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).