home, it will go a long way to securing their safety.

Fluminense 2-1 Flamengo
Muricy Ramalho's Fluminense earnt a deserved win over city rivals Flamengo in Wednesday's game at the Maracanã. It had been over two years since the Laranjeiras club had been victorious in a Fla-Flu, but this win suggests that the trajectories of the two clubs may finally be changing. Flamengo look unlikely to maintain the level of performance which saw them win last season's Série A title, especially since it appears that Vágner Love will follow Adriano out of the club. Flu, on the other hand, could be on the up; with a talented manager and hopes of new signings such as Deco.

Adriano leaves Flamengo's Gávea HQ after confirming his exit from the club. Fans were shell-shocked, firstly to hear the bad news, but also to see the striker at the training complex at all.

The Tricolor took the lead after 10 minutes when Rodriguinho netted his first for the club. The credit, though, must go to playmaker Dário Conca. Surging from deep, the Argentine scooped a sumptious pass for his teammate, who dispatched a first-time finish past Bruno in the Flamengo goal. It would prove the only goal of a balanced first half. After the break, Fluminense wasted little time in increasing their lead, and again it was Conca who did the damage. Marquinho controlled a cross from the right, and unselfishly teed up the No. 11, who smashed a shot into the top corner.

Flamengo were suffering from a real lack of cutting-edge in attack, and it took a goal from an unlikely source to drag them back into the game. Goalkeeper Bruno ventured upfield to take a free-kick, which he bent gloriously over the wall and into the net. It was too little, too late, however, and the three points saw Fluminense leapfrog Fla in the Série A standings.

Gameweek 4 Round-up
Corinthians remain in top spot despite only managing a draw against Grêmio Prudente. Wanderley volleyed the home side into the lead, but William equalised after a Matías Defederico free-kick had caused havok in the Prudente defence. Diego's shot from a free-kick looked to have won it for the Abelha, but a late own goal by Dênis ensured that the points were shared. In Belo Horizonte, Botafogo's good run was ended by Cruzeiro; Thiago Ribeiro netted the only goal in a 1-0 victory for the Raposa.

Santos were not at their best against Guarani, and needed two late goals to secure a 3-1 win. A Baiano free-kick cancelled out Neymar's opener; a mazy run culminating in a scuffed finish which snuck in at the near post. Marcel met Léo's cross with a firm header to put Santos back into the lead, before André's late strike guaranteed maximum points.

São Paulo continued their winning run with a hard-fought 1-0 win over local rivals Palmeiras. The veteran goalkeepers Rogério Ceni and Marcos had busy first halves - São Paulo in particular showed plenty of attacking intent - but the sides went in goalless at the interval. The winner came early in the second half, when the powerful Fernandinho wriggled free on the left and crossed low for Fernandão to poke home. A little man/big man combination in name only; more like big man/bigger man in terms of physique. Palmeiras had a golden opportunity to level matters late on, but Ewerton's penalty was kept out by Rogério.

Fernandinho skips away from two Palmeiras defenders to set up São Paulo's winner.

Atlético Mineiro's toppsy-turvy start to the Brasileirão continued as they lost 4-3 away to Vitória. Schwenk (still love that name) gave Vitória the lead, but the Galo levelled in style; Muriqui sprinted onto Ricardinho's perfect pass and volleyed over the 'keeper with his first touch. Scwenk bagged with his second with a header, before Ricardinho's free-kick restored parity again. Some amusing goalkeeping from Marcelo gifted Vitória their third. The Atlético man chested down a back-pass but was robbed by Schwenk who completed his hat-trick. Schwenksational. (I'm so, so sorry.) Diego Tardelli headed in the visitors' third equaliser, but the game was finally settled by Evandro, who recently arrived at Vitória from none other guessed it, Atlético Mineiro. A fitting end to an amazing game.

In Porto-Alegre, Grêmio enjoyed a comfortable 3-0 win over Avaí. In-form striker Jonas netted a first-half brace; the first a deflected effort from a free-kick, the second a simple finish after he'd rounded the 'keeper. Fábio Rochemback scored the third in the final minute. At the Baixada, Atlético-PR took the lead agaisnt Atlético-GO through a Paulo Baier free-kick, and scored a second through Wagner Diniz, who finished emphatically after a slalom run. Elias pulled one back for the visitors, but the Furacão hung on to win. In the round's only goalless affair, Ceará held Goiás at the Serra Dourada.

(Photo credits; (1) Paulo Sergio, (2) Cleber Mendes, (3) Tom Dib.)

Monday, 24 May 2010

Botafogo Continue Strong Start Despite Infighting; Flamengo Seal First Win

An action-packed weekend in the Brasileirão saw plenty of goals and talking points, with events at the Engenhão drawing particular attention...

Botafogo 3-0 Goiás
O Glorioso continued their impressive start to the campaign on Saturday afternoon by comprehensively defeating Emerson Leão's Goiás side. The game, however, will be best remembered for a bizarre incident involving Botafogo teammates Herrera and Caio, who were sent off for fighting in the second half. Herrera was visibly aggrieved when Caio selfishly wasted a good counter-attacking opportunity, and appeared to have some strong words for the youngster. The spat turned physical (although hardly violent), culminating in a couple of shoves and general handbags. The referee, however, saw fit to expel both players, who looked rather embarrassed as they trudged off.

Lúcio Flávio commemorates his goal. The crowd go wild. Or not.

The confrontation overshadowed what was another well-deserved win for Botafogo. After surviving some early Goiás pressure, the home side took the lead via Lúcio Flávio. The midfielder can sometimes look sluggish in open play, but his dead-ball prowess is beyond despute; his perfectly placed free-kick gave the 'keeper no chance. Barely a minute later, the advantage was doubled. Fábio in the Goiás goal failed to cling on to Herrera's low shot, and Somália hammered in the loose ball. It was Herrera who completed the scoring in the second period, turning home Lúcio Flávio's cross at the near post.

Despite the infighting, Joel Santana will be delighted to see his team move up to third in the table. If Botafogo continue this form, they might be a good outside bet for a Sudamericana or even a Libertadores place. In the short term, however, suspensions for Herrera and Caio (plus World Cup duty for Loco Abreu) will force the Alvinegro to field a makeshift strikeforce (likely to be Alex and Edno) against Cruzeiro on Wednesday.

Flamengo 3-1 Grêmio Prudente
There were mixed fortunes for Flamengo this week. The Rio giants recorded their first league win of the season, but look set to lose star striker Adriano, whose contract is about to expire. A return to Italy with Roma is mooted, a move which would put a huge dent in Fla's ambition of successfully defending their Série A crown. I stuggle to see how the transfer would be beneficial to Adriano either, apart from giving his bank balance a boost. This is a player who has struggled with drink, depression, and indiscipline even in circumstances tailor-made for his happiness; his family and friends are nearby, and Flamengo have been hugely (and arguably, excessively) lenient over his frequent absences from training. Staying with the Rubro-Negro would surely be the most logical outcome, but this appears unlikely. After all, when does logic have anything to do with Brazilian football?!

Flamengo goalscorer Juan.

Adriano sat out Sunday's game at the Maracanã, which allowed centre stage to be taken by Vágner Love, the other half of the fêted Império do Amor (literally Empire of Love; a conjunction of the two strikers' nicknames) partnership. It was he who opened the score on the stroke of half time, converting a penalty after Guilherme Camacho was tripped in the box. Wanderley levelled for the visitors after the break, but Flamengo nicked two late goals to secure three points. An attempted cross from Juan snuck in at the near post, before Vágner Love calmly slotted home his second penalty of the game. Next up for Rogério Lourenço's men is Wednesday's Fla-Flu clash at the Maracanã.

Gameweek 3 Round-up
Palmeiras faced Grêmio on Saturday, in the final game at the Palestra Itália prior to its refurbishment. In an exciting contest, the Verdão emerged 4-2 winners, a result which should temporarily allay fears over the side's decline in recent months. Ewerton twice capitalised on slack Grêmio defending to give the home side a two-goal lead, but the Tricolor reacted with a classy goal from Jonas, who controlled a high ball and volleyed home. Just before half-time, some ridiculous refereeing saw a sending off apiece; Palmeiras' Marcos Assunção and Douglas of Grêmio both harshly punished for a minor coming-together. Hugo levelled things up for the Porto Alegre side after the break, but it was Palmeiras who claimed the win, thanks to a Maurício Ramos header and a cute near-post finish from Cleiton Xavier.

A 2-1 away win against Atlético-GO gave Santos their first win in the Campeonato Brasileiro. Without Neymar, Ganso, Madson, and André (all left out for breaking a curfew after last week's Copa do Brasil win), Santos struggled to assert themselves in the first half. After the break, a firecracker from Wesley gave the Peixe the lead, before Zé Eduardo turned home Alex Sandro's cross. Boka's late goal proved to be no more than a consolation for the Dragão.

Atlético Mineiro reacted to last week's dire display by dispatching Atlético Paranaense 3-1. Goals from Muriqui, Diego Tardelli, and Ricardinho outweighed the away side's sole (but well worked) effort, which was finished off by Bruno Mineiro. Fellow Belo Horizonte heavyweights Cruzeiro had to come from two goals down to earn a draw with Guarani. Bugre hitman Roger twice profited from some uncharacteristically poor Cruzeiro defending, before Gil and Guerrón levelled things up.

Atlético-PR's Marcio Azevedo (left) confronts Atlético Mineiro's Ricardinho.

In a preview of the upcoming Libertadores semi-final, Internacional lost 2-0 to São Paulo at the Beira-Rio. Hernanes gave the away side the lead; his volley surprised Pato Abbondanzieri after his original shot from a free-kick had rebounded off the wall. Fernandão (a former Inter idol) bagged the Tricolor's second, rounding off a lovely move involving Hernanes and Dagoberto. São Paulo's exciting form continues. Corinthians scraped a 1-0 win over improving Fluminense, thanks to a Chicão free-kick. The Timão had to withstand substantial pressure from the Rio side, who thought they'd won a late penatly when Fred was brought down by Bruno. Unfortunately for Flu, the linesman had flagged the striker offside; a tight call but probably an accurate one.

Ceará claimed their second win of the season, beating Vitória 1-0. The goal came in injury time at the end of the match; Washington with the easiest of finishes after a sensational run by Misael. Avaí's early season form continued with a straightforward 2-0 win over struggling Vasco. Roberto scored the first for the Leão da Ilha, following some comically bad defending from the Rio side. Róbson made it two in the second half, finishing off a neat attack down the right. Celso Roth's Vasco have a measly one point to their name after the opening three games.

(Photo credits; (1) Alexandre Cassiano/Globo, (2) Paulo Sergio, (3) Mauricio de Souza/Agência Estado.)

Friday, 21 May 2010

Inter and São Paulo Reach Libertadores Semis; Fla and Cruzeiro Lose Out

There were mixed fortunes for the Brazilian clubs in this week's Libertadores quarter-final second legs; São Paulo and Internacional progressed to the semi-finals, while Cruzeiro and Flamengo lost out.

São Paulo 2-0 Cruzeiro
The Tricolor exacted revenged on Cruzeiro almost a year to the day after the Belo Horizonte side knocked them out of the 2009 competition. Going into the game at the Morumbi with a two goal advantage from the first leg, São Paulo were firm favourites to advance. Cruzeiro's slim hopes were all but dashed in the opening minutes, when their talismanic striker Kléber was sent off after catching Richarlyson with a stray hand. Reminiscent of Thiago Motta's sending off in the Champions League semi-final, the decision was a harsh one. After the game, a visibly frustrated Kléber criticised Richarlyson for play-acting, quipping that "Ricky's like always hurts him more [than it does others]."

Kléber sees red at the Morumbi.

The home side took the lead mid-way through the first half, after good work by Júnior César. The wingback beat two men on the left touchline and crossed for the onrushing Hernanes, who blasted into the top corner. The São Paulo No.10 proceeded to celebrate in what has become typical fashion, standing and shouting like a madman. The victory was secured in the second half, when Dagoberto gathered a Fernandão knock-down and cooly lobbed Raposa 'keeper Fábio. The quality of São Paulo's football has improved markedly since the arrival of Fernandão, and they look a good bet to go all the way in this competition.

Estudiantes 2-1 Internacional
São Paulo will meet Inter in the semi-final, after the Porto Alegre side battled to an impressive aggregate win over reigning champions Estudiantes. Despite losing an intense game in La Plata, the Colorado progress on away goals, having won the first leg 1-0. Estudiantes started brightly, and took the lead through Léandro González. A visionary ball from Juan Sebastián Véron found the striker in space, with ample time to beat a stranded Pato Abbondanzieri. The Inter 'keeper got his positioning all wrong, and looked generally shaky all match.

Within minutes, it was two. Enzo Pérez received the ball from a throw-in, and was allowed all the time in the world to curl a sumptuous effort into the top corner from 20 yards. The second half saw Inter huffing and puffing, but creating nothing; Estudiantes looked set to hold firm. This, however was to be Inter's night. In the 89th minute, Andrezinho found substitute Giuliano, who placed his finish low into the corner. The Colorado players celebrated like they'd won the competition, but regained concentration to see out the last moments of the game.

Giuliano; Inter's hero in La Plata.

What had been a great spectacle was marred somewhat by events after the final whistle. Numerous scuffles broke out over the pitch and in the tunnel, and the away side's reserve keeper Lauro was caught on camera landing a forearm blow on an unexpecting Estudiantes player. When the emotions cool, however, Inter will reflect on a historic win, and start planning for their all-Brazilian semi-final date.

Universidad 1-2 Flamengo
Victory in Santiago was not enough for Flamengo, who were knocked out on away goals having lost the home leg 3-2. The Rubro-Negro went down fighting, however, and took the lead late in the first half, when Vágner Love headed home after a spectacular overhead kick from Adriano. The home side settled their nerves in the second period with a wonder goal from Montillo. The Argentine dribbled past Juan, advanced into the Fla half, and crafted an impudent chip which gave Bruno no chance. To Flamengo's credit, they set up a tense finale by bagging an intricate second with 15 minutes to go. A Petkovic flick was backheeled by Adriano into the path of Léo Moura, who returned the favour, giving Adriano a simple finish. It turned out to be too little, too late, however, leaving the Brazilian side to lament what could have been. Universidad will meet Mexican side Chivas in the second semi-final.

(Photo credits; (1) Tom Dib, (2) AFP.)

Thursday, 20 May 2010

Santos and Vitória Reach Copa do Brasil Final

The semi-finals of the Brazilian cup were settled on Wednesday evening, with Santos and Vitória earning their places in the decider.

Santos 3-1 Grêmio
After losing out 4-3 in the first leg, Santos needed a win at the Vila Belmiro to reach the final. Recognising this, coach Dorival Júnior selected an attacking line-up (with Paulo Henrique Ganso behind a front three of Neymar, André, and Robinho), but none of his stars was able to break the deadlock in a goalless first half.

If there were any doubts forming in the minds of the Peixe fans, they were quickly and resoundingly dispelled in the second period. Just six minutes had passed when Ganso advanced on the left and rocketed an unstoppable drive into the top corner. A glorious goal.

The 'goose' steps forward; Ganso unleashes from range to score for Santos.

It was trumped, however by Santos' second; an exemplar in ruthless counter-attacking football. A long ball was pumped out of defence, which Robinho, still in his own half, managed to win in the air. André collected the ball, resisted a Grêmio challenge, and played it back into the path of Robinho, who had made a surging run. One on one with the 'keeper, the former Real Madrid man fashioned a stunning first-time lob to send the Santistas into raptures.

Five minutes later, Grêmio provided a reminder that they could still spoil the home side's party; Rafael Marques (not that one) netting from close range after Felipe spilt a Douglas free-kick. The revival, however, would prove to be short-lived. Energetic Santos midfielder Wesley outpaced his marker, rounded Victor, and found a finish from a tight angle.

It was a second half performance that embodied Santos' rise in 2010. Theirs is not only a fluid, aesthetic football; it is a potent and effective one too. It also provides a timely reminder that skill and entertainment, those traditional hallmarks of the Brazilian game, can be compatible with success even in this age of physical conditioning and professionalism. Perhaps the seleção ought to take note.

Vitória 4-0 Atlético-GO
Even if the honeymoon appears well and truly over for Atlético Goianiense (after their first Série A loss and defeat here), they can still fall back on the joy of (bear with me...) having married a girl way out of their league. In a more literal sense, their league is probably Série B, and a cup run to the semi-finals remains a historic achievement, despite their elimination at the Barradão.

Júnior (right) celebrates his first of the night for Vitória.

Uelliton (yes, that's what Wellington looks like when spelt phonetically/really, really badly) put the home side ahead with a simple header, before Júnior bagged a brace. Injury time produced some drama, when Vitória won a spot-kick. Viáfara, the Leão's penalty-taking goalkeeper scored with a paradinha, but was promptly booked for doing so (see below), and ordered to retake. He converted his second attempt, but will now miss the first leg of the final.

News Round-up
The days of the paradinha are numbered, it seems, after FIFA confirmed it would not allow the technique at the World Cup, a decision which will also apply to competitions worldwide from the start of the tournament. Globo analysed two types of kick; the paradona (big stop), which involves a dummy when the kicking leg has already been pulled back, and the paradinha (little stop), which involves a stutter or dummy in the run-up. The former, but not the latter, will be disallowed. (Globo's labelling is a bit confusing, though, since it's precisely the former which has been going by the name of paradinha...)

Deco; Laranjeiras-bound?

A week of substantial activity in Rio has seen Vasco appoint a new coach, and Fluminense all but seal an enormous transfer coup. Celso Roth has taken the reigns at the São Januário, with Gaúcho stepping aside to take up the role of assistant. Roth led Atlético-MG with considerable success last term, and having already had a spell at Vasco, looks a decent appointment. Fluminense appear to have tied up a deal for Chelsea midfielder Deco, who has often stated his desire to return to his native Brazil. Although seemingly a declining force in the European game, Deco would undoubtedly be a superb signing for the Tricolor, and at 32, should still have a few years of football left in him. With Flu already having a talented player (Conca) behind the strikers, Muricy Ramalho might consider playing Deco as a deep-lying playmaker, a role he performed with some aplomb (albeit only occasionally) at Stamford Bridge last season.

Tonight sees two Libertadores games; Internacional travel to La Plata to face Estudiantes, and Flamengo face Universidad in Chile. Look out for a round-up of these games (plus Wednesday's game between São Paulo and Cruzeiro) tomorrow.

(Photo credits; (1) Miguel Schincariol, (2) Agência Estado, (3) Daniel Dal Zennaro.)

Monday, 17 May 2010

Muricy Gets First Win With Flu; Corinthians Set Early Pace

The second round of the Brasileirão was completed this weekend, and among the big stories were important wins for two under-pressure managers.

Fluminense 1-0 Atlético-GO
Muricy Ramalho's reputation as one of Brazil's top managers is not under threat, but in recent weeks, his future at the Laranjeiras has been. Job security among coaches in Brazil is flimsy to non-existent, and without a win since he took over at Flu in late April, the vultures were already circling. Relief, then, was palpable after the final whistle brought Saturday's game to a close, the Tricolor having scraped a win over Atlético Goianiense.

Hands up if you're relieved; Muricy gives out some orders.

With Fred still out, new signing Rodriguinho was given a début. The striker impressed during the Campeonato Paulista, helping Santo André to the runners-up spot. His partner at the Maracanã was André Lima, with Conca the main supplier from midfield. Atlético rested a couple of players with half an eye on their Copa do Brasil game in midweek.

The game itself was nothing to write home about. Fluminense had the greater attacking impetus, but created little. They can be an infuriating side to watch, with midfielders who seem to have no positional instructions other than "CLUSTER IN THE MIDDLE!" The lack of width meant Rodriguinho and André Lima received nothing but straight back-to-front passes all game, hardly ideal for a partnership of two physically slight finishers. The return of Fred and the potential signing of Deco would undoubtedly be an improvement in terms of personnel (especially if the latter takes the place of the haphazard Diguinho), but on this evidence, a change of shape is of more fundamental importance.

The tie was settled in the second half by a strike from Marquinho, whose shot sneaked under Edson in the Atlético goal. It was a scruffy winner, worthy of a scrappy game, but Muricy won't mind in the slightest. With games against Coritinthians and Flamengo within the next fortnight, however, the vultures may not stay away for long.

Grêmio 1-2 Corinthians
Corinthians coach Mano Menezes has also been the target of supporters' discontent of late, but Sunday's victory at the Olímpico should go some way to appeasing his critics. The football played by the Timão is indeed far more pragmatic than at stages last year (Menezes currently favours the midfield trio of Ralf, Elias, and Jucilei, none of whom are particularly creative), but with results like this one, it is surely only a matter of time before the fans get behind their manager.

Things were spiced up prior to kick-off with the news that Douglas, a playmaker who shone at the Pacaembu last term (and whom Corinthians strangely turned down the chance to re-sign) was named in the home team's line-up. The Grêmio No.10 has been in thrilling form recently, and Menezes would have been forgiven for fearing a pointed reminder of what their side was missing. He need not have worried; without the support of first-choice strikers Borges and Jonas (rested for the Brazilian cup semi-final), Douglas made little impact.

Ralf (left) and William celebrate Corinthians' opener.

It was Corinthians who took the lead in the first period, when Ralf rose to head home a Dentinho corner. Grêmio 'keeper Victor, still rueing his omission from Brazil's World Cup squad, got a hand to it, and probably should have done better. The lead was doubled midway through the second half through Souza, who had been wasteful up to that point. Dentinho again provided the assist, but it was a glorious miskick from Tricolor left-back Bruno Collaço which allowed Souza to prod in from close range.

Grêmio, keen to maintain their magnificent home record (they were unbeaten at the Olímpico in last season's Série A) pressed for a goal, and were rewarded when substitute Maylson slotted home. Corinthians, however, held on for the last 15 minutes, and stand atop the Campeonato Brasileiro with the only 100% record. If they can keep this up, Menezes will prove his doubters wrong.

Gameweek 2 Round-up
Flamengo travelled to Salvador to meet Vitória on Saturday evening. On a water-logged pitch (Fla must be warming up with a rain dance or something...), the visitors went ahead; Leão 'keeper Vinicius could only palm Adriano's dangerous cross onto the chest of the incoming Vágner Love, who diverted it into the net. The Rubro-Negro lead for 83 minutes, but were denied the win by a brilliant Elkeson free-kick for Vitória.

Saturday's third game produced the shock of the round, as Grêmio Prudente (fresh from losing 6-1 to Avaí) thrashed Atlético-MG 4-0. All the goals came in the first half, with Araújo, Flavinho, Henrique Dias, and Diego Giaretta getting on the score-sheet. Galo defender Werley later admitted that his team had performed awfully, having started at "5km per hour." Vanderlei Luxemburgo has a lot to think about this week.

On Sunday, Santos were held to a 1-1 draw by new boys Ceará. It was the visitors who took the lead at the Vila Belmiro, when Washington headed home unmarked. Neymar equalised from the spot, after tumbling under what appeared a fair challenge. Seemingly unsatisfied with one paradinha, the youngster threw two into his run-up and sent the 'keeper the wrong way. This penalty technique (quite unfair, in my view) is a double-edged sword; the taker looks good when successful, but rather silly if things go wrong. So it was with Santos' second penalty, late on in the game. This time, Diego in the Ceará goal decided not to dive, and Neymar pulled his shot wide.

Walter celebrates his second for Inter.

At the Serra Dourada, Internacional recovered from a 2 goal deficit to beat Goias 3-2. Young striker Walter was the star of the show; scoring a penalty, adding a glorious second, and winning another spot-kick from which Giuliano bagged the winner. Botafogo also produced a stirring comeback against São Paulo at the Morumbi. Léo Lima headed the home side ahead, but late goals from Antônio Carlos (the defender's third in two games) and Renato Cajá gave all three points to O Glorioso.

The remaining three games all ended in draws. Vasco and Palmeiras played out a dire goalless draw at the São Januário; 90 minutes I'll never get back. At the Mineirão, Cruzeiro and Avaí produced rather more excitement. Pará and Roberto gave the visitors a 2-0 half-time lead, but a Wellington Paulista brace earnt the Raposa a point. In Curitiba, Atlético-PR drew 2-2 with Guarani. A Netinho free-kick for the home side cancelled out Roger's opener for the Bugre, before the sides traded penalties in the second half. Roger scored his to put Guarani into the lead for a second time, but veteran striker Alex Mineiro kept his cool to earn Atlético a point.

(Photo credits; (1), (2) Ricardo Rimoli, (3)

Thursday, 13 May 2010

Goals Galore at the Olímpico as Grêmio Stun Santos

Wednesday was a huge night of football in Brazil, with both Copa do Brasil semi-final first legs taking place, as well as two Libertadores games.

Grêmio 4-3 Santos (Copa do Brasil)
Last night's game in Porto Alegre saw the Tricolor gaúcho mount an incredible comeback to beat favourites Santos. The first period was dominated by the Peixe, who took the lead after 15 minutes; André finding space to head in Marquinhos' corner at the far post. Their advantage was doubled just minutes later, when André smartly beat Victor after a through-ball from the excellent Paulo Henrique. Grêmio had a golden opportunity to pull one back before the break, but Jonas saw his dire penalty saved by Felipe.

The home side were surely fearing a hiding, but reacted magnificently in the second half. Their first came when a tackle on Douglas fell kindly to Borges, who could hardly miss. The equaliser arrived soon after; Santos' Rodrigo Mancha dallied in midfield, and was robbed by Douglas, who slipped in Jonas on the right. The striker unselfishly crossed, and Borges stole in with this second. Jonas then ensured that his profligacy from the spot was well and truly forgotten, drilling in a shot from 25-yards. Golaço! Grêmio's red-hot spell was capped with a fourth goal in 18 minutes; Borges beating the offside trap and curling home for his hat-trick.

Borges - Grêmio's hat-trick hero.

Having let slip a strong position, Santos could have been forgiven for resorting to damage limitation, but in fact it was they who had the last word. Paulo Henrique lofted a glorious pass to Robinho, who controlled on his chest before blasting into the roof of the net. It was a stunning goal to round off a thrilling game, and it puts Santos back in pole position before the return leg next week.

Atlético-GO 1-0 Vitória (Copa do Brasil)
Atlético Goianiense continued to confound their doubters with a battling 1-0 win at the Serra Dourada. Neither they nor Vitória have ever appeared in a final of the cup, and nerves may have played a factor in a stuttering game. It was the minnows, however, who gained the advantage, when Rodrigo Tiuí volleyed in, via both the post and bar. The Leão must come from behind in the second leg.

Hernanes (left) celebrates São Paulo's second with Fernandão and Marlos.

Cruzeiro 0-2 São Paulo (Libertadores)
The first leg of the all-Brazilian quarter-final of the Libertadores saw in-form Cruzeiro lose to São Paulo. Nippy striker Dagoberto opened the scoring; tapping home after Marlos and Fernandão had combined on the right. Cruzeiro failed to show much cutting edge, and were left with it all to do at the Morumbi next week when the Tricolor got their second after 65 minutes. Dagoberto wriggled free on the left and passed infield, where the ball broke to Fernandão. The new signing found Hernanes with a back-heel, and the midfielder made no mistake, drilling expertly into the corner.

Flamengo 2-3 Universidad de Chile (Libertadores)
A poor performance by the Rubro-Negro at the Maracanã was punished by their Chilean opponents, who will fancy their chances of a semi-final berth. La U took the lead after just 4 minutes, when Victorino profited from some sloppy defending. Olarra made it two; outjumping Bruno to head home a free-kick. Fla pulled one back before half time, when Adriano met Kléberson's cross with a powerful header. After the break, it was Universidad who restored their two-goal advantage when Fernández reacted quicker than Juan to score at the far post. The Flamengo left-back made amends when his deflected long-range shot snuck past Miguel Pinto in the Universidad goal. This late lifeline gives Flamengo hope in the second leg, but they will have to improve vastly upon this showing to have a chance of progressing.

* * * Thursday Update * * *

Sorondo (left) celebrates his late winner at the Beira-Rio.

Internacional 1-0 Estudiantes (Libertadores)
The fourth of the Libertadores quarter-final first legs took place at the Beira-Rio on Thursday evening, with Inter playing host to holders Estudiantes. The visitors' star man Juan Sebastián Verón bossed the first half, earning substantial praise from today's Brazilian media, but it was the Colorado who got their noses in front. Ex-Crystal Palace defender Gonzalo Sorondo netted with a diving header in the final minutes, following a typically accurate free-kick from Andrezinho. The tie is set up for an intriguing second leg.

(Photo credits; (1), (2) Unknown, (3) EFE.)

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Brazil World Cup Squad Announced

Within the last hour, Dunga has revealed his selection for the World Cup, which kicks off in a month's time. The squad in full is;

Júlio César (Internazionale)
Heurelho Gomes (Tottenham Hotspur)
Doni (Roma)

Dani Alves (Barcelona)
Maicon (Internazionale)
Gilberto (Cruzeiro)
Michel Bastos (Lyon)
Lúcio (Internazionale)
Juan (Roma)
Luisão (Benfica)
Thiago Silva (Milan)

Felipe Melo (Juventus)
Gilberto Silva (Panathinaikos)
Ramires (Benfica)
Elano (Galatasaray)
Josué (Wolfsburg)
Júlio Baptista (Roma)
Kléberson (Flamengo)
Kaká (Real Madrid)

Luís Fabiano (Sevilla)
Robinho (Santos)
Nilmar (Villarreal)
Grafite (Wolfsburg)

Speculation has been rife in recent weeks over potential call-ups for youngsters Neymar and Paulo Henrique, but neither made the final list. Ronaldinho too was left out, despite a significant recent lobby for his conclusion. These decisions should hardly shock us; Dunga is known, after all, for being the most stubborn of coaches. There were no places either for Diego, Alexandre Pato, or Marcelo.

Grafite; the biggest surprise of Dunga's squad.

The only major surprise is the selection of Wolfsburg striker Grafite ahead of Adriano, but given the latter's physical condition in recent months, this looks wise on Dunga's part. Heurelho Gomes' excellent form at Spurs should ensure that he is the main back-up for Júlio César, especially as Doni has been relegated to 3rd choice at Roma.

Interestingly, neither the left-backs who appeared in Brazil's Confederations Cup win (André Santos and Kléber) have earnt a place in the selection. Both flattered to deceive defensively, but judgement is still out on whether either Michel Bastos or Gilberto represent an improvement in that respect.

Kléberson returns to the biggest stage of all after 8 years.

Brazil also boast the experience of four members of the winning 2002 squad; Lúcio, Kaká, Gilberto Silva and Kléberson. The selection of the former Manchester United midfielder man caps a marvellous story of footballing redemption. At the time of the 2006 edition in Germany, Kléberson was 26, and should have been at the peak of his powers. Rather than starring in his second World Cup, however, he was struggling at Besiktas in Turkey, and was barely even under consideration when Felipão named his squad. Now, after recovering his form and confidence at Flamengo, he will hope to make a difference in South Africa.

(Photo credits; (1) AP, (2) Unknown.)

Monday, 10 May 2010

Absence of Stars and Fans Marks Start of Série A

The Campeonato Brasileiro got underway this weekend, but annouced its grand opening with a whisper rather than a shout. Many of the big clubs' marquee names (such as Paulo Henrique Ganso, Adriano, Vágner Love, Robinho, Andrés D'Alessandro, Borges, Thiago Ribeiro) were rested with cup competitions in mind; a maddening consequence of the muddled fixture list. Fans, too, were in short supply; an average of only 10,600 (paying) supporters per match according to Globo.

Both phenomena reflect the priorities of Brazilian clubs (and consequently, their fans) at this time of year. The Libertadores is understandably high on the agenda of Flamengo, Cruzeiro, Inter, and São Paulo, all of whom believe (probably correctly) that they can get away with fielding below-strength sides in the Brasileiro. The Copa do Brasil, too, is in the minds of Grêmio, Vitória, Atlético-GO and Santos, largely because the winners are granted a place in next year's Libertadores.

Despite these structural problems, things got off to an exciting start on the pitch, especially at the Engenhão...

Herrera celebrates his late equaliser for Botafogo.

Botafogo 3-3 Santos
On Saturday night, Botafogo displayed the kind of spirit typical of Joel Santana sides, which should go some way to staving off the relegation worries which beset them in 2009. O Glorioso started impressively, and defender Antônio Carlos headed them into a sixth minute lead. For the first half hour, Santos looked far from their free-flowing selves; second choice No.10 Madson struggled to fill Paulo Henrique's creative boots.

A goal can change everything, however, and so it proved here; Neymar netted following good work on the left by Alex Sandro and Marquinhos, and Peixe relaxed into the game. Santos took the lead just two minutes later, when André dispatched a first-time finish after a mistake from Botafogo left-wingback Somália. The home side were reeling, but they managed to nick a goal against the run of play seconds before half time; Antônio Carlos volleying in his second after Santos failed to clear an Alessandro free-kick.

Joel Santana sent on Edno and Caio at half-time in a clear sign of attacking intent, but to no great effect; rarely did any actual football break out among the petty fouls and play-acting. Fans were forced to wait for a blitz of action in the last 10 minutes, in which Zé Eduardo headed Santos into a 3-2 lead, Alex Sandro was harshly sent off, and Herrera equalised for Botafogo. The Argentine forward deserved his goal; his functional but committed approach, like his team's, provided a challenge for Santos' more fluid style. After the game, Santana declared himself disappointed with the draw, but in truth this was a fair result, and one which should hearten those associated with Fogo.

Palmeiras matchwinner Lincoln battles for possession.

Gameweek 1 Round-up
Saturday evening saw two more games, but only one more goal; Lincoln's well placed finish which gave Palmeiras a 1-0 win over Vitória at the Palestra Itália. Perhaps of greater importance for the Verdão was the exclusion of Diego Souza from their matchday squad. The playmaker has had a fractious relationship with the team's fans of late, and it appears like he could be moving on within the next few weeks. If he does, Palmeiras' thin hopes of a title challenge will be in tatters. At the Serra Dourado, newly promoted Atlético Goianiense earnt an impressive 0-0 draw with a below-par Grêmio.

Sunday saw perennial title-contenders São Paulo travel to Rio to play holders Flamengo. In a quiet game, it was Washington who gave the Tricolor the lead, finishing off a lovely move involving Léo Lima and veteran Marcelinho Paraíba. However, some pedestrian defending in the second half by São Paulo allowed Dênis Marques (who, I feel duty-bound to inform my readers, has the worst "hairstyle" I have ever seen) what seemed like hours to trundle into the box, pick his spot, and scuff a shot past Rogério Ceni. A tentative 1-1 draw was a fair reflection of the game.

At the Pacaembu, Corinthians came from a goal behind to beat Atlético-PR 2-1. Big striker Souza cancelled out Wagner Diniz's free-kick, before Ronaldo secured a win for Timão from the penalty spot. The win will likely take some of the pressure off the team, but may not cool supporters' anger about the renewal of coach Mano Menezes' contract.

In Porto Alegre, Internacional fell to a 2-1 loss to Belo Horizonte giants Cruzeiro. Kléber gave the Raposa an early lead from the penalty spot, only for Taison to head in an equaliser minutes later. It was the Gladiator that settled things though, firing in his second after running onto a long ball.

Cruzeiro hitman Kléber is congratulated by teammates after netting his second.

The biggest win of the round was Avaí's 6-1 destruction of nine-man Grêmio Prudente. Centre-back Emerson did much of the damage with a hat-trick, and Caio bagged himself a brace. The Abelha will have to defend much better, especially from dead balls, if they're to compete in future weeks.

Atlético-MG's victory over Vasco could have had a similar scoreline, but the home side had to settle for a 2-1 win at the Mineirão. Diego Tardelli set up Ricardinho for the opener, and looked to have got the second himself before Muriqui selfishly tapped it in himself. Vasco rallied with a goal from Elton, but couldn't find an equaliser.

Finally, both Ceará and Guarani showed that they will be no pushovers in Série A; the newly promoted teams battled to 1-0 home wins over Fluminense and Goias respectively.

(Photo credits; (1) Pedro Kirilos, (2) Ari Ferreira, (3) Unknown.)

Thursday, 6 May 2010

Brasileirão Preview Part 2

So, onto the remaining 10 clubs competing in this season's Série A...

Botafogo (nicknamed O Glorioso - the glorious one)
Players to watch - 'Loco' Abreu, Herrera, Caio.
Despite winning the Carioca this term, Botafogo will be hard pushed to mount a title challenge in Série A. Last time out, they only pulled away from the relegation zone late in the season, so a comfortable mid-table finish will probably satisfy them. Coach Joel Santana is adept at managing relatively modest sides to moderate success, and this is undoubtedly his remit at the Engenhão; 'Loco' Abreu is the one player who comes close to star status. Youngster Caio made a big impact earlier this year, and is expected to provide some spark to Botafogo's functional side.

Carlos Alberto; when fit, Vasco's driving force.

Vasco da Gama
(nicknamed Gigante da Colina - the giant of the hill)
Players to watch - Carlos Alberto, Philippe Coutinho, Élton.
Vasco have bounced straight back to Série A after a season in the second tier, but will likely struggle this term. The team relies to a great extent on the energetic Carlos Alberto, who has knuckled down after his career in Europe came off the rails. His fitness problems, however, mean that more responsibility is likely to be placed on young Philippe Coutinho, who is scheduled to join Italian giants Inter in June. If Vasco manage to keep the skilful playmaker until the end of the campaign, it will go some way to easing fears of a relegation dogfight; only pacy left-back Ramon and strikers Élton and Dodô stand out in the rest of the team.

Goiás (nicknamed Esmeraldino - the emeralds)
Players to watch - Felipe, Rafael Moura, Deyvid Sacconi.
This team profile would have featured heavily the name of Fernandão, but the big forward has today been sold to São Paulo. In return comes Carlinhos Paraíba (and some money), a decent midfielder, but hardly one to disguise the fact that Goiás's squad is rather low on talent. Striker Felipe managed 13 goals last term, and should be the team's focus up front. Rafael Moura is a recent acquisition from Atlético-PR, and will be the man to fill Fernandão's boots; albeit probably only in a physical sense. Loanee Deyvid (lovely spelling, that) Sacconi has shown moments of quality for his parent club Palmeiras, but perhaps the most important signing is disciplinarian coach Émerson Leão. If he can organise the meagre resources at his disposal, the top half is possible.

Grêmio Prudente (nicknamed Abelha - the bees)
Players to watch - Tadeu, Leonardo, Paulo César.
The club formerly known as Barueri return this year under a new name, having upped sticks and moved to a new city and stadium. The Milton Keynes Dons of Brazil, if you will. Despite an impressive first season in Série A (they finished the 2009 campaign in 11th), the club has lost its star performers in Val Baiano and Fernandinho, and are expected to struggle to repeat the feat. Experience has been brought in in the shape of full-back Paulo César, centre-back Leonardo, and striker Tadeu, who have had spells in France, the Ukraine and Turkey respectively. If they adapt to the new surroundings, Grêmio Prudente should secure a mid table finish.

Free-kicks? Yes. Penalties? Yes. Hair care? Not so much. Atlético-PR's Paulo Baier

Atlético Paranaense (nicknamed Furacão - the tornado)
Players to watch - Paulo Baier, Alan Bahia, Alex Mineiro.
The single representative of the city of Curitiba this year, Atlético-PR will again be aiming to avoid a relegation dogfight. The team is built around experience; Alan Bahia anchors the midfield, while the balding Paulo Baier provides dead-ball expertise further up the pitch. Veteran striker Alex Mineiro has also been added, but it remains to be seen if he can reproduce the prolific goalscoring that his record suggests he's capable of. The signings of the considerably younger attacking pair of Javier Toledo and Tartá (on loan from Fluminense) are gambles, but could inject some much needed pace into the side.

Avaí (nicknamed Leão da Ilha - the lion of the island)
Players to watch - Sávio, Batista.
The surprise package of last season (they finished 6th), Avaí will again rely on quietly going about their business. A team of no real stars, the team from Florianópolis is unlikely to hit such dizzy heights again. Recalling Batista from a spell at Botafogo last year should lend their midfield some extra steel and energy, after the sale of Léo Gago to Vasco. Ex-Real Madrid winger Sávio has also joined, fresh from (or possibly, given his age, tired from) some good performances in the Champions League with Cypriot team Anorthosis. I doubt that these modest reinforcements will be enough to secure a finish in the upper reaches of the table, but Avaí should steer clear of relegation concerns.

Vitória (nicknamed Leão - the lion)
Players to watch - Júnior, Uelliton.
The team from Salvador came 13th in last season's championship, and will be aiming for a similar finish this term. Having lost pacy winger Apodi to Bahia, young midfielder Uelliton will shoulder greater responsibility in midfield. Elsewhere, journeyman striker Júnior (who has had spells at Watford, Walsall and Derby) has been brought in to improve the attack. Neto Berola and the gloriously named Schwenk should also contribute.

Ceará (nicknamed Vovô - grandad(!))
Players to watch - Geraldo, Bóvio.
Newly promoted, the team from Fortaleza in the North of Brazil will surely be embroiled in the relegation battle this year. Their captain Geraldo managed 13 goals from midfield in Série B last season, and his efforts will be crucial. Bóvio, a Brasileirão winner with Santos in 2004, should bring some experience to the side, having had spells in Spain and Greece.

Roger; Guarani's one-man plan to stave off relegation?

Guarani (nicknamed Bugre - the Indians)
Player to watch - Roger.
Hailing from the city of Campinas in São Paulo state, Guarani secured promotion from the second division last season. The signs are, however, that their stint in Série A will be a short one; the side is a very limited one. Somehow, the club has managed to pull off the loan signing of Roger from São Paulo; a striker who proved last season with Vitória that he could plunder goals even precious little support. Expect him to be the brave captain on this sinking ship.

Atlético Goianiense
(nicknamed Dragão - the dragon)
Players to watch - Marcão, Márcio, Rodrigo Tiuí.
The minnows from Goiânia have shot to prominence recently, gaining promotion to Série A and reaching the semi-finals of the Copa do Brasil. Some achievement for a club with a stadium that hold only 5,000 people. Last season's leading scorer Marcão is the talisman upfront, but contributions too should come from new signing Rodigo Tiuí, who briefly played for Sporting Lisbon, and Márcio; a goalscoring 'keeper in the great South American tradition. Realistically, anything other than relegation would be miraculous.

So, there you have it! Action gets underway on Saturday, but the big games of the opening weekend are on Sunday, with São Paulo hosting Flamengo, and Cruzeiro travelling to Porto Alegre to face Inter. Stay tuned for a round-up on Monday!

(Photo credits; (1) Agência Lance, (2) Gazeta Press, (3) Unknown.)

Brasileirão Preview Part 1

This weekend sees the start of the 2010 Campeonato Brasileiro. After 4 months of patchy state championship action, the return of Brazil's premier national league will be welcomed with open arms among fans up and down the country. It is a gruelling competition at the best of times, but this year's edition will include a break for the World Cup, meaning that teams will face two weekly games for the majority of the season. Further disruption is inevitably caused by the fact that the European transfer window arrives right in the middle of the campaign; star players are often snapped up just when they are needed the most.

Adriano celebrates Flamengo's 2009 triumph.

Despite its disjointed nature, however, the competition is an exciting one, with a huge number of teams competing for the title and for Libertadores qualification. There are always one or two shocks; last season, for example, lowly Avaí and Barueri were hanging around the top of the table whilst Rio giants Fluminense scrapped against the drop. Flamengo snatched the title with a late surge, after having been threatened with relegation earlier in the season.

Geographically, the Campeonato represents a unique challenge. Carlisle fans in England would likely moan about an away trip to Plymouth Argyle, but consider the poor fans of Ceará on the country's North coast who face two round trips of 8484km to play Grêmio and Internacional in Porto Alegre! These outliers provide an interesting juxtaposition to the dense footballing conglomerations of Rio and São Paulo.

Assuming no knowledge on the part of my readership, I present brief profiles on the teams competing in Série A this year (in vague order of predicted success!)...

Santos (nicknamed Peixe - the fish)
Players to watch - Neymar, Ganso, Robinho.
The seasiders from São Paulo state have built up quite a reputation since the turn of the year. I have spoken in previous entries about their array of star forwards, but it should be noted that they also boast both a solid midfield engine (in Arouca and Marquinhos), and a reasonable back-line. Dorival Júnior's men enter the championship as the nation's form side and probably start as favourites.

Dagoberto - danger man for São Paulo.

São Paulo (nicknamed Tricolor)
Players to watch - Dagoberto, Hernanes, Miranda.
SP just missed out last term on collecting their fourth consecutive tital, and with a squad as deep as it is talented, few would back against them mounting a serious challenge in 2010. Coach Ricardo Gomes who has grown into his role, and players like nippy striker Dagoberto and powerful midfielder Léo Lima have started to fulfill their promise. If the team's spine stays (and, in the cases of Rogério Ceni and Washington, stays fit), they could win it.

Corinthians (nicknamed Timão - the big team)
Players to watch - Ronaldo, Dentinho, Elias.
After last night's Libertadores exit, the pressure will be on Corinthians to compete in the league. They are certainly equipped to do so. With forwards such as Ronaldo, Dentinho, Jorge Henrique and Iarley, a midfield boasting Elias and Jucilei, and a powerful back-line including Roberto Carlos, all the materials are there. However, the team fell away badly in the latter stages of last season's campaign, especially after loosing Cristian, Douglas and André Santos to big money bids from abroad. Similar losses this term would provide cause for concern.

Grêmio (nicknamed Tricolor)
Players to watch - Borges, Douglas, Souza.
Despite having to rebuild since the departures of Tchecho and Maxi López, Grêmio remain a good bet to finish in the upper reaches of the table. Defensively solid (goalkeeper Victor will probably be Brazil's third choice in the World Cup), and with creative midfielders like Souza (and on his day, Fábio Rochemback), Grêmio are hard to beat, especially at home. Reinforcements up front, however could be key; Borges is a proven finisher, and Douglas is a clever creator with a magical left foot. If their new look forward line can click, they could be contenders.

Can Luxemburgo inspire Atlético-MG to another title challenge?

Atlético Mineiro (nicknamed Galo - the rooster/cockerel)
Players to watch - Diego Tardelli, Obina, Muriqui.
Last season's surprise package, Atlético-MG have shown that they have the ability to challenge again in 2010. Despite losing influential attacker Éder Luís to Benfica, Atlético are good going forward. Diego Tardelli in particular is a deadly finisher with both feet, and the much maligned Obina is also a threat on his day. Elsewhere, the squad in modest but well organised; they are coached, after all, by five-time Série A winner Vanderlei Luxemburgo.

Internacional (nicknamed Colorado - the reds)
Players to watch - Alecsandro, Taison, d'Alessandro.
The form team early in last season's competition, the Porto Alegre side have since become somewhat one-dimensional. Nilmar's departure, and the drop in form of the much-hyped Taison have meant that Inter rely on the goals of Alecsandro; a burly but prolific striker. The midfield is well anchored by the Argentine Guiñaza and future Tottenham midfielder Sandro, but Andres d'Alessandro has struggled to provide the creative spark the team so desperately need. If he and Taison can return to form, Inter will fancy a Libertadores place.

Cruzeiro (nicknamed Raposa - the fox)
Players to watch - Kléber, Thiago Ribeiro, Gilberto.
Finalists in last year's Cope Libertadores, Cruzeiro look a good candidate to mount a title challenge this year. With a great keeper (albeit one who oddly wears a gumshield) in Fábio, and an experienced backline, the team has a solid foundation. They pose quite a threat going forward, too, with the combination of the pacy Thiago Ribeiro and stocky talisman Kléber sure to cause opposition defences problems. Prompted by the dead balls and crosses of left-back-turned-No.10 Gilberto, the raposa should challenge.

Flamengo (nicknamed Rubro-Negro - the scarlet-and-black)
Players to watch - Adriano, Vagner Love, Léo Moura.
The reigning champions will, as ever, be an unpredictable force this season. Having sacked Andrade, the manager that took them to the title last term, the only guarentee with Flamengo is that it will be interesting. With Adriano and Vágner Love up front, the team is not short of firepower, but defensively they tend to be fragile. Much also rests on Kléberson's ability to provide for the front players. When he's fit, Flamengo look a much better prospect.

Goal machine Fred will need to stay injury-free for Flu.

Fluminense (nicknamed Tricolor)
Players to watch - Fred, Conca, Wellington Silva.
Fluminense too avoided relegation by the skin of their teeth in 2009, and their shallow squad betrays why. In attack, much of the responsibility will fall on Fred, who when fit has looked a handful for most defences in the country. He will be supplied by the wily Argentine Dário Conca, as well as the future Arsenal player Wellington Silva. Whether these three can overcome the side's defensive frailties is doubtful; especially as the latter is a mere 17 years old. Flu should be content with the safety of mid-table.

Palmeiras (nicknamed Verdão - the big green)
Players to watch - Diego Souza, Cleiton Xavier, Lincoln.
The fourth of São Paulo's big guns came so close to winning last year's title, but stuttered in the final few weeks. Since then, their form has been abject; finishing mid-table in the Campeonato Paulista and getting knocked out of the cup by Atlético-GO. If they are to mount a challenge this year, it will likely be due to the efforts of Diego Souza; a strong attacking midfielder with an eye for goal. The club have brought in Lincoln, whose career has veered between maverick playmaking genius and maverick troublemaking idiot. An inspired gamble? Let's wait and see.

That ends Part 1. Stand by for the second instalment later today!

(Photo credits; (1) Felipe Dana/Associated Press, (2) & (3) Unknown, (4) GloboEsporte.)

Not for Love nor Money; Vágner Ends Timão's Libertadores Project

This was to be their year. What better way to celebrate the club's centenary that by winning South America's biggest club competition? Corinthians' spending matched their ambition; since qualifying via the Copa do Brasil last year, the club has brought in Roberto Carlos, Iarley, Tchecho, Danilo and Matías Defederico. Given that the spine of the team (Felipe, Chicão, Elias, Ronaldo) was already one of the strongest on the continent, expectations were legitimately high. Yet at the Pacaembu last night, it was Flamengo who advanced to the quarter-finals of the Libertadores on away goals; Vágner Love's goal just after the interval proving the difference between the two sides.

Love hurts: the Flamengo forward celebrates his decisive goal.

It had all started so well; a cross by Danilo was turned into his own net by Rubro-Negro centre-back David as Corinthians came out fighting. Their coach Mano Menezes had taken the bold step of playing both Dentinho and Jorge Henrique behind Ronaldo, sacrificing the more defensive midfielder Jucilei. This was the formation that had taken the Timão to the Brazilian cup last term, and the side looked substantially more dangerous than at the Maracanã a week ago.

Just before half-time, Corinthians doubled their advantage on the night; Dentinho skipped away from his marker on the left and floated in a delicate cross with the outside of the foot. Ronaldo had drifted cleverly into space, and slammed his header home. It was nothing more than Corinthians deserved; Ralf and Elias were bossing the midfield, and Bruno had been forced into good saves from Roberto Carlos and Ronaldo. Going into the dressing rooms at half-time, the home side was undoubtedly in the driving seat.

A distraught Elias at the final whistle.

An away goal, however, would change everything, and so it proved. Kléberson found some space on the edge of the penalty box, and slipped a pass through for the onrushing Vágner Love. The forward made no mistake, cooling finishing left-footed. Corinthians continued to press, and twice went close from Chicão free-kicks, but in truth it was Flamengo who had the better chances late on. The Timão's Libertadores dream drifted agonisingly away, and when the final whistle blew, many of their players were left in tears. The team will have to go all-out in the Campeonato Brasileiro in order to win some silverware in their centenary year.

Libertadores Round-up
On Tuesday evening, São Paulo guaranteed themselves a berth in the quarter-finals after beating Universitario of Peru on penalties. After an edgy goalless drew, Tricolor 'keeper Rogério Ceni was the hero; despite himself missing São Paulo's first spot-kick, he dusted himself off and pulled off two outstanding stops to deny la U a shock victory.

Rogério Ceni: usually better at scoring than saving pens.

Cruzeiro beat Nacional of Uruguay 3-0 in the Mineirão, and advanced with a 6-1 aggregate score. Thiago Ribeiro opened the scoring with a thumping drive from range, and second half goals from Diego Renan and former Tottenham man Gilberto sealed the win.
Tonight sees Internacional facing Banfield, the winners of which will face reigning champions Estudiantes in the next round.

Copa do Brasil Round-up
Santos rounded off a great week by seeing off Atlético-MG and progressing to the semi-finals of the cup, where they will meet Grêmio. André, Neymar, and Wesley got the goals for the Peixe, with Correa scoring little more than a consolation for Atlético. Grêmio secured their spot by beating Fluminense 2-0 at the Estádio Olímpico. Hugo opened the scoring with a lovely finish and Jonas tapped in a second.
The second semi-final will be see Vitória face surprise package Atético Goianiense. The former went down to a 3-1 defeat to Vasco, but sneaked through on away goals. Atlético-GO pulled off the shock of the round; beating mighty Palmeiras on penalties after a 1-0 victory drew them level on aggregate.

(Photo credits; (1) Vipcomm, (2) Rubens Cavallari/Folha Imagem, (3) EFE.)

Monday, 3 May 2010

Third Generation of Santos 'Kids' Lift Paulista Title

In 1978, it was the goals of Juary and Pita, as well as the intelligent prompting of the waiflike João Paulo at the Morumbi which enabled Santos to lift the Campeonato Paulista a week later. In 2002, it was a trio of Europe-bound starlets which took the club to its first Campeonato Brasileiro. It was fitting, then, that one of the three, Robinho (Elano and Diego being the others), was playing on Sunday, when the third generation of 'Vila Belmiro Kids' came of age and claimed the São Paulo state championship. The Peixe lost 3-2 on the day to Santo André, but claimed victory due to their superior record from the competition's first stage.

André and Neymar; the kids are alright.

The bright futures of Neymar and Paulo Henrique Ganso have long been assured, but their performances at a packed Pacaembu still managed to draw a new wave of plaudits from the Brazilian press. Neymar scored Santos' first, collecting a cute Robinho flick, dribbling past Júlio César and slotting past two defenders on the line. He doubled his tally later in the first half, calmly beating the Santo André keeper at his near post. The day, though, belonged to Ganso (which translates as 'goose' - a harsh but probably fair nickname). It was he who set up Neymar's second with a sumptuous back-heel, and generally bossed the game. "The soul of the champions," declared Lance!; whilst Globo observed that the youngster displays "the maturity of a veteran."

The importance of the two (as well as of Robinho and the raw goalscorer André) has been acknowledged by club officials, who have already launched a project for keeping the group for another year. It's not an easy task; despite their prodigious academy, Santos remains a relatively small club. The Vila Belmiro may be atmospheric, but a capacity of little more than 20,000 suggests the youngsters will, sooner or later, look for a bigger stage to exhibit their skills. Fans of the club can at best, I think, hope that the squad stays together long enough to mount a serious challenge for the Campeonato Brasileiro, which starts soon. Even this hope may be dashed if Neymar and Ganso join Robinho in Dunga's World Cup selection; although this currently looks unlikely.

Neymar and Ganso celebrate Santos' second goal.

Turning back to yesterday's game, I feel I should give an honourable mention to Santo André. The minnows turned in an inspirational performance yesterday, marked by some lovely goals. It was they who opened the scoring within a minute of play; Cicinho running onto Branquinho's visionary through-ball, rounding the keeper, and squaring for Nunes to finish. Alê nicked their second from a corner, before Branquinho put the finishing touches to a great team move. If Rodriguinho's goal not been ridiculously ruled out, things could have been so much different.

Elsewhere, Grêmio lost 1-0 to Internacional, but claimed the Gaúcho crown 2-1 on aggregate. Giuliano got the goal with a drive from distance, but violence again marked this rivalry; Taison needlessly kicking out at Jonas. Atlético-MG capped a busy week by securing the Campeonato Mineiro; beating Ipatinga 2-0 with goals from Diego Tardelli and Marques.

(Photo credits; (1) & (2) Ari Ferreira.)