This weekend sees the start of the 2010 Campeonato Brasileiro. After 4 months of patchy state championship action, the return of Brazil's premier national league will be welcomed with open arms among fans up and down the country. It is a gruelling competition at the best of times, but this year's edition will include a break for the World Cup, meaning that teams will face two weekly games for the majority of the season. Further disruption is inevitably caused by the fact that the European transfer window arrives right in the middle of the campaign; star players are often snapped up just when they are needed the most.
Despite its disjointed nature, however, the competition is an exciting one, with a huge number of teams competing for the title and for Libertadores qualification. There are always one or two shocks; last season, for example, lowly Avaí and Barueri were hanging around the top of the table whilst Rio giants Fluminense scrapped against the drop. Flamengo snatched the title with a late surge, after having been threatened with relegation earlier in the season.
Geographically, the Campeonato represents a unique challenge. Carlisle fans in England would likely moan about an away trip to Plymouth Argyle, but consider the poor fans of Ceará on the country's North coast who face two round trips of 8484km to play Grêmio and Internacional in Porto Alegre! These outliers provide an interesting juxtaposition to the dense footballing conglomerations of Rio and São Paulo.
Assuming no knowledge on the part of my readership, I present brief profiles on the teams competing in Série A this year (in vague order of predicted success!)...
Santos (nicknamed Peixe - the fish)
Players to watch - Neymar, Ganso, Robinho.
The seasiders from São Paulo state have built up quite a reputation since the turn of the year. I have spoken in previous entries about their array of star forwards, but it should be noted that they also boast both a solid midfield engine (in Arouca and Marquinhos), and a reasonable back-line. Dorival Júnior's men enter the championship as the nation's form side and probably start as favourites.
São Paulo (nicknamed Tricolor)
Players to watch - Dagoberto, Hernanes, Miranda.
SP just missed out last term on collecting their fourth consecutive tital, and with a squad as deep as it is talented, few would back against them mounting a serious challenge in 2010. Coach Ricardo Gomes who has grown into his role, and players like nippy striker Dagoberto and powerful midfielder Léo Lima have started to fulfill their promise. If the team's spine stays (and, in the cases of Rogério Ceni and Washington, stays fit), they could win it.
Corinthians (nicknamed Timão - the big team)
Players to watch - Ronaldo, Dentinho, Elias.
After last night's Libertadores exit, the pressure will be on Corinthians to compete in the league. They are certainly equipped to do so. With forwards such as Ronaldo, Dentinho, Jorge Henrique and Iarley, a midfield boasting Elias and Jucilei, and a powerful back-line including Roberto Carlos, all the materials are there. However, the team fell away badly in the latter stages of last season's campaign, especially after loosing Cristian, Douglas and André Santos to big money bids from abroad. Similar losses this term would provide cause for concern.
Grêmio (nicknamed Tricolor)
Players to watch - Borges, Douglas, Souza.
Despite having to rebuild since the departures of Tchecho and Maxi López, Grêmio remain a good bet to finish in the upper reaches of the table. Defensively solid (goalkeeper Victor will probably be Brazil's third choice in the World Cup), and with creative midfielders like Souza (and on his day, Fábio Rochemback), Grêmio are hard to beat, especially at home. Reinforcements up front, however could be key; Borges is a proven finisher, and Douglas is a clever creator with a magical left foot. If their new look forward line can click, they could be contenders.
Atlético Mineiro (nicknamed Galo - the rooster/cockerel)
Players to watch - Diego Tardelli, Obina, Muriqui.
Last season's surprise package, Atlético-MG have shown that they have the ability to challenge again in 2010. Despite losing influential attacker Éder Luís to Benfica, Atlético are good going forward. Diego Tardelli in particular is a deadly finisher with both feet, and the much maligned Obina is also a threat on his day. Elsewhere, the squad in modest but well organised; they are coached, after all, by five-time Série A winner Vanderlei Luxemburgo.
Internacional (nicknamed Colorado - the reds)
Players to watch - Alecsandro, Taison, d'Alessandro.
The form team early in last season's competition, the Porto Alegre side have since become somewhat one-dimensional. Nilmar's departure, and the drop in form of the much-hyped Taison have meant that Inter rely on the goals of Alecsandro; a burly but prolific striker. The midfield is well anchored by the Argentine Guiñaza and future Tottenham midfielder Sandro, but Andres d'Alessandro has struggled to provide the creative spark the team so desperately need. If he and Taison can return to form, Inter will fancy a Libertadores place.
Cruzeiro (nicknamed Raposa - the fox)
Players to watch - Kléber, Thiago Ribeiro, Gilberto.
Finalists in last year's Cope Libertadores, Cruzeiro look a good candidate to mount a title challenge this year. With a great keeper (albeit one who oddly wears a gumshield) in Fábio, and an experienced backline, the team has a solid foundation. They pose quite a threat going forward, too, with the combination of the pacy Thiago Ribeiro and stocky talisman Kléber sure to cause opposition defences problems. Prompted by the dead balls and crosses of left-back-turned-No.10 Gilberto, the raposa should challenge.
Flamengo (nicknamed Rubro-Negro - the scarlet-and-black)
Players to watch - Adriano, Vagner Love, Léo Moura.
The reigning champions will, as ever, be an unpredictable force this season. Having sacked Andrade, the manager that took them to the title last term, the only guarentee with Flamengo is that it will be interesting. With Adriano and Vágner Love up front, the team is not short of firepower, but defensively they tend to be fragile. Much also rests on Kléberson's ability to provide for the front players. When he's fit, Flamengo look a much better prospect.
Fluminense (nicknamed Tricolor)
Players to watch - Fred, Conca, Wellington Silva.
Fluminense too avoided relegation by the skin of their teeth in 2009, and their shallow squad betrays why. In attack, much of the responsibility will fall on Fred, who when fit has looked a handful for most defences in the country. He will be supplied by the wily Argentine Dário Conca, as well as the future Arsenal player Wellington Silva. Whether these three can overcome the side's defensive frailties is doubtful; especially as the latter is a mere 17 years old. Flu should be content with the safety of mid-table.
Palmeiras (nicknamed Verdão - the big green)
Players to watch - Diego Souza, Cleiton Xavier, Lincoln.
The fourth of São Paulo's big guns came so close to winning last year's title, but stuttered in the final few weeks. Since then, their form has been abject; finishing mid-table in the Campeonato Paulista and getting knocked out of the cup by Atlético-GO. If they are to mount a challenge this year, it will likely be due to the efforts of Diego Souza; a strong attacking midfielder with an eye for goal. The club have brought in Lincoln, whose career has veered between maverick playmaking genius and maverick troublemaking idiot. An inspired gamble? Let's wait and see.
That ends Part 1. Stand by for the second instalment later today!
(Photo credits; (1) Felipe Dana/Associated Press, (2) & (3) Unknown, (4) GloboEsporte.)