Friday 25 February 2011

Inter Tame Jaguares; Minnows Boavista Reach Taça Guanabara Final

It's been another busy week in Brazilian football, with Copa do Brasil and continental games jostling for space with the usual state championship action. Internacional kick-started the defence of their Libertadores crown with a commanding victory over Mexican side Jaguares, a result that sent them to the top of Group 6. In Rio, meanwhile, Boavista, a small regional side, made it through to the final of the first stage of the Campeonato Carioca. With those stories and more, here's the SKP Friday round-up.

Internacional 4-0 Jaguares
Inter, despite being one of Brazil's most stable clubs, have undergone a difficult period since they romped to the 2010 Libertadores title. Their poor performance in the Club World Cup, coupled with the sale of a number of key players (Taison and Giuliano being the most obvious examples), had led to a sense of doom and gloom at the Beira-Rio. Manager Celso Roth - hardly universally adored to begin with - only just clung onto his job in the wake of the Abu Dhabi fiasco, and many fans feared that Argentine pair Pablo Guiñazú and Andrés D'Alessandro would depart the club.

Whether by luck or by judgement, however, the outlook one month on is much brighter for the Colorado. True, they have been far from impressive in the Campeonato Gaúcho thus far (admittedly without a host of first team players), but the signings of Zé Roberto (no, not the former Bayern Munich one), Fernando Cavenaghi, and, in particular, Mário Bolatti have really captured the imagination. All three started against Jaguares, as Inter sought to claim their first win in this year's tournament.

Inter orbit; Mário Bolatti jumps for joy after netting against Jaguares.

Bolatti, the former Porto and Fiorentina midfielder, enjoyed a fine début last week, scoring Inter's goal in the 1-1 draw with Emelec. He was even more influential on Wednesday night, bossing play from the centre of the park and netting a brace in the opening period. His first, a deflected volley, was trumped by the second; a crashing finish following a spot of head tennis in the Jaguares box. This hermano (Brazilian slang for Argentine/Spanish speaker) could well become the next to gain icon-status at the Beira-Rio.

Inter continued to dominate in the the second half, and extended their lead through Leandro Damião. The youngster, who seems to have leapfrogged Alecsandro in the Inter attacking pecking order, showed customary awareness to pounce after the ball came back off the post. The hosts cruised through the remainder of the game, until, with just seconds remaining, Oscar decided that the evening deserved to be rounded off in style. The Brazil U20 midfielder surged towards goal before rifling home a stunning low effort from thirty yards. As the final whistle blew, Roth sauntered contendedly back into the dressing room; the early signs suggest that his side could again go far in this competition.

Campeonato Carioca Round-up
Flamengo secured their place in the final of the Taça Guanabara, sneaking past Botafogo on penalties after a 1-1 draw. Ronaldo Angelim's early effort was cancelled out by Loco Abreu, who finished expertly after receiving a pass from fellow Argentine Egidio Arévalo. Goalkeeper Felipe was the penalty hero for Flamengo, saving from Éverton and Somália as the Rubro-Negro won the shoot-out.

If you're happy and you know it...; Thiago celebrates with the Boavista fans.

Spot-kicks were also needed in the other semi-final, as underdogs Boavista snuck past Fluminense at the Engenhão. The sides traded golaços in the opening period; Marquinho's free-kick put the Tricolor ahead before a rocket from Tony gave Boavista parity. Fred then appeared to have put Flu in control with a simple header, only for some sleepy defending to allow André Luís to bag a second for their opponents. Boavista stopper Thiago proved his worth in the shoot-out, saving brilliantly from Conca and Rodriguinho. It was a historic day for the minnows, whose (snappily-named) Estádio Eucy Resende de Mendonça holds just 6,000 fans, and whose main claim to fame before Saturday had been a doomed attempt to lure Italian striker Christian Vieri out of retirement.

Campeonato Paulista Round-up
Corinthians hosted Santos at the Pacaembu on Sunday, with fans and pros alike paying tribute to Ronaldo, who waved farewell to fans prior to kickoff. The Timão supporters unfurled a banner reading "R9 ETERNALLY IN OUR HEARTS," while the home players' shirts were emblazened with "FENÔMENO FOREVER." Confusingly, Corinthians also abandoned their regular squad numbers in honour of Ronaldo; every play wore a jersey featuring the number nine (so Liédson was No.90, Alessandro used No.29, etc). With the wind of sentiment in their sails, Corinthians ran out comfortable winners. Fábio Santos, a former Peixe player, put the hosts ahead with a delightful free-kick, and later added another from the penalty spot. Elano gave Santos hope with a powerful effort, but Liédson sealed the win with a deft chipped finish.

Liédson; Corinthians' new talisman?

São Paulo produced a scintillating attacking display on Saturday, putting four past hapless Bragantino at the Morumbi. Dagoberto set up goals for Miranda and Fernandinho, before the young guns took over in the second period; Lucas and Willian José both got on the scoresheet for the Tricolor. Palmeiras meanwhile... (sorry, I just fell asleep on my keyboard)... drew 0-0 with Mogi Morim.

Copa do Brasil Round-up
One thing that is certain to make any match (and especially one involving Palmeiras) more interesting is a medic who takes it upon himself to somersault repeatedly throughout the 90 minutes. Congratulations must go to Comercial-PI; firstly for taking their cup game with Palmeiras to a second leg (despite a 2-1 loss), but mainly for employing that lunatic. Avaí and Santa Cruz made it through to round two with resounding away wins over Vilhena-RO and Corinthians-RN respectively (in case you're wondering, the two letters after these names denote the states in which the clubs are located). Botafogo will have to come from behind in the return leg after losing 1-0 to River Plate-SE, but there were no such problems for resurgent Vasco who progressed with a 6-1 win over Comercial-MS.

Copa Libertadores Round-up
Fluminense seem determined to do things the hard way in this year's Libertadores; a goalless draw with Uruguayan side Nacional made it just two points from their opening two home games in the competition. With Fred out injured, Muricy Ramalho reshuffled his side side; lining up with three centrebacks and an array of midfielders behind lone striker Rafael Moura. The system provided defensive solidity (despite defender Digão's subsequent admission that he "couldn't describe the position in which [he] was playing") but left the Tricolor short of attacking threat. They now have it all to do, in what was always going to be a tricky group.

Where's Wallyson? At the top of the Libertadores scoring charts, that's where.

Despite taking the lead through Borges, Grêmio fell to a 2-1 loss against Junior Barranquilla. The Tricolor were guilty of some poor defending on the night, allowing Giovanni Hernández and Jhon Viáfara (remember him, Southampton and Portsmouth fans?!) to give the Colombians a narrow victory. Cruzeiro were far more ruthless, thrashing Guaraní 4-0 in Sete Lagoas. Wallyson bagged a brace for the Raposa, but it was Thiago Ribeiro who scored the pick of the goals, drilling home from the edge of the area.

Best of the Rest
That was actually Thiago's second golaço of the week; the first came in Cruzeiro's routine Campeonato Mineiro win over Ipatinga at the weekend. It's Atlético-MG that continue to lead the Minas Gerais championship, however; they maintained their fine attacking form to beat Guarani-MG 4-2. In Porto Alegre, meanwhile, Grêmio made it to the semi-finals of the first stage of the Gauchão with a 5-0 win over Ypiranga-RS. André Lima, who amusingly took it upon himself to come up with his own nickname ('immortal warrior'... egotistical much?), scored a brace for the Tricolor.

Selected results. Carioca; Flamengo 1-1 Botafogo (3-1 on penalties), Fluminense 2-2 Boavista (2-4 on penalties). Paulista; São Paulo 4-0 Bragantino, Corinthians 3-1 Santos, Mogi Morim 0-0 Palmeiras. Libertadores; Fluminense 0-0 Nacional, Internacional 4-0 Jaguares, Junior Barranquilla 2-1 Grêmio, Cruzeiro 4-0 Guaraní. Copa do Brasil; Comercial-PI 1-2 Palmeiras, River Plate-SE 1-0 Botafogo, Comercial-MS 1-6 Vasco.

(Photo credits; (1) EFE, (2) Ricardo Ramos, (3) Tom Dib, (4) EFE.)

Friday 18 February 2011

Cruzeiro Teach Estudiantes a Lesson; Liédson Steps Up for Corinthians

On-pitch events took a back seat in Brazil this week, with the football world rocked by Ronaldo's retirement at the age of 34. Fans of Cruzeiro and Corinthians (the only two Brazilian clubs for whom O Fenômeno featured) would have been particularly upset, but both sides were boosted in midweek; Cruzeiro romped to a historic victory over Estudiantes in the Libertadores, while the Timão appear to have found a new talisman in Liédson, the scorer of both goals in their win over Mogi Mirim.

Cruzeiro 5-0 Estudiantes
There has been precious little fanfare over Cruzeiro since the end of the Brasileirão, which may seem somewhat curious given their excellent performance in that competition (the Raposa finished in second position). However, while a host of Brazilian sides attracted countless new players (and significant media attention) in the offseason, Cruzeiro endured a relatively frustrating month; Leandro Guerreiro and Mauricio Victorino were the only significant signings, whilst star rightback Jonathan was sold to Santos. When you throw in their slow start to the Campeonato Mineiro (which itself starts slowly compared to other state championships), one can understand why expectations were not particularly high ahead of their Libertadores opener. Estudiantes, one of the continent's most consistent teams in recent years (and the side that beat Cruzeiro in the 2009 final) would, in the eyes of most pundits, provide a stern test for Cuca's men.

Revenge, however, can be an effective motivator. Cruzeiro, spurred on by a raucous crowd at the Arena do Jacaré (which translates, wonderfully, as Alligator Arena) flew out of the blocks, taking the lead within the first minute. Wallyson, whose selection over Thiago Ribeiro raised a few eyebrows prior to kick-off, released an effort which ballooned into the net via the leg of an unlucky Estudiantes defender. The visitors looked stunned, but their nightmare was only just beginning. Just fifteen minutes later, Walter Montillo released Roger, who dribbled past Juan Sebastián Verón before slotting home. Roger soon returned the favour, allowing Montillo to round Agustín Orión and net the third.

Foxtrot; Roger celebrates his goal for Cruzeiro.

The interval brought some brief respite for Estudiantes, but their ruthless hosts were soon rubbing salt into their wounds. Montillo, himself an Argentine, was the tormentor in chief; dominating play in midfield and grabbing his second of the night with a wonderful volley from thirty yards. By the time Wallyson bundled home the fifth in the final minutes, the tie was over as a contest, and Cruzeiro fans were already beginning to plot their side's course through the group stage.

It remains to be seen, of course, whether the Raposa can produce this kind of performance on a frequent basis, but Wednesday night's performance will certainly have made the continent sit up and take notice. In many ways, this victory stood as testament to the fact that planning and stability can be just as effective as the kind of explosive transfer market activity which is the norm in Brazil. Sometimes it pays to go under the radar.

Campeonato Carioca Round-up
Flamengo claimed an impressive seventh consecutive win, overcoming Resende thanks to a goal from former Fenerbahçe striker Deivid. Fla will face Botafogo in the semi-final of the Taça Guanabara (the first stage of the Rio state championship), after the latter slipped to a draw against Macaé on Sunday. The other semi will be contested by Fluminense (for whom Rafael Moura scored his fifth goal in three games against Madureira) and minnows Boavista, who beat Nova Iguaçu 5-3.

Ronaldinho embraces Flamengo coach Vanderlei Luxemburgo.

Vasco, who didn't manage to qualify for the knockout stage, at last gave their fans something to cheer about, racking up no fewer than nine goals against América. Both Ramon and Enrico netted braces, and there was a long-awaited goal from veteran playmaker Felipe, who had recently joked that the Romário statue at Vasco's São Januário stadium was more likely to score than he was. Knowing old Baixinho, he'd probably add any such goal to his running total.

Campeonato Paulista Round-up
Palmeiras continued their hegemony of dull victories, beating Americana (yep, you guessed it) 1-0 to maintain their position at the head of the Paulistão. The Verdão fans handed goalscorer Kléber a Brazil shirt after the final whistle as a display of appreciation, but it's the defence that deserves recognition; Palmeiras have conceded just three goals in eight rounds so far. Santos have let in three times that many, but remain just a point behind after a 2-0 win over Noroeste. Genoa-bound Zé Éduardo was on target once more for the Peixe, tucking home coolly after sprinting clear.

Palmeiras hero Kléber battles for possession.

Rogério Ceni scored his 98th career goal (for those who haven't been paying attention, Rogério is a goalkeeper), bending home a free-kick which helped São Paulo scrape past Portuguesa. There was also a début strike for Rhodolfo, a recent acquisition from Atlético Paranaense who looks like Kaká's troubled older brother. The result sent São Paulo up to fifth in the table.

Corinthians, rocked by the departures of Ronaldo and Roberto Carlos (who could yet be joined at Anzhi Makhachkala by midfielder Jucilei), started the week in predictably subdued fashion, toiling to a 0-0 draw with Paulista on Sunday. Things improved last night, however, as new signing Liédson fired them past a stubborn Mogi Mirim side at the Pacaembu. The former Sporting Lisbon striker pounced on a rebound to put the Timão ahead, before displaying even greater opportunism for his second; nipping in to score after Mogi 'keeper João Paulo dallied. These are early days yet, but Corinthians may just have found the man to help them through their current crisis.

Copa Libertadores Round-up
Santos, among the favourites for this season's Libertadores, endured a frustrating start to their campaign, drawing 0-0 with Deportivo Táchira in Venezuela. The Peixe shaded the first half, but were thoroughly outplayed in the second, and likely felt slightly fortunate to even claim one point from the game. Their fans will hope that coach Adílson Batista refrains from resting in-form attackers Maikon Leite and Zé Éduardo in their next game against Cerro Porteño. Reigning champions Internacional were also held away from home; Mário Bolatti's début strike was cancelled out in injury time by Emelec's Fernando Giménez.

At the Olímpico, Grêmio had much more joy; brushing aside Bolivian side Oriente Petrolero to take command of Group 2. Douglas put the Tricolor ahead from the penalty spot after the referee laughably adjudged Diego Terrezas to have handled in the area; the ball had actually struck him in the face. Gílson scrambled home a second for the hosts, before Douglas tucked home to seal the win.

Copa do Brasil Round-up
Flamengo progressed to the second round without recourse to a second match (Brazilian Cup games are decided over two legs, unless the away side wins the first leg by two goals or more), beating Murici 3-0 in the Rei Pelé stadium. Ronaldinho bagged his second goal for the Rubro-Negro, heading home a Léo Moura cross from close range. São Paulo welcomed Brazil U20 star Lucas (who has just renewed his contract with the club) back into their starting lineup for their meeting with Treze, and booked their place in round two thanks to goals from Dagoberto (2) and Fernandinho. Goiás, Uberaba, and Caxias also secured safe passage into the next round.

Best of the Rest
Internacional secured their spot in the knockout stages of the Taça Piratini (the first half of the Campeonato Gaúcho... keep up at the back), beating Pelotas thanks to a hattrick from young striker Leandro Damião. Grêmio, who had already qualified, slumped to a 2-0 defeat to Novo Hamburgo. Atlético Mineiro were victorious in a scintillating Belo Horizonte clássico; three goals from the talismanic Diego Tardelli and one from Neto Berola proved just enough to see off Cruzeiro 4-3.

Selected results. Carioca; Flamengo 1-0 Resende, América 0-9 Vasco, Madureira 0-1 Fluminense, Botafogo 1-1 Macaé. Paulista; Paulista 0-0 Corinthians, Santos 2-0 Noroeste, Palmeiras 1-0 Americana, Portuguesa 2-3 São Paulo, Corinthians 2-0 Mogi Morim. Libertadores; Cruzeiro 5-0 Estudiantes, Grêmio 3-0 Oriente Petrolero, Emelec 1-1 Internacional, Deportivo Táchira 0-0 Santos. Copa do Brasil; Murici 0-3 Flamengo, Treze 0-3 São Paulo.

(Photo credits; (1) Gil Leonardi, (2) Paulo Sergio, (3) Miguel Schincariol.)

Wednesday 16 February 2011

Obrigado, Ronaldo Fenômeno!

On Monday, as I'm sure you'll be aware, one of the greatest players of the modern game called time on his professional career. Ronaldo, the star of Brazil's 2002 World Cup triumph, announced that he would be unable to fulfill his contract with Corinthians due to his continuing fitness troubles.

Ronaldo has always been a player close to my heart, and one of my biggest regrets is that I never managed to see him in the flesh. The closest I came was a couple of years ago, when I went to see Corinthians at the Pacaembu, but unfortunately O Fenômeno was injured that day. Unperturbed, I spent a good ten minutes trying to locate him in the directors' box on the opposite side of the stadium, but to no avail; Ronaldo evaded me just like he had all those defenders over the years.

Although deeply saddened by the news of his retirement, I managed to pull myself together and write a tribute to Ronaldo for the lovely folks over at In Bed With Maradona. You can read the article here.

Friday 11 February 2011

Plucky Botafogo Hand Fluminense First Defeat; Ronaldinho Off the Mark for Flamengo

It was another exciting week of state championship action in Brazil, with derby games taking place in both Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. Fluminense suffered their first defeat of the season at the hands of Joel Santana's Botafogo side, whilst Corinthians battled to victory over bitter rivals Palmeiras. In Peru, meanwhile, Brazil U20s look set to seal qualification for the 2012 Olympics despite a loss to their Argentine counterparts. The Libertadores group stage also got underway, with Fluminense hosting Argentinos Juniors at the Engenhão. Without further ado, then...

Campeonato Carioca Round-up
Both Fluminense and Botafogo have hit the ground running in Group B of the Rio state championship, and came into Sunday's clássico having racked up 11 wins and 32 goals between them in the opening six rounds. Something, it was clear, had to give, and so it did; any semblance of defensive solidity. Rafael Moura, paired up front with Fred for the first time, bagged a first half brace for the Tricolor, but goals from Renato Cajá, Loco Abreu (who showed remarkable bravery/pigheadedness to convert a second penalty with his cavadinha technique after seeing his first saved by Diego Cavalieri), and Herrera gave Fogão the points.

É louco mesmo! Abreu celebrates his cheeky penalty after seeing his first saved.

Ronaldinho netted his first goal for Flamengo, coolly converting a penalty in the Rubro-Negro's 3-2 win over Boavista. Predictably, all of the post-match media attention focused on R10 (and his ecstatic celebrations), but the real hero was largely unknown youngster Negueba, who scored the winner in the dying minutes. An article on Globo Esporte later in the week showed Negueba walking unrecognised down Copacabana beach, despite having scored for Brazil's best-supported side. Enjoy the peace whilst you can, kid. At the São Januário, meanwhile, Ricardo Gomes took charge of his first game for Vasco, leading them to a 3-0 win over Americano.

Campeonato Paulista Round-up
Corinthians had a hard old time last week; going out of the Copa Libertadores and having their training complex daubed with abusive graffiti. What better way to get your fans back on side, though, than a victory over one's bitter rivals; a strike from rightback Alessandro handed the Timão a hard-fought win over early pace setters Palmeiras on Sunday. They followed that result up in midweek with a convincing 4-0 win over Ituano, a game in which débutant Liédson, netted a brace of instinctive efforts. There was only one problem for the Corinthians hierarchy; hardly anyone cared. Only around 6,500 fans made their way to the Pacaembu for each of those matches, indicating that the players and management will be in the doghouse for a while yet. Further bad news came on Thursday, when Roberto Carlos revealed that he could leave the club in the wake of a series of violent threats. One last payday on foreign soil beckons.

Força, Levezinho! Liédson celebrates his first goals for Corinthians.

Santos slumped to their second draw on the trot, needing a late goal from former Manchester United (reserves) midfielder Rodrigo Possebon to rescue a point against Santo André. São Paulo were also disappointed, going down to Botafogo-SP at the Ribeirão Preto. The Tricolor will hope that their soon-to-return Brazil U20 players (Lucas, Casemiro, Willian José) will inject some much-needed energy into their performances.

Copa Libertadores Round-up
Fluminense hosted Argentinos Juniors in the first match of the 2011 Libertadores, and twice came from behind to rescue a point. With Fred suspended, it was Rafael Moura (who showed his prowess at continental level by top-scoring in last year's Copa Sul-Americana) who led the line for Flu, and scored both of the home side's goals; the first a brilliantly conceived header, the second a simple nod-in. There was also a headed brace for Argentinos forward Franco Niell, who (as the Brazilian media revelled in revealing), at a diminutive 1m62, is almost 30cm shorter than Moura. Gulliver 2-2 Lilliputians.

South American Youth Championship
The week started on a sour note for the U20 seleção, who lost 2-1 to Argentina. An early (but rather debatable) red card for Juan made life tough for Brazil, especially as the resulting penalty was converted by Rogelio Funes Mori. Willian José's powerful strike got Ney Franco's men back on level terms, but a wondergoal from Juan Iturbe gave Argentina the points. The seleção recovered well, however, with a tight 1-0 win over Ecuador. Casemiro, who has enjoyed a fine tournament, bagged the winner, a goal that all but ensures Brazil's qualification for the 2012 Olympic tournament.

Best of the Rest
Internacional suffered their third Gauchão defeat of the year, losing to Veranópolis despite fielding a full strength XI. There were no such problems for neighbours Grêmio, who overcame Caxias thanks to goals from Douglas and Vílson. Both of the big guns on the Campeonato Mineiro picked up wins; Atlético-MG beat Tupi (with braces from Magno Alves and Neto Berola), and an André Dias effort handed Cruzeiro victory over Villa Nova.

Selected results. Carioca; Fluminense 2-3 Botafogo, Vasco 3-0 Americano, Boavista 2-3 Flamengo. Paulista; Palmeiras 0-1 Corinthians, Santo André 1-1 Santos, Botafogo-SP 2-1 São Paulo, Corinthians 4-0 Ituano. Libertadores; Fluminense 2-2 Argentinos Juniors. Other; Brazil U20 1-2 Argentina U20, Brazil U20 1-0 Ecuador U20.

(Photo credits; (1) Bruno de Lima, (2) Ari Ferreira.)

Prophet and Loss for Menezes as Seleção Suffer Les Bleus

To the cynics, Mano Menezes' seleção reign has been little more than a sparkly new paint-job on what is looking like an increasingly defunct car. Sure, Neymar, Alexandre Pato, and Paulo Henrique Ganso may have provided some youthful zest to Brazil's post-World Cup performances, but the side's shortcomings against the Ukraine (a terminally dull 2-0 win) and Argentina (a 1-0 loss) fuelled the flames of those who see Menezes as little more than a media savvy Dunga. Wednesday evening's defeat at the hands of France will likely have converted even more observers to this point of view. Are the doubters right?

Kind of. The mistakes that Menezes made at the Stade de France were certainly of a piece with Dunga's failings at the World Cup. In South Africa, Brazil's central midfield platform consisted of two players - Felipe Melo and Gilberto Silva - whose remit was almost entirely destructive. Admittedly, Felipe Melo enjoys the odd foray forward, but he was in the side for his muscular presence and lung power, alongside the more subtle (read; invisible) Gilberto. Menezes, to be sure, has put an end to this midfield giants' causeway, but has replaced it with something equally frustrating; a pair of all-round, box-to-box midfielders. Lucas, to his credit, has been excellent since the World Cup, and fully merits his place; he generally sits in front of the back four, only occasionally surging forward. His partner on Wednesday, however - the Atlético Madrid midfielder Elias - had a much less obvious role; neither contributing to the side's defensive solidity, nor offering anything of note in attack. The former Corinthians man, as I noted on Twitter during the game, suffers from an acute case of Ramires-itis; he is a jack of all trades, and a master only of running round a lot.

Water-carrier? Elias has failed to impress for the seleção.

From my point of view, Brazil could use a deep-lying playmaker alongside Lucas; a regista who is able to calmly construct attacks from in front of the back four. It was ironic on Wednesday, then, that Hernanes, perhaps the perfect option for this role, was shunted out to the left-hand side by Menezes (see below), in what can only be viewed as a tactical misstep. One has to feel for O Profeta (the Prophet); he waited so long for a start for the national team, a side that (in the absence of Paulo Henrique Ganso) so clearly needs a creative player in the centre of the park, only to be played out of position on his big day. That he was dismissed in the opening period for a wild foul on Karim Benzema only served to compound his misery; he admitted on Thursday that he "couldn't sleep" on the night after the game.

Prophet marginalised; Brazil's starting formation against France.

Menezes was also criticised in the Brazilian press for the selection of Renato Augusto on the right. This, I think, was not entirely fair; Augusto is a player who has performed admirably for Leverkusen, and had earnt his chance with the Brazil side. His performance on the night, although lampooned in post-match ratings ("Was he even playing?") was actually far better than those of more experienced players like Robinho and the aforementioned Elias. Another surprise call-up, Jádson, acquitted himself well, picking out nice passes to Hulk and André Santos in rare second half attacks. The latter was actually one of Brazil's better players, but sod's law dictated that he should be at fault for the French goal; Jérémy Menez roasted him before crossing for Benzema to score.

What, though, can be said in Mano's defence? Menezes can be praised firstly for giving the national side a more meritocratic feel. Gone, it seems, are the days of players being picked on the basis of former glories (the populist selection of Ronaldinho against Argentina is the exception that proves the rule) or on reputations alone. Júlio César made his first start under the new regime on Wednesday, but there is still no indication that players such as Lúcio, Maicon, Juan, Luís Fabiano, and Kaká will be recalled any time soon. The faith placed in (relative) youngsters like David Luiz, Thiago Silva, and Lucas will be fundamental for the reshaping of the side.

Secondly, we must remember that Menezes' team selections have been hamstrung by the absences of key personnel. Paulo Henrique Ganso, the Santos No.10 around which Mano was planning to construct his side, suffered a cruciate ligament injury soon after his first Brazil start, and has been missing ever since. Neymar too has missed three of the five games since the World Cup; firstly for discliplinary reasons and now due to the South American Youth Championship. The lack of these players has forced Menezes to (temporarily) abandon his preferred 4-2-1-3 system (see below), in favour of more pragmatic formations. Against France, that meant a fairly standard 4-4-2, which allowed Les Bleus to dominate midfield. Of course, the 4-2-1-3 could have been maintained with Hernanes as No.10 and Hulk joining Robinho and Pato in attack, but Menezes' apparent distrust of the Porto man meant that this was never a realistic option.

The 4-2-1-3 system used by Menezes against the USA in August.

Menezes, then, is in a somewhat curious position; he already seems to be reliant on the return of Ganso and Neymar in order to salvage his new vision for the seleção. In the interest of fairness, one could argue, he must be judged by the performances of his first choice XI, the side that obliterated the USA back in August. He must hope, however, that that game itself was more than just a false dawn; having whetted the Brazilian appetite for slick, inventive, attacking football, a return to the turgid pinch hitting of the Dunga era would likely spell the end of Menezes' stewardship. I, for one, hope that Menezes proves his critics wrong, but a couple more poor performances and the wolves will be out for the former Corinthians boss. Força, Mano!

Thursday 10 February 2011

Copa Libertadores Preview Podcast

Tonight I had the pleasure of appearing on the Gib Football Show, a weekly podcast which takes in the best of world football. The latest edition is a Copa Libertadores special, which features Sam Kelly (who runs the wonderful Hasta El Gol Siempre), Brent Atema (of Global Football Today), and Euan Marshall (who blogs at I Like Football Me) alongside yours truly.

You can download/listen to the podcast here, or find it on iTunes.

Friday 4 February 2011

Tite Tite Bang Bang - Wheels Come Off Corinthians' Season; Ronaldinho and Rivaldo Make Débuts

High, low, everywhere we go, on Tite Tite we depend! Bang bang, Tite Tite bang bang, our fine four fendered... failure. (If this makes no sense at all to you, watch this.) Yes, reader, Wednesday night was a disastrous one for Corinthians (and coach Tite), as Colombian side Tolima unceremoniously dumped them out of the Copa Libertadores, a competition that the Timão have never managed to conquer in their 100-year history.

Tolima 2-0 Corinthians
After a disappointing 0-0 draw at the Pacaembu last week, the task facing Corinthians in Colombia was always going to be a difficult one. It wasn't just the mammoth journey that likely left the side somewhat drained, nor was it the tense atmosphere inside the expansively-named Estádio Manuel Murillo Toro. No, the problem was largely a psychological one; Corinthians' utter desperation to get their hands on the Libertadores trophy usually leads to the kind of nervousness that proves counterproductive to their task. Theirs, we may safely say, is a doomed romance with the competition.

This is not to say, of course, that there weren't errors of a more pragmatic nature on Wednesday evening. Much of the blame must be laid on the shoulders of Tite, whose grasp of tactics is only slightly more convincing than Dick Van Dyke's English accent. Bruno César, the talisman of Corinthians' title challenge last term, was relegated to the bench, with Jorge Henrique given the task of linking midfield and attack. A fabulous player the latter may be, but a central playmaker he is not; his inability to stamp his mark on the game, coupled with the absence of a midfielder to break forward, meant that Ronaldo and Dentinho were marooned up front.

Ronaldo and Jucilei cannot hide their disappointment after the final whistle.

Tolima dominated the opening exchanges, and Júlio César did well to deny Medina, Chará, and Castillo. The Timão managed to survive the siege, but produced precious little of their own before the half time break. The second period finally brought a couple of chances for the visitors; Leandro Castán headed over, and Paulinho was thwarted by Antony Silva in the Tolima goal. This was to be the high point of the evening for Corinthians, however, as the home side took control. The deadlock was broken in the 65th minute; Elkin Murillo's smart ball picked out Danny Santoya, who darted behind the static Corinthians defence and lifted the ball over Júlio César.

With his side needing a goal, Tite threw on two substitutes. Dentinho, a striker, jogged off to be replaced by... Danilo, a trundling midfielder. New signing Luiz Ramírez also entered the fray, but jogged off again just four minutes later, having been dismissed for flailing his arms in an opponent's face. Just as it appeared that things couldn't get any worse, they did; Murillo's cross gave Wilder Medina the simplest of finishes. The last act of Tite's masterful evening (and possibly of his reign at Corinthians) was to bring on Edno (an erratic striker-cum-midfielder-cum-leftback), thereby completely snubbing Bruno César, the one man who would've injected some creativity into the unit. As the final whistle blew, the cameras zoomed in on Ronaldo, who trudged dejectedly off the pitch. He for one, in the final year of a distinguished career, deserved better.

Campeonato Carioca Round-up
Flamengo won the first clássico carioca of the season, beating Vasco 2-1 at the Engenhão. The pick of the goals came from Thiago Neves, who juggled the ball over Fernando Prass before kneeing home on his first start for Fla. It was a fine start for Neves, but it was overshadowed by the furore over another débutant this week; Ronaldinho made his much anticipated return to action in the Rubro-Negro's 1-0 win over Nova Iguaçu. Welcomed onto the pitch by a huge mosaico, and handed the captain's armband by Léo Moura, the former Barcelona man enjoyed a moderately productive evening, and celebrated wildly when Wanderley nicked a late winner. More significant than the performance, perhaps, is the fact that Ronaldinho completed the whole 90 minutes; this augers well for the coming months. Vasco, meanwhile, could only follow their derby loss with a goalless draw with Volta Redonda. New boss Ricardo Gomes has plenty of work to do.

Flamengo fans at the Engenhão welcome Ronaldinho.

Fluminense continued their flying start to the Rio state championship, dispatching Cabofriense and Duque de Caxias this week. Fred, who is enjoying a rare injury-free spell, had a superb week, bagging a brace in the former match and a hattrick in the latter. The former Lyon striker is virtually unplayable in this kind of form. Two points behind Flu in Group B are Botafogo, who could only follow a comfortable win over Olaria with a 1-1 draw against Bangu. Fan favourite Loco Abreu maintained his fine goalscoring run with three goals in those games.

Campeonato Paulista Round-up
Luiz Felipe Scolari's Palmeiras side are sitting pretty atop the Paulistão, after away wins over Portuguesa and Mirassol this week. Despite not being the most fluid of sides, the Verdão are strong in defence, and have displayed impressive determination; both matches were won with goals in the final fifteen minutes. Palmeiras are, however, lent a little panache by the presence of youngster Adriano Michael Jackson in attack; he wanna be startin' a long and prosperous career.

Despite the presence of former Brazilian president (and famously avid Timão fan) Lula da Silva in the stands, Corinthians could only manage a 2-2 draw with São Bernardo at the Pacaembu. With their minds understandably focussed on the Libertadores, it took a wonder goal from Peruvian Luis Ramírez (he who was sent off against Tolima) to rescue a point.

Elano in action for Santos against Ponte Preta.

At the Arena Barueri, Santos overcame São Paulo thanks to another fine Elano performance. The 29-year-old converted Róbson's wonderful cross to put the Peixe ahead, and also played a part in the second goal; his rasping shot was only parried by Rogério Ceni, allowing Maikon Leite to pounce on the rebound. The same pair were on the scoresheet again on Wednesday; Elano netted a deft free-kick and Maikon scored a brilliant individual goal in Santos' 2-2 draw with Ponte Preta.

São Paulo, meanwhile, recovered from Sunday's loss with a 3-2 win over Linense. 38-year-old Rivaldo, recently signed on loan from Mogi Morim, marked his début with a neat goal; controlling Ilsinho's cross and slotting into the corner of the net. The former seleção hero celebrated by tearing off his shirt, revealing a lithe torso of which men half his age would be proud; his success with the Tricolor won't be impeded by any physical frailty, that's for sure. The full '2002 World Cup flashback' effect was complete when goalkeeper Rogério bent home a free-kick later in the game.

Copa Libertadores Round-up
Grêmio showed Corinthians how it was done on Wednesday night, overcoming Uruguayan side Liverpool to progress to the group stages of the Libertadores. Having drawn 2-2 in the first leg, the Tricolor were given an early scare when Emiliano Alfaro opened the scoring; running on to a fine pass before blasting past Victor. André Lima, who earlier had contrived to miss an open goal, levelled with a header, before recent acquisition Vinícius Pacheco took centre stage. The former Flamengo forward kept his cool to tuck home Grêmio's second, and then blasted in a third from range.

South American Youth Championship
The Brazil U20 side got off to a strong start in the final group stage, overcoming Colombia 2-0 in Arequipa. Ney Franco went with a more fluid 4-2-3-1 system, dropping Henrique in favour of Oscar, who, along with Neymar and Lucas, roamed behind Willian José in attack. It was defensive midfielder Casemiro, however, who broke the deadlock, heading home from Alex Sandro's impeccable cross. With only a few minutes left, substitute Diego Maurício added a second, blasting home at the near post. Argentina are up next for Franco's side.

Brazil U20 players celebrate Diego Maurício's strike.

Best of the Rest
The Campeonato Mineiro finally got underway over the weekend, with both Cruzeiro and Atlético Mineiro picking up wins. Wellington Paulista was on target for the Raposa in their 3-0 win over Caldense, whilst the Galo (who, incidentally, have an absurd number of quality attackers at their disposal) beat Funorte thanks to a late Diego Tardelli penalty. Sunday's Gre-Nal derby in Porto Alegre was a surprisingly muted affair, with both sides fielding second-string sides. Grêmio won 2-1 in the end, thanks to Bruno Collaço and Lins. Inter played again on Wednesday (against Juventude), and finally recalled the players who featured at the World Club Cup in December. Andrés D'Alessandro capped a fine performance with two goals (the second an absolute cracker) in a 3-1 victory. That's about your lot this week, but spare a thought for poor Sport goalkeeper Saulo, who magnificently headed an injury time winner against Vitória-PE in the Campeonato Pernambucano, only to rupture his knee ligaments whilst celebrating. He'll be out of action for six months.

Selected results. Carioca; Vasco 1-2 Flamengo, Botafogo 3-1 Olaria, Cabofriense 2-4 Fluminense, Flamengo 1-0 Nova Iguaçu, Vasco 0-0 Volta Redonda, Bangu 1-1 Botafogo, Fluminense 3-1 Duque de Caxias. Paulista; Santos 2-0 São Paulo, Portuguesa 0-2 Palmeiras, São Bernardo 2-2 Corinthians, Ponte Preta 2-2 Santos, São Paulo 3-2 Linense, Mirassol 0-1 Palmeiras. Libertadores; Tolima 2-0 Corinthians (aggregate 2-0), Grêmio 3-1 Liverpool (aggregate 5-3). Other; Brazil U20 2-0 Colombia U20.

(Photo credits; (1) EFE, (2) Reuters, (3) Gustavo Tilio, (4) Mowa Press.)