Thursday, 29 April 2010

Adriano Wins Battle of Overweight Stars

It was a big night of action, with Libertadores games and two quarter-finals of the Brazilian Cup. Undoubtedly the tie of the evening was at the Maracanã...

Flamengo 1-0 Corinthians (Libertadores)
Brazil's two best supported clubs can consider themselves rather unlucky to draw each other in the first knockout round of this season's competition. Each has the quality to reach the latter stages of the Libertadores, but Flamengo let down their side of the deal; they qualified from the group stages with the worst record, sealing a date with the top qualifier, Corinthians. The build-up to the game saw much of the attention placed on Ronaldo; viewed as a Judas by Flamengo fans because he signed for Corinthians after a period of recovery at the Rio club. He was, somewhat amusingly, to be greeted at the Maracanã by a group of transvestites, in reference to certain off-field antics in 2008. Only in Brazil!

Despite the fanfare, however, the star of the first half was...the weather. Lashed with rain, the pitch soon deteriorated into a marsh, utterly inconducive to passing football. Flamengo managed the better of the rare goalscoring opportunities; Léo Moura's effort curled just wide and Vágner Love headed straight at Julio Cesar.

Conditions improved in the second period and the game followed suit; Adriano acrobatically volleyed over after a free-kick had bounced onto the bar. Ronaldo was struggling to have much impact up front for Corinthians, and perhaps his best chance slipped away when he miscontrolled a high ball with the goal beckoning.

Ronaldo and Adriano "in action."

Much has been made of o Fenômeno's physical condition since his return to Brazil, and similar concerns have started to surface over Adriano. The latter looked severely unfit last night, and Flamengo only have themselves to blame; they have displayed a soft touch with a player who regularly misses training. Yet after 65 minutes, o Imperador, as so often for Flamengo, was decisive; calmly tucking away a penalty after left-back Juan had been felled. It would prove to be the winner.

Corinthians toiled away, but could not break down the Rubro-Negro. Ronaldo created a presentable chance at the death, but Iarley contrived to waste it; misdirecting a header when the onrushing Jorge Henrique was better placed. First blood, then, to Flamengo, thanks to their out of shape talisman. Corinthians will be hoping that theirs will make the difference in the return leg.

Libertadores Round-up
São Paulo travelled to Lima to face Universitario, and despite having the better of the game, failed to make a breakthrough. São Paulo went close when Cicinho's thumping drive rebounded off the foot of the post, but the real talking-point of the game was Richarlyson's red card. The Tricolor midfielder was involved in a forceful collision with la U's Espinoza, leaving both sprawling in agony. It looked as though Richarlyson was nominally the innocent party, but it was he who received a second yellow for the incident. What proceeded was uglier still; the Brazilian threw a strop at the referee and needed to be restrained by his team mates. Despite this 0-0 draw, São Paulo are in poll position to progress at home.

Espinoza and Richarlyson; probably not life-threatening.

Internacional met Banfield at the latter's Florencio Sola stadium hoping for an away goal to build on. They managed exactly that with a gorgeous volley from Kleber, but the team from Porto Alegre were deservedly beaten by 3 goals to 1. The nicely-named James Rodríguez, a potential future star on Banfield's left wing, put them ahead early in the second half, and Inter's equaliser was followed by further goals by Battión and Fernández. They have work to do at the Beira-Rio.

Copa do Brasil Round-up
In domestic matters, Atlético-MG beat Santos in the biggest of the evening's cup quarter-final first legs. Once again, it was Diego Tardelli who made the difference for the Galo, scoring all of their goals in a 3-2 victory. The first, a flick that Santos 'keeper Felipe should have done better with, was followed by an effort which just crept over the line. Atlético's lead was reduced by Robinho, taking advantage of some pedestrian defending to stab home. In the second period, Tardelli completed his hat-trick, arriving in the box late to finish confidently . The complexion of the tie was altered late on, however, when Edu Dracena turned in a cross for Santos, who with two away goals, will be confident of making the semi-finals.

In the other game, Vitória took advantage of an awful performance by Vasco to gain a 2-0 advantage. Renato and Neto Berola scored the goals, late in the first and second halfs respectively.

(Photo credits; (1) & (2) EFE.)

Monday, 26 April 2010

State Finals Round-up

Sunday saw the first legs of the finals of a number of Brazil's state championships. Stangely though, with rather few games, and the absence of a final in Rio (Botafogo won both stages of that Campeonato Carioca, so were crowned automatic champions), it was a somewhat muted weekend.

Wesley and André celebrate for Santos

Santo André 2-3 Santos (Paulista)
In a packed Pacaembu, Santos faced the surprise package of the São Paulo championship; Santo André. The latter had snuck into the final at the expense of their more illustrious local rivals Corinthians and São Paulo, thanks in large part to the goals of striker Rodriguinho. Santos, of course, are not short of firepower themselves, but were dealt a huge blow in this game when Neymar was forced off with a injury to his...eye. By that point, Santo André had taken a deserved lead; Bruno César with a low free-kick. At half-time, Santos coach Dorival Júnior sent on André to replace Neymar, and the move immediately paid off, the former heading in at the far post after good work from Paulo Henrique Ganso. Santos quickly added two more, thanks to the pace of and finishing of youngster Wesley. Just 8 minutes remained when Rodriguinho pulled one back; a fortuitous effort off his knee leaving all to play for in the second leg.

Ipatinga 2-3 Atlético-MG (Mineiro)
The Campeonato Mineiro too saw a small provincial side sneak in to battle with one of the area's big boys. Ipatinga, like Santo André, took a shock early lead, with Fabiano diverting past his own 'keeper from a corner. Galo soon equalised; star player Diego Tardelli slotting home from the spot after Correa had been sent tumbling in the box. In the second half, two Muriqui goals for Atlético were split by Luizinho's free-kick that snuck in at the far post. On this evidence, Atlético really need to firm up their defence from dead balls before the national championship begins.

Diego Tardelli - again influential for Atlético-MG

Internacional 0-2 Grêmio (Gaúcho)
This year's Campeonato Gaúcho somewhat predictably produced a Grê-Nal final; these two are comfortably the best sides in Rio Grande do Sul. The intense rivalry between the two, however, often translates into patchy, attritional games of football, and this was no different. Grêmio gained the lead with a Rodrigo header from a corner, and added a second soon after. A lovely free-kick from Fábio Rochemback (remember him, Middlesbrough fans?!) was met with a diving header from Borges, who watched the ball clatter off the bar, onto the floor, and back into the roof of the net. Advantage Grêmio.

Elsewhere, victories for Vitória, Avaí, Fortaleza and Atlético-GO put them in pole position to win the Baiano, Catarinense, Cearense and Goiano championships respectively. Botafogo beat a Corinthians side missing most of its stars in an exhibition game, and proceeded to wildly celebrate both the winning the Rio championship and the news that their coach, Joel Santana (who, if you haven't seen it, demonstrates a glorious mastery of the English language here), is ignoring advances from Flamengo to stay at the club. Flamengo have been in the news too, due to the soaring demand for tickets for the club's Libertadores date with Corinthians on Wednesday. This should be a great match, especially given the extra spice added by the Flamengo fans' hatred of Ronaldo, who signed for Corinthians after having trained for months with the Rio giants.

In Europe, my worries about the form of some of Brazil's stars were appeased this week, with Kaká returning to score the winner for Real Madrid, and Diego starring in Juventus' 3-0 win over Bari.

(Photo credits; (1) Gustavo Tilio/GloboEsporte, (2) Agência/Estado.)

Friday, 23 April 2010

Struggling Seleção Stars Pose World Cup Question

Brazil, as ever, will be among the favourites for this summer’s World Cup. Spain may be on fire, and Argentina can call on Lionel Messi, but it would take a brave man to bet against the tournament calibre exhibited time and time again by the seleção. Yet oddly, Brazil could be entering this year’s edition with major doubts, particularly over the form of some of their biggest stars.

Exhibit A; Kaká. Since moving to Real Madrid in the summer, Kaká has failed to produce anything like the form of his Milan days. His fate, it could be argued, was doomed from the moment his signing was overshadowed by that of Cristiano Ronaldo. The quiet, affable Kaká has been superseded both on and off the field by the Portuguese, like a teddy bear cast aside as the Madridistas embrace their new Action Man. The form of Gonzalo Higuaín, too, has forced Kaká into playing a bit part so far this season.

Kaká enjoying a rare happy moment in Madrid.

In Kaká’s defence, he has had a number of niggling injuries to deal with, and has often been asked to be the square peg in a decidedly round hole. But his form (or lack thereof) is nonetheless troubling for Brazil, given that he is expected to be the primary creative force and talisman.

Further concern surrounds the form of the Juventus pair, Diego and Felipe Melo. The former, it must be said, has been an infrequent presence in the national team. But when on form, Diego provides an exciting playmaking option, and has the ability to be a viable alternative to Kaká. Since leaving Werder Bremen, however, he has only shown glimpses of the quality that prompted Juve to splash around €25 million last summer.

Can Diego provide an alternative to Kaká?

The case of Felipe Melo, however, is even more problematic. Having established himself in the seleção with some emphatic displays in the 2009 Confederations Cup, Melo was expected to secure his standing as one of the world’s top midfielders at Juventus. Things, however, have not gone to plan. Booed off the pitch against Cagliari, and frequently criticised, Melo’s form has been seen as one of the primary causes for Juve’s abject season.

Recent performances also suggest that Júlio César, undoubtedly one of the best goalkeepers around, is struggling for form. The Brazilian has looked shaky, despite being behind a solid defence at Inter (including Lúcio and Maicon, two exceptions to my argument). Fans of the seleção will be hoping that there is no repeat of his mistake against Roma, when he dropped the ball at Daniele De Rossi’s feet for the opening goal.

Kaká, Felipe Melo, and Júlio César (along with Lúcio) represent the spine of the Brazilian national team. Their poor form should be considered in conjunction with another trend – that many of the other likely starters, although playing well, are doing so in leagues that hardly provide the stiffest of challenges; Gilberto Silva in Greece, Elano in Turkey, Robinho in Brazil.

The problem may exacerbated by Dunga’s apparent reluctance to stray from the formation and personnel that performed so well in the Confederations Cup and World Cup qualifying. He has so far ignored the pleas to call up players such as Ronaldinho and Neymar, who have been in impressive form this term. The former, at least, still holds out hope of winning a place in the squad, declaring recently that he can’t imagine a World Cup without himself playing. Polls have been conducted on Brazilian sport websites, asking which of the two above (plus Paulo Henrique Ganso of Santos) ought to be called up. Yet Dunga remains unmoved.

Dunga has some tough decisions to make before June.

All this, of course, could work in Brazil’s favour. If Dunga displays confidence in his troops despite their struggles for their clubs, the seleção could benefit from improved team-spirit. An “us-against-the-world” attitude, after all, is often conducive to sporting success. Players such as Kaká, too, could benefit from their disrupted seasons, arriving in South Africa both physically fresh and mentally determined to prove yet again their right to be considered among the world’s best. Whichever way things turn out, we can be sure that the seleção will provide quite a story at the World Cup.

(Photo credits; (1) Tsutomu Takasu, (2) Postproduktie.nl, (3) EPA.)

Big Teams Play Out Pre-Season Pantomime

Note - this article is one I wrote a month or so ago. The matches took place in March.

When Flamengo midfielder Willians crawled over to the prone body of Vasco da Gama’s Philippe Coutinho on March 14th, you’d have been forgiven for expecting handbags. After all, Willians, a burly ballwinner, had just clattered Coutinho, leaving him in a heap. What ensued was a rarity in today’s game – a simple but touching display of humanity. Willians whispered something to Coutinho, and planted a kiss on the youngster.

This episode, though unique, was symptomatic of the 2010 Brazilian state championships, which have been enlivened by a pantomime spirit in recent weeks.

The male lead, played by the mercurial Robinho, entered stage not from the left or right, but from above, via helicopter. A packed Vila Belmiro (probably) screamed “he’s behind you!” and as if by magic, Pele appeared to greet the returning hero. Robinho’s impact at Santos has been immediate, not just on the pitch, but also at the barbershop, with striker André and whizzkid Neymar quickly adopting their mentor’s haircut. Neymar, it must be said, shares rather more in common with Robinho than looks alone; the two are beginning to form quite a partnership, leaving defenders in their wake complaining of double vision.

André, Robinho and Neymar in typically jovial mood.

Their presence, though, was not enough to prevent a 4-3 home loss to city rivals Palmeiras recently. He game was marked not only by some wonderful goals, but by an amusing series of celebrations. Santos raced into a 2-0 lead, each goal followed by their customary dance, led by the aforementioned Robinho and Neymar. This seemed to rile Palmeiras, who drew level with a brace from Robert. The equaliser was celebrated by an incendiary send-up of the Santos dance, with left-back Armero and midfield talisman Diego Souza pulling faces and shaking it like an uncle at a wedding. Great stuff.

Elsewhere, we had the ever-intriguing continuation of the Corinthians 2010 project. Roberto Carlos has rifled in a couple of 25-yard screamers, providing a reminder of his heyday in Europe. But whether this Corinthians side can manage any more than the occasional trip down memory lane remains to be seen. Their star performer at the moment is not one of the big name veterans, but 21 year-old Dentinho, whose name translates roughly as “little toothy.” The side will need a sustained contribution from the considerably larger but equally dentally challenged Ronaldo if it’s to really challenge for the Libertadores this term.

Dentinho and Ronaldo; a dentist's worst nightmare.

Such stories have provided the state championships with some much needed glamour since the turn of the year. Added to the return of several top players from Europe (as well as the above-mentioned, see Fred, Adriano, Cicinho), the signs appear to be positive for the game in Brazil. But they still cannot disguise the low quality of the early-season competitions. The state championships are in effect little more than a five month pre-season, with many teams preserving players for the Copa Libertadores and even the Copa do Brasil, or merely looking to get their houses in order before the national championship starts.

Still, just as the worker forgets his worries during Carnaval season, it’s hard to complain about deeper structural problems when presented with the seductive charms of Robinho, Neymar, et al. In a period during which a Hollywood kiss and “the dance derby” have hit the headlines, most Brazilian fans are just happy to see the pantomime continue.

********
Update. Since these events, the Santos dance celebrations have become even more elaborate, involving a set of baseball hats being handed to them from behind the advertising boards. The Palmeiras dance, incidentally, can be seen here.

(Photo credits; (1) Paulo Pinto/AE, (2) Unknown.)

Welcome!

Hello future readers!

A warm welcome to my football blog. Here, I shall be writing about world football, with a focus on the real home of the beautiful game: Brazil. I hope to provide an interesting (if potentially incoherent) blend of news, opinion, reports, and links.

First, a bit about me. My name is Jack Lang and I'm a postgraduate student living in London. If you hadn't guessed yet, I love football. Hopefully I have some interesting things to say about it.

My experiences have led me to take an interest in football not only in the UK, but in Europe and further afield. I lived in Lyon for a year, during which time I spent more time reading France Football and L'Équipe than I did going to classes. I honestly think I learnt more French at Stade Gerland than I did anywhere else.

France, though, was in hindsight just a stepping stone. It was there that I met my girlfriend; a Brazilian girl from Rio. Now before this, my knowledge of Brazilian football (and culture for that matter) was limited. Obviously all fans have drooled over Pelé, Zico, Ronaldo, and Ronaldinho during World Cups, and flocked to watch Brazilians playing in Europe. But in the last few years, I've been to Brazil a number of times, been to the stadiums, and started following the game there in more detail.


I speak Portuguese, so am hopefully in a position to relay not only my opinions on the Brazilian game, but also those of the Brazilian press. This should prove particularly exciting given this is a World Cup year; indeed I shall be in Brazil for the majority of the tournament, and will try to give my readers a glimpse of the excitement that will undoubtedly grip the country.

So, thanks for reading. I have some ideas for regular blog features (players to watch, reports from my trips to games, weekly round-ups of the Brazilian league), so do check back to see how this page develops. Also feel free to message me with any inquiries.

Enough introduction, vamos lá!
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