Whether it was holy water or priestly incantations, the ghosts of last May 4th 2011 have been banished, at least for now. That was the night when Brazil’s Libertadores house of cards fluttered to the ground. True, Santos went on to lift the trophy, grinding out wins over Once Caldas, Cerro Porteño and finally Peñarol, with the dashing Neymar adding the fizz to some otherwise fairly prosaic fare. But the (almost) Ides of May – when Cruzeiro, Internacional, Grêmio and Fluminense bit the dust on a single night, joining Corinthians, who’d been eliminated in the qualifying round – took some forgetting across South America’s biggest country.
That size, plus recent history (nine of the last fourteen finalists of the competition have been Brazilian), and socio-economic factors (the Brazilian footballing economy is by far the richest on the continent, and the squads of Serie A sides are dotted with top talent from other countries in the region – Montillo and D’Alessandro spring to mind) have created something of a sense of entitlement amongst the country’s media, and the top clubs. The elimination of five Brazilian clubs before the last eight, coupled with Flamengo’s humiliation against Universidad de Chile in the Copa Sul Americana (La U won 4-0 in Rio, and it could easily have been more) prompted considerable navel gazing.
But with Santos, Corinthians, Vasco and Fluminense all booking their places in the final eight last week, it appears things have changed for the better. And all the Brazilian sides have reasons to be cheerful going into the next round.
Fluminense will take on Boca Juniors in a tie that brings back memories of 2008’s epic semi-final, when Flu booked a spot in the final against LDU Quito with a 3-1 win in front of 85,000 at the Maracanã. This year’s Fluminense are a formidable outfit, with a swaggering midfield of Deco, Thiago Neves and Wagner providing the bullets for Fred, Rafael Sobis (a 2006 Libertadores winner with Inter), and the exciting Wellington Nem, and will fancy their chances against a sometimes cumbersome looking Boca back line.
Santos continue to roll on, and are, along with La U, the most irrepressible team in the Americas. In the last two weeks, seven goals have flown past a bewildered Guarani over the two legs of the Campeonato Paulista final, and Bolivar, who had had the temerity to snatch a narrow victory at the altitude of La Paz in the first leg of the recent Libertadores last sixteen tie, were then annihilated 8-0 in Brazil.
Added strength in depth (Alan Kardec, Juan and Bernard spring to mind) have allowed what was a small squad some time to breath, and all the team’s much heralded stars are playing at the very top of their game. Neymar, far more complete and balanced (both as a player and a man) than he was a year ago, is quite simply untouchable, while Paulo Henrique Ganso, recovered from injury and finally seemingly happy with his lot, is becoming the kind of imaginative, visionary midfield playmaker that his talent has always promised. The coaches of Argentina’s Velez Sarsfield, the club’s opponents in the quarter finals, will be drawing some very complicated diagrams on dressing room blackboards this week in an attempt to stifle Santos’ attacking ebullience.
Santos continue to roll on, and are, along with La U, the most irrepressible team in the Americas.
The last eight’s all-Brazilian tie throws Corinthians together with Vasco, in what should be a fascinating contest. Vasco are The Little Engine That Could, frequently written off for relying too much on the scheming of creaky veterans Felipe and Juninho Pernambucano in the middle, and being too dependent on journeymen such as Alecsandro and Eder Luis up front. But Vasco have an effective system, and perhaps more importantly, a tremendous bond, that has woven the side together ever since coach Ricardo Gomes suffered a stroke in August last year. It was that spirit that took the team to the semi-finals of the Copa Sul Americana and to the brink of the Brasileirão title last year, and took them through a tough group in this year’s Libertadores with relative ease. Not to mention the fact that in lateral Fagner, magnificent zagueiroDedé (currently injured) and volante Romulo, Vasco have three of the best players at their positions in Brazil.
Corinthians, though, are a more menacing bunch, and probably favourites to go through. There is none of Neymar or Fred’s attacking brilho here, though Alex is always a threat from midfield, and Liedson will surely recover his form sooner rather than later. What Corinthians have is thumping power, in the shape of a tough spine that runs from zagueiros Leandro Castan and Chicão, through muscular volantes Ralf and Paulinho, and on to terrific all-round midfielder Danilo. It was the latter who drove through the visiting defence on Wednesday to set Corinthians on their way against Emelec. Not as pretty as Santos or as expansive as Flu, Corinthians might just have the kind of them-against-us mindset and gritty world view that works well in the Libertadores.
Vasco are The Little Engine That Could, frequently written off for relying too much on the scheming of creaky veterans Felipe and Juninho Pernambucano in the middle
Analysing the differences between Os Brasileiros of this year and last, however, begins and ends in one place only. The dugout.
Abel Braga (Fluminense) and Muricy Ramalho (Santos) are both former winners of the competition as coaches, Braga in 2006 with Internacional (who would go on to memorably beat Barcelona in that year’s Mundial De Clubes), and Muricy last year with Peixe. At Corinthians, Tite is coming of the back of a memorable Brasileirão triumph, in a year when he found a way to soothe the club’s troubled soul and find a system that, while hardly lovely, works extremely well. The result is that there are few better organised, more team-focused sides in South America than Corinthians.
These are essential qualities in the Libertadores, where the pressure that leads to the undoing of often more pampered Brazilian sides often comes as much from hostile terraces, bumpy pitches and geographical factors (altitude, climate and long travelling distances, for example) as it does from on field challenges. With pragmatists such as Braga, Ramalho and Tite at the helm, at least three of the remaining Brazilian sides seem well placed to cope, and over at Vasco, Cristóvão Borges showed during last year’s Sul Americana run that he too isn`t afraid to get his hands dirty.
Compare that, then, to the Libertadores Class of 2011. At Inter, jogo bonito idealist Falcão, at the start of what was to be a long term project but in fact would have only a few more weeks to run, couldn’t hang on to a 1-0 home lead against a hard-working but unspectacular Peñarol side. Grêmio, with blowhard Renato Gaúcho (who has only 2007’s Copa do Brasil triumph with Fluminense to his name as a coach), in charge, were easily beaten by Chile’s Universidad Católica.
The list of horrors goes on. While waiting with fingers crossed for Braga to extricate himself from his contract with Al-Jazira, Fluminense entrusted the handling of the team to inexperienced caretaker Enderson Moreira. The result was that Flu, defending a 3-1 lead after the home leg, were walloped 3-0 by Libertad in Asuncion.
And in Minas, likeable but glass-jawed Cuca watched on, teary-eyed and mouth agape, as his previously all-conquering Cruzeiro, who had won the away leg 2-1, allowed Once Caldas to steal a 2-0 victory in Seté Lagoas.
Only Santos, with old Muricy Gradgrind in charge, went any further. They went all the way, in fact, Ramalho successfully curbing the team’s attacking largesse when needed, and creating a disciplined but still frequently explosive side.
With many of the country’s promising young coaching talents driven out by a rampant culture of hotheadedness and short-term thinking among club administrators (some of the most able emergent managers in recent years, such as Silas, Caio Júnior, and Adilson Batista, have been hired and fired often enough to make their heads spin, while Jorginho, so impressive with Figueirense last year, has fled to Japan), Brazil’s Libertadores hopefuls are betting on experience in this year’s competition. It remains to be seen if this will be enough to carry them all the way.
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