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.)

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