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.