Saturday 31 December 2011

Some Things SKP Wrote in 2011

Over the course of a year, articles can get lost in the bustling hubbub of the internet. The following is a list of pieces that I was reasonably pleased to have written for various third-party sites over the last twelve months. Enjoy or ignore at your own discretion.

January - My Favourite Goal: Ronaldinho vs. Chelsea (for GhostGoal)

February - Tribute to Ronaldo Fenômeno. (for In Bed With Maradona)

March - Neymar profile (for ITV)

April - launch of Games Against Nature

May - Campeonato Brasileiro preview (for In Bed With Maradona)

June - The Great Pretender (for In Bed With Maradona)

July - Great goals wasted in friendly matches (for FourFourTwo).

August - feature on the Brazil U20 side (for World Soccer)

September - André Santos profile (for ITV)

September - The Hamit Altintop Rocky Horror Stockholm Syndrom Experience (for Twisted Blood)

(I appear to have been slacking in October...)

November - Flu Outbreak (for The Guardian)

November - The Emperor Strikes Back (for The Guardian)

December - Brasileirão end-of-season awards (for In Bed With Maradona)

*** Shameless self-promotion ends ***

Thursday 15 December 2011

The SKP Brasileirão Awards 2011

It's that time of year again, reader. When the sleigh bells start ringing and fairy lights line the street, it can only mean one thing... the advent of SKP's annual Brasileirão Awards!

In the 2011 edition, I pick out the best player, team and coach of the campaign, before going onto to answer far more important questions. Questions such as; "who is that with a monkey on his head?" and "why is Ronaldinho doing that weird little dance?"

The article is over at In Bed With Maradona, and can be accessed by clicking here.

Wednesday 14 December 2011

Santos Beat Kashiwa to Reach Club World Cup Final

This was, in many ways, the calm before the storm. Santos today kicked off their Club World Cup campaign with a relatively straightforward win over Japanese champions Kashiwa Reysol, setting up a possible final with European giants (and paragons of morality in the dusty pit of modern football... or something) Barcelona.

Santos 3-1 Kashiwa Reysol
Muricy Ramalho selected a full-strength side for the semi-final clash, hoping that his side would find some fluency before Sunday's test. With tenacious midfield limpet Adriano missing through injury (his absence could be critical against Barça), Muricy selected a flexible midfield: Henrique was the nominal holding player, with Arouca slightly advanced to his left. Elano operated to the right of that pair, contributing in attack but shuttling back to form a solid midfield three when required. In attack, Neymar roamed freely from his centre-left starting position, whilst Borges occasionally dropped deeper when Santos lost possession, helping Ganso pressurise the Kashiwa midfield.

Santos' fullbacks enjoyed differing levels of success during the match. Danilo - a talented youngster with boundless energy - got forward well, often surging into the space created by Elano's tendency to drift infield. He was the Peixe's standout performer and showed once more why Porto were so astute to snap him up in the summer. On the left, Durval was far less convincing. A centreback by trade, he was reluctant to join the attack, meaning that Santos enjoyed relatively little joy on that flank. The loss of Alex Sandro (also to Porto, but in this case not loaned back to the Brazilian side... it's interesting that the success of Santos' tactics could be determined to such an extent by the Portuguese club's transfer policy) has robbed Neymar of a partner in crime in the left, meaning his best work often came when he drifted centrally and to the right.

It was from such a position that Neymar opened the scoring. Ganso drifted into space in the middle of the park, before slipping a simple pass to his prodigious teammate. Neymar shaped to shoot with his right foot, before arrowing a delightful shot into the top corner with his left. It was a stunning strike, a worthy curtain-raiser for Santos' campaign. The Peixe doubled their lead soon after: Borges blasted home in trademark style after creating some space on the edge of the area.

Santos looked home and dry, but allowed Kashiwa back into the match after the interval. Former São Paulo schemer Jorge Wágner swung over a corner, from which Hiroki Sakai reduced the arrears. The Japanese side, who had failed to trouble Rafael despite enjoying some neat spells of possession prior to the interval, suddenly looked threatening: rightback Sakai troubled Durval throughout the second period, digging out numerous crosses that Edu Dracena and Bruno Rodrigo were forced to clear. From one such centre, Masakatsu Sawa wasted a golden opportunity to score his side's second, blazing over with the goal beckoning.

Yep, this is what Neymar would look like in a Real Madrid jersey.

By that stage, though, Santos had restored their two-goal lead. Danilo, who would usually be behind Elano and Ganso in the dead ball pecking order, curled a sumptuous free-kick around the Kashiwa wall, beating Takahori Sugeno all ends up. With substitutions disrupting the flow of the game, Muricy's side saw out the remaining minutes with some comfort.

Things, however, will not be so easy against Barça. (Thanks for that, Captain Obvious.) Daniel Alves will be licking his little pug lips at the prospect of facing Durval, whilst the likes of Ganso and Henrique will also need to up their game. Much of the responsibility, one feels, will again fall on the shoulders of one man. This tournament has long been billed as Messi vs. Neymar, and so it may prove. The problem for Santos is that when Messi doesn't perform, one of their myriad other superstars does. The Peixe must hope for an inspirational performance from their talisman on Sunday.

(Photo credit: Toru Hanai.)

Tuesday 13 December 2011

Neymar Elected Best Player in Annual Brasileirão Awards

The Craque do Brasileirão - the Brazilian championship's annual awards bash - took place last week in Rio, with many of Série A's most famous faces present. Neymar (who else?!) was the major winner on the evening, walking off with the gong for player of the year.

Vasco were well represented among the awards: three players made the team of the year, Dedé won the award for Craque da Galera (fans' player of the season), and Ricardo Gomes and his temporary replacement Cristóvão Borges bagged the prize for best coach. Figueirense foward Wellington Nem also received recognition, winning the Revelação (best emerging talent) award.

The 2011 winners are as follows:

Best player: Neymar (Santos)

Top goalscorer: Borges (Santos) - 23 goals
Craque da galera: Dedé (Vasco)
Revelação: Wellington Nem (Figueirense)

Best coach: Ricardo Gomes/Cristóvão Borges (Vasco)
Best fans: Corinthians
Hall of fame: Rogério Ceni (São Paulo)

Team of the year:

Thursday 8 December 2011

This One's for You, Doutor: Corinthians Seal Fifth Brazilian Title on Tense Final Day

With clenched fists raised skyward, the Corinthians faithful paid tribute to their fallen idol. Doutor Sócrates, that benchmark of humanity (and human excess) had taken his final breath on the morning of the Brazilian championship's final act. The simple gesture that took place at the Pacaembu brought a tear to the eye of the most hardened observer, and spoke volumes about the esteem in which the former seleção great was held. Further soul-searching, however, would have to wait: the Timão had business to attend to...

Corinthians 0-0 Palmeiras

Vasco da Gama 1-1 Flamengo

On a Sunday replete with derby matches, the league leaders hosted Palmeiras, hoping to secure local bragging rights as well as the Série A title. Vasco, who just about managed to keep their title hopes alive the previous weekend, could at least rely on Luiz Felipe Scolari's side to put up a decent fight in São Paulo. The task facing the Gigante da Colina, however, proved insurmountable.

É campeão! Corinthians players celebrate their title win.

Despite taking the lead through Diego Souza, Vasco never truly clicked into gear against Fla. The absences of Juninho Pernambucano and Éder Luís again robbed Cristóvão Borges' side of much of its creativity, leaving Alecsandro marooned in attack for long periods. Flamengo, who had been poor in a scrappy first half, improved significantly after the break. Vanderlei Luxemburgo's decision to introduce Deivid paid immediate dividends: the former Fenerbahçe striker ran onto Ronaldinho's lofted pass before squaring for Renato Abreu to equalise. That strike prompted groans among Vasco fans, many of whom had their ears glued to radios in anticipation of a goal in the Corinthians game.

That a goal never arrived in São Paulo owed more to luck than to judgement: Corinthians looked nervy from the off and soon found themselves pinned back by a wall of green. Palmeiras, inspired by Marcos Assunção and Patrik, worked the ball well in the opening period, coming close to opening the scoring on a handful of occasions. Corinthians were punch drunk, and would need a helping hand from the refereeing gods to recover. Jorge Valdivia's challenge on Jorge Henrique just after the interval was clumsy rather than dangerous, but earnt the Chilean an early bath.

Even with a numerical disadvantage, Palmeiras continued to cause problems: Fernandão's clever header rattled back off the woodwork with Júlio César beaten, before Luan blasted over a presentable chance from the rebound. That was just about the last notable action of the game. Or rather, the last notable footballing action...

Quase: Vasco's bullet train stopped just short on Sunday.

Stereotypes can be vicious, harmful things. They can ruin reputations, hurt innocent parties, and obscure objective fact. Sometimes, however, they're totally accurate. The following statement is one such instance.

Important football matches in South America always (always, of course, is stereotype shorthand for sometimes) descend into violence.

It started with Corinthians defender Wallace, who was sent off for clattered Maikon Leite with a reckless lunge. (The latter has reason to be wary of such challenges, having spent months recovering from a horrifying knee injury in 2009. Warning - do not Google this image if you are of a sensitive disposition. Seriously.)

Then the real fun started. Having already contributed to Valdivia's dismissal, Jorge Henrique decided to really make the pantomime villain role his own, sparking a mass brawl by indulging in one of the dummy air-kicks made (in)famous by none other than Valdivia himself. The denouement? Red cards for João Vitor and Leandro Castán, and a likely knighthood for Jorge Henrique from the República Popular do Corinthians.

Not wanting to be outdone, the clássico carioca served up some indiscipline of its own. Renato Abreu received a second yellow card for diving and launched into an incredible tirade against the referee. Only the diligence of his teammates stopped the dispute descending into violence, with the incandescent Renato grappling to land a blow on the official. (The decision to dismiss the midfielder, incidentally, was spot on.)

All this nonsense ate up much of the time remaining in both matches. The final whistle blew in Rio, spelling the end of Vasco's title challenge, but the mood at the Engenhão remained one of proud celebration. Although their side came up short, the vascaínos present saluted their players for their efforts throughout the campaign. This has been a fantastic year for the Gigante da Colina, who picked up the Copa do Brasil title and reestablished themselves among the country's elite. They will expect to challenge again next term.

Corinthians president Andrés Sánchez (left) salutes coach Tite.

The major celebrations, though, were happening in São Paulo. Corinthians celebrated their fifth national title in fine style, fully justifying their banda de loucos ('group of madmen') nickname. Coach Tite, who has gradually won over the Fiel after a shaky start, was at the centre of the action, grinning from ear to ear in his Lothario-esque black shirt. This success owes much to his quietly forceful style, which has been reflected in his side's performances in the second half of the campaign. Although by no means head and shoulders above some of the competition's other outfits, Corinthians displayed the mettle and the consistency required to grind things out. They are, without doubt, worthy champions. Somewhere, a scruffy-looking philosopher of the game is smiling.

Brasileirão Gameweek 38 Round-up
Fluminense ended their campaign with a 1-1 draw against rudderless Botafogo, thus securing a respectable third-placed finish. Fred was on target once more for the Tricolor, but just fell short of Borges' haul of 23 goals this season. The latter, along with the majority of Santos' first choice eleven, was rested for the derby clash with São Paulo. Emerson Leão's charges ended a topsy-turvy year on a high note, romping to a 4-1 win in Mogi Mirim. Luís Fabiano bagged a brace in that one, and will likely be a crucial figure for São Paulo in 2012.

A penalty from Andrés D'Alessandro gave Internacional a narrow win over Grêmio, a result that puts them into next season's Libertadores. Figueirense and Coritiba, both of which were in with a chance of qualifying for the competition, dropped points against Atlético-PR and Avaí respectively. The latter two clubs will play in Série B next season along with Ceará (who lost to Bahia) and América-MG (who were thrashed by Atlético-GO).

Cruzeiro, who were hovering above the relegation zone before the final round, secured their top flight status in some style, beating bitter rivals Atlético-MG 6-1 at the Arena do Jacaré. Their final league position (16th), however, will hardly fill the Raposa faithful with pride: this was a side that started the year in imperious form, and was tipped by many to be title contenders. They will hope for much better next year.

Série A results: Corinthians 0-0 Palmeiras, São Paulo 4-1 Santos, Internacional 1-0 Grêmio, Cruzeiro 6-1 Atlético-MG, Atlético-GO 5-1 América-MG, Atlético-PR 1-0 Coritiba, Bahia 2-1 Ceará, Avaí 1-1 Figueirense, Botafogo 1-1 Fluminense, Vasco 1-1 Flamengo.

(Photo credits: (1) Nike, (2) Marco Terranova, (3) Marcos Ribolli.)

Sunday 4 December 2011

Sócrates: 1954-2011

Obrigado, Doutor.

Thursday 1 December 2011

La U End Vasco's Sul-Americana Run

This week, in Matches Nobody Really Cares About...

Universidad de Chile 2-0 Vasco da Gama

Vasco's exciting Copa Sul-Americana run was brought to an abrupt end on Wednesday, as Universidad de Chile sealed a comfortable aggregate win. Despite fielding a stronger side than in previous matches, the Rio side conceded a goal in each half: Gustavo Canales opened the scoring with a powerful effort, before Eduardo Vargas wrapped things up late on. Vasco, who have already qualified for next season's Libertadores, are unlikely to be too concerned by the loss, and will now turn their attentions to the weekend's decisive Brasileirão action.

Copa Sul-Americana result: Universidad de Chile 2-0 Vasco (3-1 on aggregate).

Monday 28 November 2011

Champions! No, Wait! Vasco Late Show Sets Up Dramatic Final Round

The end is nigh, dear reader, but the 2011 Série A season continues to enchant...

Brasileirão Gameweek 37 Round-up
This most dramatic of title races seemed to be over on Sunday. Corinthians players hung around on the pitch at the Orlando Scarpelli, where they had ground out a 1-0 win over Figueirense. They awaited confirmation of the final score in Rio - Vasco, who needed a win to stay in contention, were drawing with Fluminense with just seconds left on the clock. "É CAMPEÃO!" cried the Corinthians fans, who spent much of the second half waving flares, shrouding the pitch in smoke. The Timão's fifth national title, it seemed, was in the bag.

Having been pegged back by a late Flu goal, the Gigante da Colina were at sixes and sevens. As so often in Brazilian football, conspiracy theories were already beginning to surface: Vascaínos - players and fans alike - felt that Fred's strike should have been ruled out for a foul on Renato Silva. The Engenhão terraces (which were full, for once) reverberated with the chant "Está comprado!" ("It's been bought!"). One man, however, kept his head. With the final whistle looming, supersub Bernardo found an unlikely winner, turning home at the second attempt after Diego Cavalieri fumbled his original header. (The involvement of Cavalieri, a former Palmeiras player, will have prompted some bitter smiles/enraged grimaces among Corinthians fans.)

Bernardo's watch: the Vasco striker celebrates his late goal.

The Campeonato Brasileiro, then, will be decided next week. Corinthians only need a draw to seal the title, whilst Vasco must beat Flamengo and hope for a favour from Palmeiras.

At the bottom of the table, a late strike from Daniel Marques rescued a crucial draw for Ceará against relegation rivals Cruzeiro. With Atlético-PR losing to América-MG, any two of the former three teams could find themselves in Série B next term. Cruzeiro sit one point ahead of Ceará and two ahead of the Furacão, but have the toughest fixture: a derby clash with Atlético Mineiro. There are going to be some nervy moments next week.

In Macaé, Flamengo took a giant stride towards Libertadores qualification with a 1-0 win over Internacional. São Paulo and Botafogo, however, who were in the running for the title for so much of the season, may have blown their chances of a place in South America's biggest club competition: they sit eighth and ninth respectively after losses to Palmeiras and Atlético-MG. Coritiba, one of the promoted sides, are sitting pretty in fifth, following a narrow victory over Avaí. Elsewhere, Santos and Grêmio were held by Bahia and Atlético-GO respectively.

Série A results: Palmeiras 1-0 São Paulo, Santos 1-1 Bahia, Flamengo 1-0 Internacional, Fluminense 1-2 Vasco, Grêmio 2-2 Atlético-GO, Atlético-MG 4-0 Botafogo, Figueirense 0-1 Corinthians, Coritiba 1-0 Avaí, América-MG 2-1 Atlético-PR, Ceará 2-2 Cruzeiro.

(Photo credit: Paulo Sérgio.)

Friday 25 November 2011

Vasco Dominate Craque do Brasileirão Shortlist

The candidates for this season's Craque do Brasileirão - Brazil's annual post-season awards - have been unveiled by the CBF, and very interesting reading they make too. Vasco da Gama, who won the Copa do Brasil earlier in the year, have players nominated for seven different awards. Corinthians and Botafogo are the next best, with six apiece.

Aside from the team of the year (hence the position-by-position shortlists), there are awards for manager of the year, revelação (the best young player to have emerged in the past twelve months), and Craque da Galera (fans' player of the year).

Vasco centreback Dedé is nominated for two awards.

The full shortlists are as follows;

Best goalkeeper
Fernando Prass (Vasco da Gama)
Jefferson (Botafogo)
Júlio César (Corinthians)

Best rightback
Bruno (Figueirense)
Fágner (Vasco da Gama)
Mariano (Fluminense)

Best right-sided centreback
Antônio Carlos (Botafogo)
Dedé (Vasco da Gama)
Rhodolfo (São Paulo)

Best left-sided centreback
Emerson (Coritiba)
Leandro Castán (Corinthians)
Réver (Atlético-MG)

Best leftback
Bruno Cortês (Botafogo)
Juninho (Figueirense)
Kléber (Internacional)

Best right-sided defensive midfielder
Arouca (Santos)
Ralf (Corinthians)
Rômulo (Vasco da Gama)

Best left-sided defensive midfielder
Marcos Assunção (Palmeiras)
Paulinho (Corinthians)
Renato (Botafogo)

Best right-sided attacking midfielder
Deco (Fluminense)
Diego Souza (Vasco da Gama)
Lucas (São Paulo)

Best left-sided attacking midfielder
Montillo (Cruzeiro)
Ronaldinho Gaúcho (Flamengo)
Thiago Neves (Flamengo)

Best forward (1)
Julio César (Figueirense)
L. Damião (Internacional)
Neymar (Santos)

Best forward (2)
Borges (Santos)
Fred (Fluminense)
Loco Abreu (Botafogo)

Best coach
Jorginho (Figueirense)
Ricardo Gomes/Cristóvão Borges (Vasco da Gama)
Tite (Corinthians)

Wellington Nem (Figueirense)
L.Damião (Internacional)
Bruno Cortês (Botafogo)

Craque da Galera
Dedé (Vasco)
Liédson (Corinthians)
Neymar (Santos)

(Photo credit: Alexandre Loureiro.)

Thursday 24 November 2011

Vasco Held by Universidad de Chile

Vasco drew with Universidad de Chile on Wednesday night, a result perfectly in keeping with their poor-first-leg-amazing-second-leg approach to the Copa Sul-Americana.

Vasco da Gama 1-1 Universidad de Chile
Employing a slightly stronger side than in previous first legs, Vasco enjoyed the better of the opening period against La U. Good opportunities fell to Felipe and Elton before the Rio side took the lead: Bernardo ran onto Allan's deflected pass and shot low past the brilliantly named Jhonny Herrera. The Chilean giants fought their way back into contention, however, and levelled after the interval. Osvaldo González timed his run perfectly from a free-kick, flicking a header over the flailing Fernando Prass. Next week's return leg should be a cracker... if Vasco aren't overly preoccupied by the league by that point.

Monday 21 November 2011

The Emperor Strikes Back: Troubled Adriano Stamps Mark on Title Race

We're on the home straight now reader.

Corinthians 2-1 Atlético Mineiro
Redemption comes in many shapes and sizes. On Sunday, it was wearing an XXL Corinthians jersey. Adriano, the striker whose career has been written off by so many, returned from limbo to land what could be a crucial blow in the current Brazilian title race. His last minute winner against Atlético Mineiro put the São Paulo side two points clear at the top of Série A with just two games remaining.

That moment of glory sat in stark contrast to the anguish that has marked Adriano's return to Brazil. Since signing for Corinthians in March, O Imperador (The Emperor) has been plagued by fitness problems: Sunday's appearance was only his fifth in eight months. The fact that many of the forward's corporal complaints have been entirely legitimate (a ruptured achilles suffered in an early training session hampered his progress for weeks), however, has been largely overlooked by sections of the national media, who have chosen to focus on something rather more tangible: Adriano's weight.

The Emperor's new clothes: Adriano in action on Sunday.

Yes, make no mistake about it: Adriano's return to Brazil has been the stuff of tabloid fantasy. The country's sports pages have, on more than one occasion, resembled gossip columns: "IMPERADOR WEIGHS OVER 100KG," "ADRIANO: STILL 10KG OVER IDEAL WEIGHT!" Photos of the star undergoing physiotherapy at the Corinthians training complex prompted a host of disparaging comments from the club's fans. "This is a football club, not rehab," read one particularly savage banner.

The player's defence, of course, would be that the combination of inactivity (he last appeared for Roma in January) and injury is hardly conducive to remaining in shape. This, however, will hardly convince his critics. Adriano has a history of drinking and eating to excess; a weakness has been unable to overcome during his career. Speaking to ESPN earlier this year, the striker admitted to being "pretty greedy," but claimed to be moderating his consumption. Actions, however, speak louder than words: Adriano's goal celebration at the weekend revealed a hefty beer belly. He remains, despite his protests to the contrary, more all-nighter than prize fighter.

Interestingly, however, Adriano's nocturnal exploits have received relatively little attention of late. The scrutiny he received during his time at Flamengo (brilliantly instantiated in the furore surrounding an early-hours visit to a hotdog vendor) has not been replicated to the same degree in São Paulo. This is not to say that the player has toned down his lifestyle (another notable quote from that ESPN interview: "Nobody will prevent me from doing what I want"). Rather, it appears that the weight issue has simply become the primary locus of criticism. (The Nightlife Police, incidentally, remain at large in Rio. Just ask Fred or Ronaldinho.)

All of this has thrown a serious spanner in the works of Corinthians' marketing strategy. Earmarked as the club's marquee signing ahead of the Brasileirão, Adriano was expected to fill the personality void created by Ronaldo Fenômeno's premature retirement earlier this year. So whilst his absence hasn't truly been felt on the pitch (Corinthians boast an decent roster of strikers, which includes former Portuguese international Liédson), it certainly has been in the gift shop. The opportunity to get one over on rivals Flamengo (where Adriano was a major hit, both commercially and in footballing terms) has also had to wait.

Belly laughs: Adriano gets one over on his critics.

It seems unlikely, of course, that Adriano's strike against Atlético-MG will sweep all of these matters under the carpet. Question marks over his future will remain, even if Corinthians choose to extend his contract (which expires in six months). Weight issues aside, the spectre of depression continues to haunt O Imperador: the death of his father in 2004 prompted a downward spiral from which, arguably, he is yet to emerge.

His career trajectory, too, must provide reason for regret. His inability to realise his colossal potential has echoed his infamous knack - developed during his years in Italian football - of missing return flights from Brazil. For better or worse, Adriano has always favoured home comforts over the bounty offered by international stardom. He is grounded, both literally and metaphorically.

It is possible, however, that Sunday's goal will represent a major turning point for the striker. For a player whose star has dipped to such an extent in recent years, merely having reminded the Brazilian public of his relevance must be seen as a victory. That the strike could prove crucial in the title race only serves to confirm its significance. With one swipe of his left foot, then, Adriano wrote his name into the story of the 2011 season. It may only be a footnote, but remember: redemption comes in many shapes and sizes.

A version of this article appeared on the Guardian Sport Network.

Brasileirão Gameweek 36 Round-up
Vasco ensured that the title race will go to the final two games, winning comfortably against Avaí in Rio. Veteran midfielder Felipe rolled back the years once more in that one, curling home a delightful opening goal with the outside of his left foot. Avaí, who have feared the worse for some time now, are now officially relegated. A Luís Fabiano brace sent São Paulo in the way to a comfortable victory over América Mineiro, who will also be playing in Série B next year.

Fluminense are still in with a mathematical chance of regaining their title: they thrashed Figueirense on Sunday evening, thanks in large part to a hat-trick from Fred. Goals from seleção starlets Oscar and Leandro Damião against Botafogo, meanwhile, kept Internacional in the hunt for a Libertadores spot. Elsewhere, there were wins for Ceará, Coritiba and Palmeiras, whilst Cruzeiro and Atlético-GO were held by Atlético-PR and Flamengo respectively.

(Photo credits: (1) Tom Dib, (2) Unknown.)

Friday 18 November 2011

Four Star Fred Fires Flu to Win Over Grêmio; Vasco Held by Palmeiras

Hello again, reader, and welcome to a brief (and belated) round-up of the midweek games. SKP has had a rather busy few days, so do excuse me for not going to town on this one. Normal service will be resumed presently!

Brasileirão Gameweek 35 Round-up
The game of the round undoubtedly took place at the Engenhão, where Fluminense came from behind no fewer than three times to beat Grêmio 5-4. Talismanic striker Fred was in irrepressible form for the hosts, bagging four goals and making a nuisance of himself throughout. His second strike - a volleyed snapshot following Deco's sublime pass - was particularly memorable. That game seemed to sap the Campeonato Brasileiro's goal supply: no other side managed to score more than twice this round.

Fred case: Fluminense's four-goal hero celebrates with Deco.

A fine individual effort from Peruvian midfielder Luis Ramírez (who thus redeemed himself somewhat after his part in the Timão's premature Libertadores exit earlier this year) kept Corinthians in pole with a scrappy win over Ceará. Vasco, meanwhile, were pegged back by a battling Palmeiras outfit, and now find themselves two points adrift. None of Figueirense, Flamengo, Botafogo and São Paulo managed to secure maximum points, allowing Internacional (who beat Bahia thanks to Gilberto's nonchalant/lucky chested finish) to edge into Libertadores contention. Botafogo coach Caio Júnior was dismissed in the wake of O Glorioso's 2-1 defeat to América-MG - their sixth loss in seven games.

At the bottom of the table, there were crucial wins for Atléticos Paranaense and Mineiro, both of whom continue to battle against relegation. Avaí's dire goalless draw at home to Cruzeiro, however, means that their fate is all but sealed. At the Pacaembu, a stunning effort from Paulo Henrique Ganso (only his second league goal of the campaign) salvaged a point for Santos against Atlético Goianiense.

Série A results: Fluminense 5-4 Grêmio, Internacional 1-0 Bahia, Atlético-PR 1-0 São Paulo, América-MG 1-0 Botafogo, Palmeiras 1-1 Vasco, Avaí 0-0 Cruzeiro, Ceará 0-1 Corinthians, Atlético-GO 1-1 Santos, Flamengo 0-0 Figueirense, Atlético-MG 1-0 Coritiba.

(Photo credit: Gilvan de Souza.)

Tuesday 15 November 2011

Two Horse Race? Corinthians and Vasco Pull Clear of Chasing Pack

This weekend will likely be remembered as a decisive one in the 2011 season. Wins for Corinthians and Vasco da Gama saw them pull away at the summit of Série A, leaving the likes of Fluminense, Botafogo, and Flamengo (none of whom managed a win this round) to battle it out for the Libertadores places. At the bottom, Cruzeiro grabbed a valuable win over Internacional.

Brasileirão Gameweek 34 Round-up
Two goals in the opening five minutes sent Corinthians on the way to a narrow win over Atlético-PR at the Pacaembu. The hosts withstood late pressure from the Furacão, who will feel slightly hard done by. Vasco, meanwhile, picked up an impressive derby win over Botafogo on Sunday. The Gigante da Colina were inspired - not for the first team in recent weeks - by central defender Dedé, who scored his side's second and dealt well with Loco Abreu throughout. Vasco remain in second, however, having won fewer games than Corinthians (goal difference is of secondary importance in the Campeonato Brasileiro).

SKP's optimistic appraisal of Fluminense's title challenge predictably served as a kiss of death: the Tricolor fell to a disappointing loss against lowly América Mineiro. The Coelho - who, recall, beat Corinthians last week - are off the bottom of the table for the first time since July. Figueirense, another club promoted from Série B last season, are enjoying a rather more successful season: the Esquadrão de Aço ("Big Steel Squad"... beat that nickname, world) recorded their sixth consecutive win, and find themselves in fourth. Talented duo Wellington Nem and Júlio César again made the difference against Atlético Mineiro, bagging a goal apiece.

Cruzeiro picked up three much-needed points, beating Internacional in a scrappy encounter. A majestic cross from Anselmo Ramon allowed former Porto striker Ernesto Farías to nod home the only goal of the game at the Arena do Jacaré. That result spelt trouble for Ceará, who slipped into the relegation zone following a 3-2 loss to a Santos. The Peixe, who fielded a reserve side in Fortaleza, secured victory thanks to a marvellous volley from Diogo - his first goal in 17 appearances for the club. In the remaining games, there were wins for São Paulo, Coritiba and Bahia, whilst Grêmio came from two down to draw with Palmeiras.

Série A results: São Paulo 2-0 Avaí, Fluminense 1-2 América-MG, Figueirense 2-1 Atlético-MG, Corinthians 2-1 Atlético-PR, Ceará 2-3 Santos, Coritiba 2-0 Flamengo, Grêmio 2-2 Palmeiras, Vasco 2-0 Botafogo, Cruzeiro 1-0 Internacional, Atlético-GO 0-1 Bahia.

(Photo credit: Eduardo Viana.)

Monday 14 November 2011

Brazil Ease to Victory Over Egypt

Brazil picked up their second win in four days this evening, overcoming a disappointing Egypt side in Doha. Although hardly a stellar performance from the seleção, a number of players staked their claim for a regular spot in Mano Menezes' lineup.

Brazil 2-0 Egypt
Having watched his side struggle in Libreville, Menezes shuffled his pack slightly, handing starts to Fernandinho and Lucas Leiva deep in midfield. Former Santos starlet Alex Sandro earnt a first senior start at leftback, whilst David Luiz and Daniel Alves were also drafted into the backline. Interestingly, the side's shape also changed: the 4-2-2-2 against Gabon was replaced by a lopsided 4-2-3-1 in Doha. Hulk started high on the right (a position that he is well accustomed to, of course), with Hernanes slightly deeper on the left. Bruno César occupied the role of central playmaker.

Brazil started well, with two players in particular impressing. David Luiz showed just why he he can be such an asset for Menezes' side: his crisp passing and incisive bursts provided impetus from the back, whilst also taking pressure off Lucas Leiva. Alex Sandro, meanwhile, provided a real threat from fullback, linking well with Hernanes and drawing a sprawling save from Ahmed Al Shenawy midway through the half.

Lights, camera, action: Jonas was in predatory form in front of goal.

Jonas, a striker of whose qualities I haven't always been convinced, also played well, linking up with the midfield and dropping deep when necessary. The Valencia forward was rewarded for his efforts towards the end of the opening period, tapping home after good build-up play from Hulk and Bruno César (who had a quiet evening on the whole). Egypt briefly threatened to rally, but Diego Alves' save from Shikabala's free-kick remained his only meaningful work of the half.

The early stages of the second period saw Brazil continue to dominate proceedings. A magnificent through-ball from Fernandinho (reminiscent of his assist against Ghana in September) presented Jonas with the chance to double the seleção's lead, but some brave defending from Ahmed Hegazi bailed Egypt out at the last. Jonas, however, would not be denied. When Fernandinho's header was parried by Al Shenawy just minutes later, Brazil's No.9 tapped home his second international goal, effectively ending the game as a contest.

The game became rather boring from that point. Egypt grew into the match, but failed to test Diego Alves, whilst Hernanes dragged Brazil's best chance wide at the other end. Only a late cameo appearance from former Cruzeiro youngster Dudu livened up the closing stages: his electric running provided Brazil with a cutting edge that they had been missing for long stretches of the match.

This, then, was another fairly routine win for the seleção. The performance, though, will likely have pleased Menezes: although Egypt failed to provide the challenge that he might have hoped for, Brazil looked far more competent than they did against Gabon four days earlier. With the likes of Neymar, Leandro Damião, Paulo Henrique Ganso and Kaká all likely to come back into contention in the coming months, and his side ending the year on a five-game unbeaten streak, Mano will head into 2012 with cautious optimism.

(Photo credit: Reuters.)

Friday 11 November 2011

Mud, Sweat and Tears: Brazil Beat Gabon

On a pitch better suited to agriculture than to anything approaching jogo bonito, Brazil picked up a routine win over Gabon in Libreville. Anyone who had the (dis)pleasure of watching the match will understand the brevity of this post.

Gabon 0-2 Brazil
With the Campeonato Brasileiro reaching its climax, Mano Menezes chose not to select players based in his homeland, and thus provided a few less-celebrated names with a chance to shine. Goalkeeper Diego Alves was rewarded for his fine Valencia form with a first start, whilst Fábio da Silva and Adriano occupied the fullback roles. Opting for a relatively straightforward 4-2-2-2 formation, Menezes paired Elias with Tottenham Hotspur youngster Sandro in the midfield platform, with débutant Bruno César and Hernanes operating as meias. Hulk continued in attack, alongside former Grêmio poacher Jonas. This was certainly an inexperienced lineup: no player had an international goal to their name before kick-off.

Hulk battles for possession in Libreville.

After a lengthy power cut at the Stade de l'Amitié (which, annoyingly, was replicated in SKP's flat a short time later), the seleção quickly went about their business. Jonas and Adriano both went close before Sandro opened the scoring, bundling home after some ponderous defending from the hosts. Due to the atrocious conditions, however, Brazil were unable to assert any great authority on proceedings.

Gabon, buoyed by the local support, did offer a threat - particularly down their right, utilising the space vacated by the marauding Adriano. Diego Alves, though, dealt admirably with everything thrown at him. With halftime approaching, Brazil doubled their lead. Jonas' effort was only parried by Didier Ovono, allowing the alert Hernanes to nod home at the near post. The Lazio midfielder celebrated with relief: he had fluffed an easier opportunity just minutes earlier, to the visible chagrin of his coach.

The second half brought a raft of substitutions, which further disrupted the game's already-negligible rhythm. The seleção had two decent chances to put the match to bed: Bruno César - who looked bright on his second Brazil start - saw his goal-bound volley saved by Ovono, whilst Jonas failed to convert a good chance following some tidy approach play from Hernanes. Substitute Willian enjoyed a couple of nice runs late on, but the spectacle petered out long before the final whistle. Next up for Brazil: Egypt.

(Photo credit: Latin Content/Getty Images.)

Thursday 10 November 2011

Dedé Fires Vasco Into Sul-Americana Semis

Oh Vasco, you temptress. Getting thrashed against Aurora and then racking up eight second leg goals to progress to the Copa Sul-Americana quarter finals. Putting in a limp performance against Universitario in Peru, convincing everyone that you didn't care. Going behind in the return fixture, taunting us further. You bloody tease.

Vasco da Gama 5-2 Universitario
Things started pretty well for Vasco at the São Januário; the hosts were awarded a penalty midway through the first half after Juninho Pernambucano was bundled over inside the penalty area. Diego Souza, a picture of calm, slotted home to reduce the aggregate deficit to just one goal. Some uncharacteristically poor goalkeeping from Fernando Prass, however, allowed Raúl Ruidíaz to put Universitario back in command, and when Jesús Rabanal struck just after the interval, Vasco looked all but doomed.

Vasco players lap up the applause following their unlikely comeback.

But the Rio side weren't done. Élton (John) scored within seconds of the restart, before La U 'keeper Luis Llontop allowed Dedé's speculative cross to sneak in at the near post ten minutes later. "If I was [Llontop's] friend," laughed Globo commentator Neto, brilliantly, "I wouldn't let him throw my kids in the air." Quite.

Dedé - who, recall, is a central defender - went on to stamp his mark even more firmly on proceedings. After brilliantly heading home Vasco's fourth, he turned provider, setting up Alecsandro's 81st minute strike. Predictably, that final coup de grâce prompted wild celebrations among the vascaínos present. The Rio club remain on course to complete a historic Copa do Brasil/Série A/Copa Sul-Americana treble.

Copa Sul-Americana result: Vasco 5-2 Universitario (5-4 on aggregate).

(Photo credit: Paulo Sergio.)

Wednesday 9 November 2011

Neymar Signs New Santos Contract

I don't normally write about transfers and contracts here, but I'll make an exception today. Neymar has signed a new contract with Santos, a deal that (the club hopes) will keep him in Brazil until the 2014 World Cup.

The club have financed the deal through a partnership with Banco do Brasil, who will seek to benefit from Neymar's growing fame in the run-up to the 2014 tournament. Neymar, already the best-paid player at the Vila Belmiro, stands to benefit from a wage rise of around 50%.

Neymar, wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the slogan "It's good to be the King!" (in English) at this afternoon's press conference, expressed his delight at the deal. "I'm very happy here. I always said I was happy to be near my friends, and now my son. There's no bigger joy than agreeing to stay." His agent, Wagner Ribeiro, echoed these sentiments; "It's great for Santos [to keep] a player that makes the fans so happy."

Santos president Luis Álvaro de Oliveira Ribeiro took the opportunity to bemoan the incessant rumours about Neymar's future; "Often, the media is self-serving... I always said that we hadn't sold Neymar, and I was even called a liar." With the club's presidential elections looming on the horizon, he will be particularly pleased at having tied up the deal.

The news, of course, will disappoint Real Madrid and Barcelona, both of whom have expressed significant interest in the player over the last year. They, however, will have to wait: Neymar will continue to enchant Brazilian football fans for some time yet.

(Photo credit: Nacho Doce/Reuters.)

SKP and The Guardian

I'm delighted to announce that SKP has teamed up with The Guardian for the launch of the Guardian Sport Network.

The venture sees Guardian Sport partner with an initial selection of 15 blogs, in order to provide further depth (and variety) to its coverage. The roster includes wonderful blogs such as Zonal Marking, Cahiers du Sport, Football Further, The Seventy Two, Hasta El Gol Siempre, and Run of Play. Needless to say, I'm honoured that this site finds itself among such illustrious company.

So what are the implications of the partnership? I will continue to run SKP as normal, covering each round of the Campeonato Brasileiro until the end of the campaign. The more interesting posts (bonus points for any deluded soul who just thought to themselves: "but Jack, they're all interesting") will also appear on the Guardian site. Pretty simple really.

For more information about the Guardian Sport Network, click here.

Monday 7 November 2011

Flu Outbreak: Champions Edge Into Title Contention

Seven teams, separated by seven points. Fifth-placed Flamengo just three points behind leaders Corinthians. However you quantify it, one thing is clear: things are pretty tight at the top of the Campeonato Brasileiro. Yet whilst much of the media hype this year has centred on Vasco da Gama, Corinthians and Flamengo, one team has snuck stealthily into contention.

Internacional 1-2 Fluminense
Brazilian football can be a cruel mistress. In this land of transfer pick-n-mix, managerial musical chairs, and third-party ownership, it takes the steadiest of hands to build a dynasty. Fluminense thought that they had found the perfect man for the job; a coach who guided São Paulo to three consecutive titles and then resisted the lure of becoming Brazil manager. Muricy Ramalho lead the Tricolor to their second national title last year, and in so doing, provoked hope of a period of stability at Laranjeiras. The best laid schemes of mice and men, however, often go awry. Especially when your changing room is frequented by actual rats. Muricy left the club in March and Fluminense found themselves back in flux, spinning Série A's annual roulette wheel of fortune.

The months that followed only provoked more doom and gloom. An underwhelming state championship campaign was followed by a slow start to the Brasileirão: Flu lost six of their opening ten matches. Even the long-awaited arrival of the experienced Abel Braga (fully three months after Ramalho's departure) failed to spark an immediate upturn in the club's fortunes, and the Tricolor found themselves in the bottom half as the season reached its halfway point.

Flu's shortcomings were relatively easy to identify. The sale of talismanic playmaker Darío Conca to Guangzhou Evergrande (no, me neither), deprived the Rio outfit both of creativity and dead ball expertise - a major concern for a club who had scored so many goals from corners and free kicks the previous year. Former Lyon striker Fred continued to be tormented by injury, leaving Rafael 'He-Man' Moura with little support in attack. Ciro, a striker of whom much was expected following a loan move from Sport, succeeded only in providing an insight into what a future Bambi on Ice winter spectacular might look like.

Flu goalscorer Rafael Sóbis refused to celebrate against former club Inter on Sunday.

A few months on, however, and the outlook is rather different. A hard-fought win over Internacional on Sunday dragged the reigning champions to within two points of current leaders Corinthians. With five games still to play, statisticians (who are routinely coaxed out of a dark room as each Brazilian season reaches its climax) give Fluminense a 20% chance of retaining their title.

Fluminense's recovery has been born, in many respects, of sheer willpower. True, Fred has hit form since returning to fitness, whilst Rafael Sóbis (remember him?) and marauding rightback Mariano have also begun to spark in recent weeks. Few Flu players, though, will be in contention for Brazil's annual post-season awards. Defensive instability has plagued the Tricolor all season, whilst the squad's creative players (Deco, Manuel Lanzini, Souza, Alejandro Martinuccio) appear to have initiated a pioneering shift-work schedule in recent months.

No, the true catalyst for Flu's recovery has been the squad's remarkable propensity to grind out unlikely results. Two particular games spring to mind. The first, a three-goals-in-five-minutes-what-are-you-gonna-do-about-it? comeback against Atlético Goianiense back in September prompted fans to revive Fluminense's Time de Guerreiros ("Team of Warriors") nickname. The second, a win over Santos secured by Márcio Rosário's 95th minute strike, was met with chants of "o campeão voltou!" ("the champions are back!") from the Tricolor faithful.

Abel-minded: Braga has guided Flu up the Série A table.

Abel Braga, of course, can take some credit for all of this. His prickly personality has lent itself well to the task at hand, creating a (cliché alert) backs-to-the-wall spirit at Laranjeiras. By refusing to leave the pitch after being dismissed during last month's Fla-Flu clássico, for instance, he successfully deflected attention from what had been a rather disappointing performance from his charges, whilst also sending a message about his belligerence in the face of perceived injustices suffered by his side.

One gets the impression, though, that much of the fighting spirit shown in recent weeks was already resting dormant within the squad. For players with egos as large as (for instance) Fred's, the prospect of following up a title win with midtable mediocrity was never going to appeal. By hook or by crook, the side that shocked Brazil last year (having been relegation candidates in 2009), has hauled itself back into contention this term. At this stage, it would take a brave man to bet against the Time de Guerreiros.

A version of this article was pubished by The Guardian HERE.

Brasileirão Gameweek 33 Round-up
Whilst Flu were beating Inter, Série A's joint leaders were busy fluffing their lines. Corinthians succumbed to rock-bottom América Mineiro (partly due to a ludicrous penalty decision), whilst Vasco were beaten by Santos. That latter game was significant mainly for the fact that Santos were - for the first time in months - able to field the lineup that is likely to appear in the Club World Cup in December. With Paulo Henrique Ganso restored to the midfield, the Peixe were too good for an out-of-sorts Vasco outfit.

Fig tree victory: Júlio César (right) celebrates his wonder goal against Botafogo.

Figueirense continued their astounding romp up the table on Saturday, beating title-chasing Botafogo thanks to a stunning strike from Júlio César. Flamengo - who sit just ahead of the Florianópolis overachievers - turned in a marvellous performance to thrash Cruzeiro 5-1 at the Engenhão. The Rubro-Negro are now the league's top scorers by some distance, and remain within touching distance of the summit. One team whose Brasileirão challenge appears to be over, however, is São Paulo; Emerson Leão's side threw away a two-goal lead to lose 4-3 against Bahia.

With Cruzeiro losing, Ceará grabbed their opportunity to climb out of the relegation zone; the Vovô withstood late pressure to secure a 2-1 win over doomed Avaí. Atlético-PR also boosted their survival chances, beating Atlético Goianiense at the Arena da Baixada. In midtable, Atlético-MG and Coritiba beat Grêmio and Palmeiras respectively.

Série A results: Botafogo 0-1 Figueirense, Atlético-MG 2-0 Grêmio, Bahia 4-3 São Paulo, Santos 2-0 Vasco, Flamengo 5-1 Cruzeiro, Avaí 1-2 Ceará, América-MG 2-1 Corinthians, Palmeiras 0-2 Coritiba, Internacional 1-2 Fluminense, Atlético-PR 2-1 Atlético-GO.

(Photo credits: (1) Terra, (2) & (3) Paulo Sergio.)

Thursday 3 November 2011

Vasco Slump to Universario Loss

Vasco da Gama lost the first leg of their Copa Sul-Americana quarter final with Universitario. They didn't seem to care too much (resting many of their first-team stalwarts), so I won't pretend to either. The Gigante da Colina need to record a two-goal win back in Rio next week to stand a chance of progressing.

Copa Sul-Americana result: Universitario 2-0 Vasco.

Monday 31 October 2011

Grêmio Enjoy Ronaldinho Revenge; Neymar Hits Four in Santos Stroll

With such an exciting title race taking shape, many (huge) clubs have been forced to content themselves with bit-part roles in the recent narrative of the Campeonato Brasileiro. This was the week that two of them reclaimed centre stage. On Saturday night, Santos (and one particular extravagantly-coiffured striker) hit the headlines thanks to an impressive win over Atlético Paranaense. Even they were eclipsed, however, by events in Porto Alegre...

Grêmio 4-2 Flamengo

"Don't throw coins at Ronaldinho: he'll only start collecting them," read one hand-made sign. Hundreds of others simply bore the words "crook" and "mercenary." Some pioneering fans even went to the effort of printing fake 100-real notes with a familiar buck-toothed face on them. For Grêmio fans, this was personal. For Ronaldinho Gaúcho, it was a weekend to forget.

Not a flattering portrayal.

Some of this anger, of course, has rested dormant since the playmaker's acrimonious departure from the club decade ago. Under the perennial influence of brother/agent/puppet master (delete as appropriate) Assis, Ronaldinho forced through a transfer to Paris St. Germain, despite having repeatedly stating his desire to stay at Grêmio. The intervening years took the edge off much of the ire directed at the player, meaning that the news that Ronaldinho was returning to Brazil was greeted with significant excitement among gremistas earlier this year. If he's coming back, they thought, he'll come back to us.

But he didn't.

Ronaldinho chose Flamengo. Ostensibly for their enormous fan base, but actually for the beaches, the night life, the glamour of Rio de Janeiro. This was a devastating snub; not just to Grêmio, but also to Rio Grande do Sul - one of the state's most famous sons had turned his back on his homeland in favour of the cidade maravilhosa. Gaúchos, renowned for their regional pride, must have wished to delete that suffix from Ronaldinho's monicker.

The 31-year-old, then, entered the Olímpico on Sunday fully aware that the crowd were baying for his blood. All the bluster in the stands would be in vain, however, unless Grêmio delivered on the pitch. Yet home side started poorly; Deivid and Thiago Silva fired the visitors into a commanding lead, whilst Ronaldinho himself rattled the crossbar with a free-kick. When André Lima snatched a goal just before the interval, Grêmio were delighted to even be in contention.

Public enemy; Ronaldinho soaks up the atmosphere at the Olímpico.

Things changed dramatically after the break. Grêmio came flying out of the blocks, and equalised in some style; André Lima nutmegged his marker before slamming home another effort from range. With Vandlerlei Luxemburgo apparently happy to settle for a draw, Fla dropped deeper and deeper, offering precious little going forward. The tactic wouldn't pay off. Grêmio playmaker Douglas curled home a delightful effort to put the hosts ahead, before Miralles wrapped things up in the final stages.

The win, of course, signifies precious little in the context of Grêmio's season - the Tricolor are mid-table mediocrity personified. It will, however, mean the world to the thousands of fans who felt betrayed by a certain globetrotting footballer. This was the day that the gaúchos got their revenge on their one-time idol.

Brasileirão Gameweek 32 Round-up
One craque at least had a rather more enjoyable weekend; Neymar bagged four goals as Santos brushed aside Atlético-PR at the Pacaembu, further boosting his already formidable reputation. The fourth - a trademark slalom run followed by a cool finish - will certainly grace a good few YouTube videos in the coming months. That win sent the Peixe into the top half of the table, just ahead of Coritiba, who picked up a routine win over doomed América Mineiro.

Beijo, me liga: Neymar was nigh-on unplayable against Atlético Paranaense.

At the top of the standings, Vasco's goalless draw with São Paulo allowed Corinthians to return to the summit. The Timão initially fell behind against Avaí, but snatched all three points thanks to goals from Emerson Sheik and Liédson. Botafogo stayed within touching distance with a narrow win over Cruzeiro (no prizes for guessing who scored for O Glorioso in that one), whilst Fluminense battled to a 2-1 victory away to Ceará. That second game was most notable for the nascent partnership between Fred and Rafael Sóbis, which seems to be developing very nicely indeed.

In Florianópolis, Figueirense took another stride towards Libertadores qualification with victory over Bahia. Substitute Fernandes was the hero for the hosts in that one, rifling home two glorious second half efforts to secure the points. In the remaining games, Inter picked up a hard-fought win against Atlético-GO, whilst Atlético Mineiro pulled further away from the dropzone with victory over hapless Palmeiras. An honourable mention goes to Galo striker André, whose deft backheeled assist for Fillipe Soutto's goal was the weekend's best.

Série A results:
Santos 4-1 Atlético-PR, Botafogo 1-0 Cruzeiro, Ceará 1-2 Fluminense, Corinthians 2-1 Avaí, Vasco 0-0 São Paulo, Grêmio 4-2 Flamengo, Figueirense 2-1 Bahia, Atlético-MG 2-1 Palmeiras, Coritiba 3-1 América-MG, Atlético-GO 0-1 Internacional.

(Photo credits: (1) & (2) Ricardo Rimoli, (3) Tom Dib.)

Sunday 30 October 2011

Vasco Hit Eight to Progress in Sul-Americana; Fla, São Paulo and Botafogo All Eliminated

It wasn't a great week for Brazilian clubs in the Copa Sul-Americana; Flamengo, Botafogo and São Paulo were all eliminated, with barely a whimper of protest between them. Vasco, however, kept the flag flying in emphatic style...

Copa Sul-Americana Round-up
Vasco da Game welcomed Aurora to the São Januário, hoping to overturn a two-goal deficit from the first leg. They achieved that feat in the first half, flying into a 3-1 lead thanks to stunning Bernardo goal and a brace from Alecsandro. Things were looking good for the Gigante da Colina, but they about were to get a whole lot better. Vasco were nigh-on unplayable in the second period, adding five more goals (and conceded another couple), to record an 8-3 victory. Vasco will play Peruvian side Universitario in the quarter finals.

Dog day afternoon: surely the best reason for a game to be delayed.

The garra showed by Vasco was simply not matched by the remaining Brazilian sides, who were all soundly beaten. Emerson Leão's reign at São Paulo got off to a disappointing start, as the Tricolor lost 2-0 to Libertad. Luís Fabiano, who (re)opened his account for the club in last week's first leg, turned villain in Asunción, giving away a first half penalty with wild hack. Botafogo had an even tougher evening, getting thrashed by Santa Fé. Not even the sight of a canine pitch invader (who managed to evade capture for a good few minutes) was enough to raise Brazilian smiles in Colombia. Flamengo also ended their campaign without much of a fight, losing 1-0 to Universitario.

Copa Sul-Americana results: Vasco 8-3 Aurora (9-6 on aggregate), Libertad 2-0 São Paulo (2-1 on aggregate), Santa Fé 4-1 Botafogo (5-2 on aggregate), Universitario 1-0 Flamengo (5-0 on aggregate).

(Photo credit: Leonardo Muñoz.)

Thursday 27 October 2011

Kaká Recalled to Brazil Squad

An agonising wait for one of Brazil's most recognisable stars has come to an end today, with the news that Kaká has been recalled to the Brazil squad. After 15 months in the international wilderness, the Real Madrid schemer has been included in Mano Menezes' seleção for the forthcoming friendlies against Gabon (November 10th) and Egypt (November 14th). Interestingly, Menezes has refrained from picking domestically-based players, as the Brazilian league season reaches its final stages.

The full squad is as follows;

Neto (Fiorentina)
Diego Alves (Valencia)

Daniel Alves (Barcelona)
Fábio da Silva (Manchester United)
Marcelo (Real Madrid)
Alex Sandro (Porto)
Thiago Silva (Milan)
David Luiz (Chelsea)
Luisão (Benfica)

Lucas (Liverpool)
Luiz Gustavo (Bayern Munich)
Sandro (Tottenham Hotspur)
Fernandinho (Shakhtar Donetsk)
Elias (Sporting Lisbon)
Hernanes (Lazio)
Bruno César (Benfica)
Kaká (Real Madrid)
Willian (Shakhtar Donetsk)
Dudu (Dynamo Kiev)

Hulk (Porto)
Jonas (Valencia)
Kléber (Porto)

With no Neymar, Ronaldinho, Leandro Damião or Fred, then, a number of attackers have earnt maiden call-ups. Willian, who has impressed in the Champions League with Shakhtar Donetsk, joins the squad for the first time, as does Bruno César. The former Corinthians man has been among the goals for Benfica of late. A couple of youngsters have also been selected by Menezes; leftback Alex Sandro (Porto) and livewire attacker Dudu (Dynamo Kiev) both make the step up to the full seleção having impressed at U20 level.

In goal, one of Diego Alves and the (relatively) inexperienced Neto will be handed the chance to impress, with Júlio César and Jefferson not selected on this occasion. It seems likely that Hulk will continue to lead the line in attack, unless Menezes springs a major surprise by starting with one of Jonas or Kléber. The headlines, though, will rightly be hogged by Ricardo Izecson dos Santos Leite, the softly-spoken galã (heartthrob) of the Brazilian game. The whole country will be behind him as he dons the golden jersey for the 83rd time.

(Photo credit; Dani Cardona/Reuters.)

Monday 24 October 2011

Vasco Recapture Top Spot as Corinthians Falter; Ceará Slip into Relegation Zone

Things are (finally) starting to become a bit clearer at the top of Série A. Vasco da Gama moved into pole this weekend with a victory over Bahia, while Corinthians could only manage a point against Inter. Botafogo and Flamengo, neither of which won over the weekend, are now three points adrift of the leading pair, whilst Fluminense and São Paulo must now be regarded as outside bets at best. Things remain as fraught as ever at the wrong end of the table; Atlético-MG clawed themselves out of the relegation zone at the expense of Ceará.

Brasileirão Gameweek 31 Round-up
A delightful strike from midfielder Felipe sent Vasco on their way to a comfortable win over Bahia, a result that sent the Rio club back to the Série A summit. The veteran, who has spent much of the year in the shadow of teammate Diego Souza, picked the perfect time to make his mark, curling home early on to settle his side's nerves. Corinthians, meanwhile, were held to a 1-1 draw by resurgent Internacional. Things could have been far worse for the Timão, who were bailed out by a stunning late free-kick from Alex.

The old ones are the best: Felipe celebrates his goal for Vasco.

Botafogo, who have faltered somewhat recently, slipped to a 3-2 loss to Avaí on Saturday evening. That game was lit up by a wonderful goal from Cleverson, who netted an acrobatic volley for the Leão da Ilha. The rest of the top six also dropped points. A late header from Deivid salvaged a point for Flamengo against Santos, São Paulo played out a goalless stalemate with Coritiba, while Fluminense slipped to a disappointing defeat to Atlético Mineiro. The absence of both Fred and Rafael Moura left the Tricolor with precious little cutting edge in that latter match, allowing Daniel 'big bones' Carvalho to inspire the Galo to a much-needed win.

Figueirense, this season's loveable overachievers, stayed in the hunt for a Libertadores spot with a win over Palmeiras. That match was more one-sided than the 2-1 scoreline suggested, with Figueira (seriously, how cool a nickname is 'the fig tree'?!) impressing once more with their creativity in attack. In Sete Lagoas, Cruzeiro recorded what could prove a crucial win in their relegation battle. Vágner Mancini's side looked as fragile as ever against Atlético-GO, but clawed their way to a 3-2 win thanks to a second half brace from Anselmo Ramon. Atlético-PR also claimed a significant win over Ceará, whilst rock bottom América-MG picked up a point against Grêmio.

Série A results: Palmeiras 1-2 Figueirense, Fluminense 0-2 Atlético-MG, Avaí 3-2 Botafogo, América-MG 2-2 Grêmio, São Paulo 0-0 Coritiba, Internacional 1-1 Corinthians, Atlético-PR 1-0 Ceará, Bahia 0-2 Vasco, Flamengo 1-1 Santos, Cruzeiro 3-2 Atlético-GO.

(Photo credit:

Friday 21 October 2011

Botafogo Waste Chance to Go Top of Brasileirão; Flamengo Thrashed by Universidad de Chile

There were three midweek games involving Brazilian clubs this week, two of them in the Copa Sul-Americana. The other, a postponed Brasileirão game, could prove more significant in the long-run...

Santos 2-0 Botafogo
Breathe a sigh of relief. At times it looked as though they'd never make it, but Santos' Big Catch-up™ is over. Having had what seems like half of their league fixtures this year postponed for one reason or another (Libertadores, international matches), the Peixe are finally on an even footing with their Brasileirão competitors. Although a Série A challenge has passed the seasiders by, they can still have a big say in the eventual destination of the title, as demonstrated on Wednesday evening.

Hair today, gone tomorrow: Neymar salutes the Santos faithful.

Santos turned in an excellent display at the Vila, beating in-form Botafogo thanks to two goaks before the interval. Neymar, who has added a peroxide tint to his already extravagant barnet, scored the opener, prodding into the far corner after some typically skilful approach play. The lead was swiftly doubled, courtesy of Borges' 22nd Brasileirão goal of the season. The striker could hardly be more different in style to Neymar, as evidenced by his strike - a primitive hammer blow that fizzed passed the blameless Jefferson. Botafogo showed signs of recovery in the second period, but could not manage to reduce the arrears. They remain two points behind Corinthians and Vasco.

Copa Sul-Americana Round-up
When Vasco were roundly beaten by Aurora in the Sul-Americana a fortnight ago, they at least had the excuse of having fielded a reserve side. How Flamengo fans must wish Vanderlei Luxemburgo had done the same on Wednesday night. As it was, a strong Rubro-Negro side was humbled by Universidad de Chile; the visitors romped to a convincing 4-0 win
in Rio de Janeiro. Gustavo Lorenzetti scored the pick of the goals, bending home a low effort to round off a devastating second half counter attack. At the Morumbi, meanwhile, interim coach Milton Cruz guided São Paulo to a win over Libertad. Luís Fabiano scored his first goal since returning to the club with a well-taken volley, leaving the Tricolor in pole position to reach the quarter finals.

Results. Série A:
Santos 2-0 Botafogo. Sul-Americana: Flamengo 0-4 Universidad de Chile, São Paulo 1-0 Libertad.

(Photo credit; Miguel Schincariol.)

Wednesday 19 October 2011

SKP on the BBC!

SKP was lucky enough to be invited onto BBC Radio 5 live this week, to talk about Brazilian football. Appearing on the new Booted feature alongside Gavin Stone of LesRosbifs, I spoke about Brazilian players returning home, the growing financial clout of Série A clubs, and a few other things besides.

The show is available on BBC iPlayer and iTunes. You can also access it by clicking here.

Tuesday 18 October 2011

Top Five All Record Victories; Adílson Sacked Following São Paulo Loss

This one's a little late, readers (SKP has had a busy week), so let's cut to the chase. The top five in Série A all recorded wins over the weekend, meaning things remain as tight as ever. São Paulo, meanwhile, who were in contention until recently, sacked coach Adílson Batista following an embarrassing loss at the hands of Atlético-GO.

Brasileirão Gameweek 30 Round-up
Corinthians remain top of the standings after a narrow win over Cruzeiro. Midfielder Paulinho proved his worth once again in that match, scoring his seventh goal of the campaign. Although occupying pole position, the Timão don't have much breathing space; Vasco stayed level on points with a routine triumph over Atlético-MG. At the Engenhão, Uruguayan striker Loco Abreu was again influential as Botafogo brushed aside a disappointing Atlético Paranaense outfit.

Heart and soul: Paulinho celebrates another important strike for Corinthians.

In Fortaleza, Flamengo finally exacted some revenge on their Copa do Brasil conquerors Ceará, sneaking a 1-0 win. Much-maligned frontman Deivid was the hero at the Presidente Vargas, nodding home to keep the Rubro-Negro within three points of the leaders. One point further back are in-form Fluminense, who beat Palmeiras thanks to two more goals from Fred. That wasn't the only brace of the weekend; Andrés D'Alessandro notched a couple in Internacional's comeback win over Avaí. That game also featured the Awkward Celebration of the Week™; Cleverson jumped over the advertising hoardings after brilliantly setting up Robinho's opener, and ran to the crowd. A quick glance over his shoulder suggested that he expected his teammates to have joined him. They hadn't. Not so clever, son.

Adílson Batista's reign as São Paulo manager came to an ignominious conclusion; he was sacked in the wake of the Tricolor's heavy loss to Atlético Goianiense. São Paulinos, many of whom never truly warmed to Adílson in the first place, will be wondering why it took the club's hierarchy so long to wield the axe. The ever-reliable Milton Cruz will takes over as caretaker boss. In the remaining games, there were victories for Grêmio (1-0 against Santos) and Figueirense (2-1 against América-MG), whilst Bahia held Coritiba at the Couto Pereira.

Série A results: Figueirense 2-1 América-MG, Ceará 0-1 Flamengo, Palmeiras 1-2 Fluminense, Santos 0-1 Grêmio, Botafogo 2-0 Atlético-PR, Internacional 4-2 Avaí, Cruzeiro 0-1 Corinthians, Vasco 2-0 Atlético-MG, Coritiba 0-0 Bahia, Atlético-GO 3-0 São Paulo.

(Photo credit; Gil Leonardi.)

Friday 14 October 2011

Cruzeiro Edge Closer to Relegation Zone; Top Three Falter

Things are getting unbearably polite at the top of the Brasileirão. "After you, Vasco." "No, I insist, after you," etc. None of the top three managed wins in the midweek round, allowing Botafogo to sneak back into contention. At the foot of the table, Cruzeiro edged ever closer to relegation peril.

Brasileirão Gameweek 29 Round-up
Flamengo followed their rousing derby win over Fluminense with a slightly disappointing 1-1 draw at home to Palmeiras. Thiago Neves' opener at the Engenhão was cancelled out by speedster Maikon Leite, who gave the Verdão something to smile about after a difficult week. Flu, meanwhile, recovered from their clássico disappointment with a fine win over Coritiba. Former Lyon striker Fred, who has been in fine fettle of late, bagged a hat-trick in that one, which included an impeccable overhead kick.

Aquele abraço: Fred celebrates his stunning goal against Coritiba.

Fredgol wasn't the only talismanic striker to make his mark this week; Loco Abreu inspired Botafogo to an important victory over Corinthians. The Uruguayan opened the scoring at the Pacaembu with a trademark header, before Maicosuel sealed the result with a deflected strike. With Vasco also failing to secure maximum points (2-2 against Atlético-PR), that result brought Caio Júnior's side back within two points of the lead. São Paulo, meanwhile, find their title challenge stuttering somewhat; the Tricolor could only manage a goalless draw at home to Inter.

Ceará and Cruzeiro continue to teeter above the relegation zone after disappointing results on Wednesday night. The Fortaleza outfit slipped to an embarrassing 4-1 loss at the hands of lanterna América-MG, whilst Cruzeiro were held by Bahia. Fans of both clubs will be having plenty of sleepless nights in the coming weeks. Figueirense, meanwhile, who were tipped by many to make a swift return to Série B, maintained their hopes of a Libertadores spot with a convincing win over Grêmio. In the remaining games, Atlético-MG beat Santos and Avaí drew 2-2 with Atlético-GO.

Série A results: São Paulo 0-0 Internacional, Grêmio 1-3 Figueirense, Avaí 2-2 Atlético-GO, América-MG 4-1 Ceará, Corinthians 0-2 Botafogo, Flamengo 1-1 Palmeiras, Bahia 0-0 Cruzeiro, Fluminense 3-1 Coritiba, Atlético-MG 2-1 Santos, Atlético-PR 2-2 Vasco.

(Photo credit: Paulo Sergio.)

Wednesday 12 October 2011

Battling Seleção Beat Mexico in Torreón

Whisper it quietly, folks: an air of positivity seems to be slowly creeping back into the Brazilian national team set-up. It's hard not to smile, of course, when Ronaldinho whips home a trademark free-kick, but there were other positives to draw from Brazil's trip to Mexico. The seleção exhibited considerable willpower to recover from an early David Luiz own goal and Daniel Alves' red card, recording a win against a strong Mexican side.

Mexico 1-2 Brazil
With Júlio César and Fábio da Silva ruled out through injury, Mano Menezes handed starts to Botafogo goalkeeper Jefferson and Daniel Alves. Both would go on to have eventful evenings, albeit for wildly differing reasons. At leftback, Marcelo replaced Adriano, whilst there was a long-awaited start in attack for Hulk. The Porto star played more centrally than he tends to at club level, but gave a good account of himself in Torreón.

Rolling back the years: Ronaldinho celebrates his delightful goal.

Those familiar with Mano Menezes' seleção will know that they never do things the easy way. So it proved on Tuesday night; Brazil went behind within ten minutes, in tragicomic fashion. West Ham United flop Pablo Barrera advanced on the right before drilling in a low cross towards nobody in particular. David Luiz, assuming that an attacker was closing in, lunged clumsily for the ball, and watched in horror as it spun off his studs and into the net.

The goal seemed to wake Brazil up. Neymar and Hulk began to show glimpses of real quality, and linked up to good effect throughout the half. The latter set up the seleção's best chance with a deft backheel, only for Neymar to blast wastefully over. Just as Brazil found their rhythm, though, disaster struck for the second time; Daniel Alves, who had already been booked, received his marching orders after bundling Javier Hernández over in the area. Thankfully for the visitors, Andrés Guardado struck his penalty poorly, allowing Jefferson to make a diving save.

Menezes erred on the side of caution after the interval, replacing the relatively quiet Lucas with Adriano. The Barcelona man acted as makeshift rightback, meaning that Brazil were a man lighter in attack. It showed. Neymar and Hulk, so lively in the first half, were well marshalled by the Mexican defence, leaving Ronaldinho - who attempted to dictate the play from the middle of the pitch - with precious few passing options. With time ticking away, it looked like being another night of frustration for the seleção.

Call to arms: Marcelo showed his worth to the seleção.

Menezes' men, however, proved that they are made of sterner stuff. The equaliser came, somewhat predictably, from a dead ball. Ronaldinho - who has peppered opposition goalkeepers with free-kick efforts since returning to the national team set-up - slammed home a wonderful effort from 25 yards, beating Oswaldo Sánchez all ends up. It was the Flamengo star's first Brazil goal for four years, and was celebrated in the style of a man well aware that every strike at this level could be his last.

With the wind in their sails, the visitors pressed on in search of an improbable winner. It arrived in improbably glorious fashion. Just minutes remained when Marcelo darted in from the left flank, swapped passes with Neymar, and glanced up. With no Brazil player in the area, the Real Madrid player decided to go it alone, nipping between two defenders before crashing an emphatic drive into the roof of the net. His celebration - an impassioned hug with Menezes - suggested that their rocky relationship may have bloomed into something altogether more amicable. If Marcelo can translate his club form to the international arena on a frequent basis, he'll remain in Mano's good books for a while longer yet.

(Photo credits; (1) & (2) AP.)