Thursday, 17 December 2015

Brasileirão 2015 end-of-season awards

For British football fans, Christmas is a time for joyously abandoning oneself to the vagaries of the fixture list. For our more cultured continental cohorts, it’s time for forty winks, a holiday and – heaven forbid – spending time with one’s family. Such are the rhythms of football life in Europe.

In Brazil, of course, the festive period brings the most miniscule of breaks before preparations for the next year begin in earnest. At least 2016 offers some hope in that respect: the nascent Copa Rio-Sul-Minas may well prove an important step in the overdue realignment of the Brazilian calendar.

Christmas is also time for reflection on the campaign that has just finished. History will show that 2015 was far from a vintage year in the Brasileirão: the overall level felt underwhelming at the best of times, many of the putative big hitters lurched through the season as if working off a few too many Friday-night caipirinhas, and any hopes of a real title battle were quashed months ahead of time.

Still, it falls to your so-called expert to dish out some praise. So stiffen your upper lip and join me on the podium for the WhoScored end-of-year awards, which you can read here.

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

The joy of six: Dominant Corinthians enjoy their victory lap after sealing sixth Brazilian title

As victory laps go, this will take some beating.

A derby match against your most bitter, most ideological rivals. Two goals in the space of three first-half minutes, then another before the interval. A laughable, playground-kick-about fourth that left opposition defenders slumped inside their own penalty area, dreaming of the bus ride home. An own goal forced, a penalty converted – and then one saved from the other lot. And all that with a reserve team.

This was not a normal game and this no normal Corinthians side, as their fans well know. 45,000 of them crowded into the Itaquerão for the game against hated neighbours São Paulo, but even the most optimistic cannot have expected the massacre that awaited.

It was an afternoon that had begun with chants of "É campeão!" and ended in tears - of emotion, but also of laughter at the sheer state of the São Paulo side tasked with ruining the party. The Timão had sewn their sixth national title up three nights earlier with a shrug of a draw away to Vasco, but that had been a non-event. This was a celebration.

Read my article on the new Brazilian champions on the WhoScored site.

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Ricardo Oliveira among the forwards striking for redemption in the chaos of the Brasileirão

As we head into the final quarter of the Brazilian season, a couple of certainties are beginning to emerge from the fog of unpredictability that defines the league.

The first is that Corinthians will win the title. Tite’s troops continue to grind out win after win and hold a seven-point advantage over Atlético Mineiro after 28 games - a princely advantage in anyone’s books. The second is that Joinville are destined for the drop. For all their good intentions, the minnows cannot buy a victory and are already seven points from safety.

In between those two, however, lies ‘The Flux’. Vasco looked marooned a few weeks ago, but have won four of their last five to inspire hopes of survival. Their most recent win came against Flamengo, who recent results read WWWWWLLL. Coritiba have started winning after months of misery. Atlético-PR and Ponte Preta can’t seem to decide whether they’re top-four contenders or relegation scrappers. It’s chaos.

Amid the madness, though, is a nice redemptive subplot bubbling through the campaign: a handful of strikers up and down the country are sticking it to the doubters with their exploits in the final third. The leader in the category, of course, is Alexandre Pato, but here are three more doing the business in the 2015 Brasileirão.

Read about them in my latest WhoScored article.

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Surely Neymar is not greedy or egotistical enough to want to swap Barcelona for Manchester United

If you've been keeping even half an eye on the all-consuming behemoth that is the summer transfer window, you'll know that there's a hot new rumour doing the rounds.

It involves Manchester United and Neymar, whose international representative, Pini Zahavi, was spotted at Old Trafford at the weekend. It supposedly involves a bid of €190million, the value of the striker's buyout clause at Barcelona.

Mainly, though, it involves the kind of suspension of belief that would put the world's most ardent Scientologists to shame.

Not because it is hard to imagine United harbouring ambitions of signing Neymar – heaven knows Ed Woodward is a dreamer – but because it is difficult to see why on earth Neymar would harbour ambitions of playing for Manchester United.

Read the rest of this piece, which has gone down exceptionally well with Manchester United fans, on the Mirror website.

Tuesday, 4 August 2015

Dear Fabio: A letter from Rafael Da Silva to his brother as he leaves Manchester United for Lyon

Hi Fabio, it's Rafael. Hope all is well in Cardiff.

You were right. About United, Mr Ferguson, the future... all of it. I've had time to think in this last year and it's time for a change of scenery. Just like you said.

I guess some people will say that we failed in Manchester, but I see it a bit differently. Success isn't measured only in games and goals but also in feelings and other stuff.

Let me explain...

Monday, 3 August 2015

There is a light that never goes out: On Ronaldinho's nostalgia-drenched debut for Fluminense

"How many today, João? Thirty thousand?"

"They said forty on the radio. Fifty, even. Everyone will want to be there."

Two metro stops from the Maracanã and there is an energy in the train carriage that cannot merely be put down to it being game day. The Fluminense fans are out in more force than usual ahead of the battle of the Tricolores against Gremio.

Indeed, it's not just any match, for there is to be a special guest; a royal visit in footballing terms. Ronaldinho is making his debut for Flu.

Read my dispatch from Rio on the ESPN website.

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Lost legacies: One year on from the World Cup, Brazil's stadiums are not being put to proper use

Thursday, 16 July 2015

Alexandre Pato starting to shine for São Paulo after stating desire to play out wide

Like so many other ill-fated schemes, it began with Silvio Berlusconi.

Alexandre Pato had begun his Milan career in stunning style, scoring 24 Serie A goals in goals in his first two seasons and cementing his reputation as one of the best prospects in the game. World domination - both at club level and for Brazil - had seemed inevitable.

Then along came Silvio. A master tactician in his own mind, the three-time Italian prime minister thought Pato – by that point fast becoming the Rossoneri's most marketable asset – was drifting wide too much, wasting energy that could be used in the box. So Berlusconi called on the youngster to play through the middle.

Or at least that is how Pato himself recalls it. In an enlightening interview last week, the forward claimed that the tweak to his role was partly to blame for his subsequent travails at the San Siro and the premature end to his time in Europe.

Read my latest article for WhoScored here.

Thursday, 9 July 2015

Porto (Mais) Alegre: Roger Machado brings the joy back to Grêmio after the drudgery of Luiz Felipe Scolari's reign

There was a moment during Sunday's game against Santos that, more than any other, underlined Grêmio's impressive recent progress. Deep into the second half, striker Yuri Mamute – a substitute, as he has been for much of the season so far – found a bit of space inside the area and slid a finish between the legs of Vanderlei to put his side into a 3-1 lead. To celebrate, he eschewed the now-default group-prayer routine to sprint over to the Grêmio dugout to enjoy the moment - not with his teammates but with his coach.

Roger Machado has been a breath of fresh air at the Porto Alegre club since taking over at the end of May. Under his guidance, the Tricolor players have grown in belief, clawing their way up the Brasileirão table courtesy of a series of impressive results.

It is all a far cry from what went before. Luiz Felipe Scolari's reign had begin in promising fashion after the World Cup, with Grêmio staggeringly frugal in defence and capable of nicking matches with a single goal. But progress slowed in the latter stages of 2014 and ground to a halt earlier this year during an underwhelming Campeonato Gaúcho campaign.

Read my latest article for WhoScored here.

Sunday, 5 July 2015

First the tragedy, then the farce: Brazil in crisis again after listless Copa América campaign in Chile

This time, there was no rout, no scoreline to ring through the ages. There were no tears, no eulogies.

In many ways, that is the most damning thing about the quiet death of Brazil’s Copa América hopes: there was none of the shock and awe of the game known simply as “The 7-1”. On this occasion there was barely a whimper of defiance as the Seleção muddled their way to a draw with Paraguay and – for the second time in four years – came up short in a penalty shootout.

The quarter-final performance was entirely of a piece with the rest of Brazil’s campaign. There was no fluency, no pattern to their play. Roberto Firmino and Philippe Coutinho toiled away but produced nothing. In midfield, Elias and Fernandinho seemed content to play sideways passes and let the full-backs provide what little attacking thrust there was. With Neymar absent, there was simply no spark.

Read my Copa América post-mortem on the Rabona website.

Friday, 26 June 2015

Zito tributes and derby win over Corinthians provide respite for a Santos side in flux

Last Saturday was, by and large, a pretty special day for Santos. That was partly down to the fixture list: the Peixe welcomed Corinthians to the Vila Belmiro. This is one of the standout games of the year for Santos fans, for whom this rivalry is keenly felt. There's always a spark to the San-São games with São Paulo, while Palmeiras are perennial enemies, but no side stands in such stark opposition to the seasiders as the rabble from Parque São Jorge.

But the game was leant extra meaning by the passing, six days earlier, of a club legend. Zito may not be a household name in Europe – not these days, at least – but arguably only Pelé has made a more significant mark on the fortunes of Santos over the years.

Against Corinthians, the Santos players wore special jerseys with ‘Obrigado Zito’ on the back and his face lovingly emblazoned on the front. The captain’s armband bore not the letter ‘C’ but a ‘Z’, a nice, subtle touch that the club say will become a permanent tribute to their former skipper. All it needed was a victory to round off a memorable day and the current crop of players obliged with a 1-0 win.

In truth, this was, to some extent, a welcome distraction for Santos, for whom the last few months have been fairly fraught. Read my latest for WhoScored here.

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Liverpool new boy Roberto Firmino used to borrow money to get to games. Now he wants to emulate Ronaldinho

The scramble for information about Roberto Firmino since his name first popped up in the gossip columns will have come as no surprise to those accustomed to the sound and fury of the summer transfer window in Europe.

The creative midfielder, who is heading to Liverpool in a deal worth £28million, is hardly a household name, even if the internet would have you believe that every third football fan out there has spent weeks poring over the intricacies of Hoffenheim's attacking system over the last couple of seasons.

But there has also been a huge surge in interest in Brazil over a player who, although well on his way to becoming a regular for the Seleção, remains something of an unknown quantity in his homeland.

While it says plenty about the shifting dynamic of football culture in Brazil that it takes transfer interest from the Premier League to shed some light on such a promising talent, the 23-year-old left a relatively light footprint in the domestic game before making the switch to the Bundesliga.

Read my Roberto Firmino profile on the Mirror website.

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Brazil struggle at the Copa América as 'Neymardependência' rears its head once more

Much of the talk in the run-up to last summer’s World Cup was of Brazil’s ‘Neymardependência’ – their over-reliance on their one true superstar of this generation. Those worries have only intensified in the months since and the striker's petulance after (and during) the game against Colombia means that Brazil's hopes of winning the Copa América are hanging by a thread.

While there have been signs of life from Dunga’s other attackers, there can be no doubt that the 23-year-old’s absence leaves Brazil looking toothless. The response is likely to a renewed focus on defensive solidity: the Seleção ended the 2-1 win over Venezuela with four centre-backs on the pitch.

Read my take on the group stage of the Copa América for Rabona magazine.

Sunday, 14 June 2015

A year after the World Cup, Brazil are looking to restore pride at the Copa América. But how much has changed?

Brazil's players received a nasty shock this week before the start of their Copa America campaign.

When the Seleção arranged to stay at Hotel Dreams in the Chilean city of Temuco this weekend, they had probably not bargained for a street name that will have conjured memories that most of Dunga's players – plus every one of their countrymen – would prefer to forget.

For the next few days and nights, Brazil will be operating out of Avenida Alemania – Germany Avenue.

It is a simple coincidence, of course, but one that has not escaped the attention of fans and reporters of this most superstitious of countries. That Brazil is still reeling from that defeat to Joachim Löw's side should hardly come as a surprise. Even at a year's remove, the sheer brutality of Germany's dismissal of Brazil continues to resonate.

Read my preview of Brazil's Copa América campaign on the MirrorFootball website.

Thursday, 11 June 2015

Underdog Day Afternoon: Atlético-PR, Ponte Preta & Sport thriving in the early madness of the Brazilian season

The Brazilian season is but six games old and already there is a feeling of familiarity to the proceedings. Not because the table is beginning to take shape in any predictable way – of which more in just a moment – but rather because of an all-too-familiar malaise in the division's dugouts.

It started with Luiz Felipe Scolari, sacked by Grêmio after two weeks of the campaign. Fluminense binned Ricardo Drubscky just a day later, before Flamengo axed Vanderlei Luxemburgo. Then came a whole week of respite, followed by four dismissals in a week. Marcelo Oliveira got the chop despite having guided Cruzeiro to back-to-back titles. Hemerson Maria and Marquinhos Santos paid for shaky starts with Joinville and Coritiba respectively. Then, on Tuesday, Palmeiras lost patience with Oswaldo de Oliveira.

So here we are, six games into the season and with seven managerial heads having rolled. It's like Game of Thrones, only far less interesting and with more defensive tactics.

Luckily, there have been some chinks of light amid the gloom. While the likes of Cruzeiro, Santos and Grêmio have floundered in the opening weeks, a number of less celebrated sides have taken the chance to stake a claim in the upper echelons of the table.

In my latest for WhoScored, I look at the surprise packages of the season thus far. 

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

No Neymar, no party: Signs of life for Brazil ahead of Copa America, but one man remains key to their chances

It may have been a Sunday night, but the celebrations were in full swing. Back in Catalonia following their historic Champions League success against Juventus, the Barcelona players bounced up and down, embraced and took it in turns to whip up the fans who had flocked to the Camp Nou to greet their returning heroes.

At the centre of things was Neymar. Sporting a treble-winner's vest he seemed to have customised himself – his teammates all wore T-shirts – and having swapped his "100% Jesus" Karate Kid headband for a baseball cap, the striker threw himself into full party mode, swapping jokes with Lionel Messi and clowning around with Dani Alves. He had never looked more at home.

Few would have begrudged him that moment of release, coming as it did after the most important game of his young career. But that was not to say that his absence was not keenly felt elsewhere as the balmy evening gave way to night in Catalonia.

Some 8,800 kilometers away in Sao Paulo, Brazil were kicking off against Mexico. On the face of it, this was the ultimate thankless task, a meaningless friendly imbued with greater significance due to the context: this was the Seleção's first match on home soil since the 2014 World Cup.

Read my latest ESPN piece, on Brazil's Copa América preparations, here.

Thursday, 28 May 2015

Vanderlei Luxemburgo the fall guy as the old world and new austerity collide at Flamengo

Vanderlei Luxemburgo is not a man who tends to mince his words. One of Brazilian football's truculent old guard, he has built a fine - if increasingly nomadic - career on a willingness to ruffle feathers. For example, a sample quote, delivered to an underperforming player in training: "You're a s***. You're poor. I own three aeroplanes."

It was no surprise, then, that Luxemburgo cut loose on Tuesday after his dismissal by early Brasileirão strugglers Flamengo on Monday night. "20 days ago, when São Paulo wanted to hire me, the president said I was a fundamental part of his plans," sighed the 63-year-old. "The board like to win prizes and appear in the New York Times, but they don't know anything about football."

Luxemburgo's outburst could be read as a lament for the big spending that characterised his last stint at the club. The kind of spending that Flamengo have phased out since former economist Eduardo Bandeira de Mello took the reins in 2013.

Read the rest of this post on the WhoScored blog.

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Rotation the name of the game as the Brasileirão returns with a whimper

Before the football season, there is a break during which players rest, clubs dip into the transfer market and managers perfect tactics for the campaign ahead. It is something that European fans take for granted – a central tenet of the entire footballing calendar.

But there is no such off-season in Brazil. Many of the overblown, overlong state championships – which most right-minded players and supporters would love to see pruned back – end only a week before the national championship starts, meaning the majority of sides have only a few days to dust themselves off, say a few Hail Marys and go to work again.

As well as undermining preparations, this lack of a pause means anticipation levels never really hit the heights: without months of longing, fans tend to greet the opening rounds of Série A with a shrug. In Europe, absence makes the heart grow fonder; in Brazil, the big kick-off has all the romance of a fumble in a nightclub car park.

Saturday, 9 May 2015

Brasileirão 2015 season preview

The major European leagues may be reaching their climax, but for those troubled souls who like their football blurrily streamed and late at night, there is only one show in town this weekend.

The Campeonato Brasileiro – Brazil’s top flight – returns on Saturday after a five-month hiatus, promising its usual blend of madcap stories, patchy action, young stars, bobbly pitches and aggro fans. And if that doesn’t sound like the recipe for a party, well son, best go running back to La Liga.

Read my preview for WhoScored here.

Friday, 6 March 2015

Philippe Coutinho's subtle genius could reinvigorate Brazil – but he may have to bide his time a while longer

Brendan Rodgers has rarely been shy in praising the development of young players under his tutelage, but this felt different. More genuine. Fanboyish, almost.

“He is a joy to work with and a joy to watch,” swooned the Liverpool manager after watching Philippe Coutinho dismantle Manchester City last weekend. “He is a kid who has so much ahead of him in the game. He is a sensational footballer.” Anyone who has watched the Reds over the last couple of years would be hard pressed to disagree.

Coutinho’s talent has largely gone untapped at international level, however. Indeed, it remains a damning indictment of the direction the Brazil team has taken that a player so gifted should only have five caps to his name. That could be about to change, however. Coutinho was brought back into the fold by Dunga in the wake of the 2014 World Cup debacle and has been an ever-present in the squad since.

Yet the midfielder may still have to bide his time before flourishing for his country. Find out why in my new blog for Yahoo! Eurosport. 

Thursday, 5 March 2015

Fluminense starlet Kenedy has plenty of potential – but is he ready for Europe?

His name may be an amusing spelling mistake, but don't let that detail define Fluminense starlet Kenedy (catchy full name: Robert Kenedy Nunes do Nascimento) in your mind. For the 19-year-old has plenty to offer besides the potential for cheap JFK jokes.

Kenedy is the latest Brazilian youngster to catch the eye of European clubs, with Manchester United rumoured to be keeping tabs on him.

With interest likely to grow in the months ahead, I have profiled the Flu forward for MirrorFootball. Have a read here.

Friday, 16 January 2015

From the ashes: Breno looking to get career back on track in Brazil after prison sentence for arson

He calls it an accident but that was not how the court in Germany saw it in July of 2012. Nine months earlier, the luxury villa he rented in a suburb of Munich had burnt to the ground. A grave error, surely, but not unintentional, according to judge Rosi Datzman, who handed him a sentence of three years and nine months in prison. Prosecutors had pushed for more.

So it was that Breno, once viewed as one of the most promising young defenders in world football, arrived at his lowest ebb. A career that had promised so much – the Brazilian was snapped up by Bayern Munich while still in his teens and was seen as a future Seleção stalwart – lay in tatters, his name destined to become little more than a bizarre footnote or the answer to a pub quiz question.

Or so it appeared. For against all odds, Breno is working towards a footballing renaissance back in his homeland.

Read the rest of this piece over at ESPN FC.