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.