Monday, 22 July 2013

The week(end) that was - #7

Juninho rolls back the years, Alexandre Pato and Renato Augusto show their true colours and São Paulo continue to struggle: it's the weekend in Brazilian football!

The Little King returns

Few players in the Brazilian game feel a stronger connection with a single team than Juninho Pernambucano does with Vasco da Gama. The love affair started in 1995 when the midfielder, then a fresh-faced (well, fresher-faced) youth, joined the Rio outfit from Sport. He went on to play a key role as Vasco won two domestic titles and a maiden Copa Libertadores crown, before making the inevitable switch to Europe. A decade later he returned to huge fanfare, signing a contract worth just £55 a week with the notoriously debt-happy club.

Juninho left Vasco for a second time in December 2012 after growing frustrated with boardroom bickering and penned a deal with New York Red Bulls. But when that arrangement soured, the man nicknamed Reizinho da Colina (Little King of the Hill – in reference to the location of the club's stadium rather than the cartoon) made an unexpected return to his spiritual home, signing a contract that will keep him at São Januário until December.

Fittingly, the first appearance of his third spell coincided with the return of domestic football to the Maracanã, the site of many of his past glories. Sunday's clássico between Fluminense and Vasco was the first club match to be played in the historic stadium since September 2010 and drew a crowd of nearly 35,000 paying spectators – a good 30,000 more than Fluminense had averaged in their four 'home' matches up to that point.

Vasco were hopeful that Juninho's presence would help them leapfrog their city rivals in the Série A table, and father fate did not disappoint. Juninho retook to Brazilian football in style, scoring the opener with a powerful effort before laying on another as Vasco ran out 3-1 winners.

Midtable mediocrity may beckon for the Gigante da Colina but at least fans can look forward to their favourite son providing some fireworks (and scoring some free-kicks) before the end of the season.

(Juninho wasn't the only veteran to shine this weekend, incidentally: Alex (35) took his tally for the year to 21 with a brace for Coritiba against Santos; Zé Roberto (39) scored a fine goal for Grêmio; and Paulo Baier (38) provided a dreamy assist for Marcelo in Atlético Paranaense's 1-1 draw with Corinthians.

Masked avengers

That final match was notable mainly for the monsoon-like conditions in which it took place, but also because it underlined a recent upturn in fortunes for Corinthians' two big off-season signings. Repatriated from Europe at no little expense, Alexandre Pato and Renato Augusto both made underwhelming starts to life at the Parque São Jorge, the former developing a worrying habit of missing open goals and the latter struggling to shake off a series of injuries.

A couple of months ago fans would have been forgiven for wondering whether the €15million spent on the pair might have been better invested elsewhere, but both have provided glimpses of their talent in recent weeks: Renato scored an imperious lob in the first leg of the Recopa Sul-Americana final against São Paulo (never a bad way to ingratiate yourself to the Fiel) while Pato netted twice to give the Timão a valuable away win against Bahia a fortnight ago.

The two linked up to good effect on Sunday, combining for their side's equalising goal. Renato, wearing a Phantom-of-the-Opera mask to protect a facial injury sustained earlier in the month, dug out a tempting cross for Pato, who planted a firm header past Weverton in the Atlético goal. The former Milan striker proceeded to show off his mysterious new hand-mask celebration, which has proven a big hit among Corinthians fans online. Both he and Renato will be keen to show more of their true colours in the coming months.

From bad to worse

São Paulo continue to outdo themselves in their one-horse race to the bottom. Coming into the weekend the Tricolor had lost six games on the trot – an indignity they had not suffered since the first six matches of the club's history, back in 1936. This weekend things started off reasonably enough, Paulo Autouri's side making it to half-time on level terms with in-form Cruzeiro. But then things fell apart once more. Luan profitted from some shoddy defending to slam home a volley and then trundled through to add a second. He completed his hat-trick minutes later with jarring inevitability.

"They have become the league's punch bag," Estado de S.Paulo columnist Artero Greco mused. "At the first sign of strength from their opponents, they lose control in every way – physically, emotionally and tactically."

The problem for São Paulo is that the experienced players who could reasonably be expected to set an example are among the biggest culprits in their decline: Rogério Ceni has more power in the dressing room than is healthy; Lúcio is a shadow of the player who captained Brazil; Luís Fabiano seems more interested in locking horns with referees than he is in scoring goals. Unfortunately, things are likely to get worse before they get better.

A version of this article was published by The Guardian.

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