Friday, 29 July 2011

Flamengo Win Thriller Against Santos; Late Vasco Goal Pegs Back Bahia

There were goals galore in the midweek Brasileirão fixtures; 30, to be exact, in just 9 matches. With leaders Corinthians not in action, São Paulo and Palmeiras both closed the gap at the top with narrow wins. The match of the round, however, undoubtedly took place at the Vila Belmiro.

Santos 4-5 Flamengo
The media build-up to Santos vs. Flamengo bordered on the rabid. Santos' stars returning to club duty after Brazil's disastrous Copa América campaign! Ibson, Deivid, and Vanderlei Luxemburgo facing their former clubs! Neymar and Ronaldinho playing opposite one another for the very first time! Such hyperbole meant that, come kick-off on Wednesday night, expectations were sky high. So often, this kind of hype turns out to be unjustified. But not on this occasion.

Neymaravilha; the Santos youngster celebrates his astounding goal.

Santos started the game in whirlwind fashion; Borges slid home the opener after Elano's perceptive pass, before tapping home another from close range. Neymar, who had set up the second with a sitting-down overhead kick (try working that one out without looking at the highlights reel), then scored a goal of almost indescribable quality. After skipping past two half-hearted challenges on the left wing, the mercurial Mohican swapped passes with Borges, and surged towards the area. Ronaldo Angelim, in the unenviable role of golaço fall-guy, stepped forward to attempt a tackle, but was left humiliated as Neymar slalomed into the box. One cool finish later, and the Vila was in raptures.

The game looked as good as over for Fla. Vanderlei Luxemburgo's charges, however, produced a stirring comeback, managing to draw level even before the half time whistle. Ronaldinho capitalised on a rare fumble from Rafael to give the Rubro-Negro hope, and Thiago Neves nodded home a second from close range. Deivid, who had earlier contrived to miss an open goal from fully 20cm out, then flicked home a Ronaldinho corner to restore parity. The Peixe were reeling, not least because they had wasted another golden opportunity with the score at 3-2; a penalty earnt by Neymar was chipped tamely into the hands of Fla goalkeeper Felipe by Elano. It's been a bad couple of weeks for the former Manchester City player.

Brothers in arms; Ronaldinho and Felipe were both decisive against Santos.

Things slowed down slightly after the interval, but there was still plenty of drama to come. Neymar restored the hosts' lead in the 50th minute, wriggling past his marker and firing high into the roof of the net. This was an important game for the youngster, who reminded the Brazilian public of his undoubted talent after a disappointing set of performances in Argentina. Neymar would, however, be upstaged by another craque, one 12 years his senior. Yes, this was to be Ronaldinho's evening. The buck-toothed wonder bagged his second of the match with a clever free-kick, before finally settling the match with a deflected finish late on. His joyous grin was plastered all over the Brazilian sports pages the following day, accompanied by headlines as varied as "Chupa, Neymar!" ("Suck it, Neymar"), and "Ode ao futebol" ("Ode to football"). This match, one senses, will live long in the memory of most fans of the beautiful game.

Brasileirão Gameweek 12 Round-up
São Paulo, not to be outdone by Fla, scraped victory in a goal-fest of their own, overcoming Coritiba 4-3 at the Couto Pereira. The Tricolor appeared to be hosting their own private goal of the week competition as they raced into a commanding lead; a blast from Carlinhos Paraíba and delightful lobs from Juan and Lucas were bettered only by a ruthless move instigated and finished by Dagoberto. The home side mounted a brave comeback, but just came up short. There was rather less excitement in Ipatinga, where a lone goal from débutant André handed Atlético-MG a much-needed win over Fluminense.

Cruzeiro continue to blow hot and cold; they followed victory over Corinthians last week with defeat at the hands of Atlético Goianiense. A well-taken brace from Felipe did the job for the Dragão, who appear to be finding their feet in Série A. Ceará and Botafogo, two more wonderfully inconsistent sides, both managed 2-1 wins, at home to Atlético-PR and Avaí respectively. Botafogo fans finally witnessed an impressive performance (and a goal) from their idol Maicosuel, who has struggled for form since returning from injury.

O Mago voltou! Maicosuel celebrates a long overdue goal for Fogão.

Whilst other teams draw the headlines, Luiz Felipe Scolari's Palmeiras side continue to go about their business with quiet efficacy. The Verdão managed their seventh win of the campaign this week, beating Figueirense thanks to a scrappy goal from defender Maurício Ramos. That result saw them overtake Vasco, who only managed a point against Bahia. The Gigante da Colina, despite dominating affairs at the São Januário, needed a 95th minute effort from Élton to rescue a draw in that one. Grêmio also had to come from behind against América-MG, in a game that also finished 1-1.

Série A results; Botafogo 2-1 Avaí, Grêmio 1-1 América-MG, Atlético-MG 1-0 Fluminense, Atlético-GO 2-0 Cruzeiro, Santos 4-5 Flamengo, Figueirense 0-1 Palmeiras, Coritiba 3-4 São Paulo, Vasco 1-1 Bahia, Ceará 2-1 Atlético-PR.

(Photo credits; (1) Ivan Storti, (2) Miguel Schincariol, (3) Paulo Sergio.)

Thursday, 28 July 2011

Amazing Goals Wasted in Meaningless Friendlies

Timing, as they say, is everything. Yet so often our greatest moments are sullied by prematurity or tardiness; the brilliant riposte to a tormentor that comes to mind forty minutes after an argument, the thirty-yard putt holed on the practice green. Footballers, too, experience the very same frustration; sometimes, acts of genius simply don’t get the recognition that they deserve.

With that in mind, I wrote an article for FourFourTwo, dusting off eight wonderful goals that were wasted in meaningless friendly matches. You can read it here.*

*All of this, of course, has very little to do with Brazilian football. For this, I apologise.

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Corinthians Slip to First Defeat Against Cruzeiro; Furacão Claim First Win

Another week, another oddly-scheduled round of Série A games. Internacional, with the Audi Cup wedged into their calender, visited Avaí back on Thursday evening, whilst Santos were again absent from the fixture list. The result of the weekend came at the Pacaembu, where Cruzeiro handed Corinthians their first defeat of the season. Elsewhere, there were wins for Vasco, Fluminense, and Atlético-PR.

Brasileirão Gameweek 11 Round-up
The unfortunately-named Osmar Loss started his temporary stewardship of Internacional on a positive note; the Colorado beat struggling Avaí at the Ressacada. The hosts, aided by the worst refereeing decision of the week, actually took the lead on the stroke of half time, but were swept away after the interval; goals from Andrezinho, Leandro Damião, and Andrés D'Alessandro ensured maximum points for Inter.

Rivaldo shows his frustration for São Paulo.

Adílson Batista's first game in charge of São Paulo was a frustrating one; the Tricolor could only manage a 2-2 draw with Atlético Goianiense, despite dominating affairs at the Morumbi. With Denílson impressing on his first start since returning on loan from Arsenal, São Paulo monopolised possession, yet were caught cold by two rare Dragão attacks, and left the field to a chorus of boos. City rivals Corinthians also endured a tough weekend, suffering defeat at the hands of Joel Santana's Cruzeiro side. The Raposa only needed one goal to see of the league leaders, but what a goal it was; Wallyson rocketing home a delicious volley from fully 35 yards.

Flamengo, meanwhile, presented with a chance to cut the gap at the top, were held to a disappointing 1-1 draw by the ever-unpredictable Ceará. With Ronaldinho and Thiago Neves both (controversially) suspended, Renato "Vulture King" Abreu took advantage of a rare moment in the spotlight, volleying Fla into a first half lead. Some sleepy defending from the Rubro-Negro, however, allowed Felipe Azevedo to net a late equaliser. Fluminense, meanwhile, picked up a much-needed win against Palmeiras, thanks to Marquinho's tidy finish.

King of the hill; El Morro celebrates his second for Atlético-PR.

Série A lanterna Atlético Paranaense finally claimed their first win of the campaign on Saturday evening, overcoming Botafogo. Uruguayan striker Santiago "El Morro" García was in imperious form, bagging himself a brace for the Furacão. At the Ipatingão, Diego Souza scored twice against his former club, as Vasco triumphed over Atlético-MG. The remaining two matches featured all four promoted sides, but produced precious little excitement; América-MG and Bahia were held to goalless draws by Figueirense and Coritiba respectively.

Série A results; Avaí 1-3 Internacional, São Paulo 2-2 Atlético-GO, Atlético-PR 2-1 Botafogo, América-MG 0-0 Figueirense, Flamengo 1-1 Ceará, Corinthians 0-1 Cruzeiro, Fluminense 1-0 Palmeiras, Atlético-MG 1-2 Vasco, Bahia 0-0 Coritiba.

(Photo credits; (1) Gustavo Tilio, (2) Felipe Gabriel.)

Monday, 25 July 2011

Menezes Names Squad for Germany Friendly

Mano Menezes has named his Brazil squad ahead of the friendly match against Germany, which takes place in Stuttgart on the 10th of August. Corinthians midfielder Ralf, who has been excellent so far this season, has been included in the seleção for the first time, and were are also call-ups for Bayern Munich midfielder Luiz Gustavo and Vasco centreback Dedé.

Corinthians midfielder Ralf has been rewarded for his impressive club form.

The full squad is as follows;

Júlio César (Internazionale)
Victor (Grêmio)

Maicon (Internazionale)
Daniel Alves (Barcelona)
André Santos (Fenerbahçe)
Luiz Gustavo (Bayern Munich)

Thiago Silva (Milan)
Lúcio (Internazionale)
David Luiz (Chelsea)
Dedé (Vasco da Gama)

Lucas Leiva (Liverpool)
Ramires (Chelsea)
Elias (Atlético Madrid)
Ralf (Corinthians)
Fernandinho (Shakhtar Donetsk)
Renato Augusto (Bayer Leverkusen)
Paulo Henrique Ganso (Santos)
Lucas (São Paulo)

Neymar (Santos)
Robinho (Milan)
Alexandre Pato (Milan)
Fred (Fluminense)
Jonas (Valencia)

A number of players, then, have been left out in the wake of the Copa América. Barcelona leftback Adriano will likely feel aggrieved at not being handed a chance in the side, whilst Elano, Jádson, and Luisão have also been jettisoned. Tottenham Hotspur midfielder Sandro, meanwhile, misses out through injury. There are recalls for Valencia striker Jonas, and for midfield pair Renato Augusto and Fernandinho, and Fred retains his place among the strikers. Disappointingly (and I'm really trying not to sound like a broken record here), the likes of Hernanes, Hulk, and Marcelo continue to be overlooked by Menezes.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Corinthians Extend Lead With Simple Win Over Botafogo; Inter Sack Falcão

Following Brazil's Copa América elimination, all eyes returned to domestic matters yesterday, as another truncated Série A gameweek came to a conclusion. Corinthians picked up a comfortable win over Botafogo, a result that sees them pull yet further away from the chasing pack. Over the weekend, meanwhile, there were good wins for Ceará and Coritiba, and a first victory of the season for Avaí. Paulo Roberto Falcão had a rather less enjoyable time; he was sacked following Internacional's mauling at the hands of São Paulo.

Brasileirão Gameweek 10 Round-up
Having chalked up eight wins in their opening nine games, Corinthians travelled to Rio full of confidence ahead of their match against Botafogo. Caio Júnior's side have been in excellent form of late, but were powerless to stop the Timão juggernaut rolling on; goals late in each half from Liédson and Paulinho ensured maximum points for the visitors. Who needs Carlos Tévez anyway?! An honourable mention, too, for Corinthians goalkeeper Júlio César, who finished the match with a broken finger. No pain, no gain, amigo. Flamengo, the team that has looked the most likely to challenge Corinthians' early league dominance, could only manage a goalless draw against Palmeiras. Figueirense and Grêmio also played out a 0-0 draw last night.

On the spot; Paulinho celebrates his goal for Corinthians.

Avaí finally picked up their first win of the season, sneaking past Atlético Goianiense at the Serra Dourada. That result leaves Atlético-PR marooned at the bottom of the table; the Furacão succumbed 2-1 to Vasco da Gama on Saturday. The Curitiba side are already eight points away from the safety of 16th position; the biggest margin after ten games since the Brasileirão adopted the round-robin format in 2003. América Mineiro, meanwhile, are only marginally better off; they were thrashed 4-0 by Ceará on Sunday evening and have just six points to their name.

At the "Alligator Arena," a brace from (Where's) Wallyson handed Cruzeiro a hard-fought victory over the delightfully inconsistent Bahia, whilst a golaço from Porto-bound Danilo set Santos on their way to a win over Atlético-MG. Reigning champions Fluminense continue to disappoint, turning in a laughable defensive display against Coritiba. The Coxa took full advantage, cruising to a comfortable 3-1 victory in front of their home fans. Flu will hope that the signings of Rafael Sobis, Manuel Lanzini, and Alejandro Martinuccio will help to turn things around at Laranjeiras.

Sacked; Falcão endured a turbulent time on the Inter bench.

Paulo Roberto Falcão paid the price for his topsy-turvy stewardship of Internacional, getting fired in the wake of the Colorado's 3-0 defeat to São Paulo. Falcão, an idol at the Beira-Rio, impressed in spells, but must surely regret coming out of managerial retirement earlier in the year; sometimes, reputations are best left unblemished. São Paulo, meanwhile, have resolved their managerial situation; Adílson Batista - who has struggled during recent spells with Corinthians, Santos, and Atlético-PR - takes over the reigns at the Morumbi. Finally, but importantly, there were still a couple of João Sorrisão celebrations lingering around the country. Note to Série A players; time for a new craze already.

Série A results; Vasco 2-1 Atlético-PR, Coritiba 3-1 Fluminense, Atlético-GO 0-1 Avaí, Santos 2-1 Atlético-MG, Internacional 0-3 São Paulo, Ceará 4-0 América-MG, Cruzeiro 2-1 Bahia, Palmeiras 0-0 Flamengo, Botafogo 0-2 Corinthians, Figueirense 0-0 Grêmio.

(Photo credits; (1) Alexandro Auler, (2) Lucas Uebel.)

Monday, 18 July 2011

Seleção Crash Out of Copa América

And thus, 120 goalless minutes and four wayward penalties later, ended Brazil's Copa América campaign. In a bid to overcome my own temporary apathy, I will refrain from providing a straightforward match report and analysis on this occasion. Instead, I present 7 things we learnt from...

Brazil 0-0 Paraguay AET (0-2 on penalties)

(1) Football can be a cruel mistress.
Brazil's performance (in normal time at least) was easily their best of the tournament; chances came thick and fast, Paraguay were second best all over the pitch, and Júlio César barely had a save to make. True, the seleção still didn't produce the kind of flowing football that fans have been clamouring for, but this was still a dominant display, possibly their best since the victory over the USA in Menezes' first game in charge. They were rewarded only with utter despair.

Penalty pain; this is what it looks like to miss all your spot kicks.

(2) Robinho and Ramires have plenty to contribute.
Despite being a fixture in Brazil's post-World Cup side, Ramires has never managed to convince SKP of his value. A jack of all trades, his hard running and frequently-clumsy passing have provoked the ire of those who think the seleção would be best served by a deep-lying playmaker (cough cough... Hernanes... cough) alongside Lucas Leiva in the midfield engine room. Ramires' performance against Paraguay, however, forced me to reconsider (if not yet abandon) that conviction; his energy and propulsion unsettled Paraguay, and he contributed well to a number of attacks late in the game. Bravo, rapaz. Robinho also provided a timely example of his undoubted quality. The Milan forward had an excellent game; helping Ganso with creative duties, dribbling to good effect, and even putting in the odd crunching tackle (!). It was a shame that his efforts would prove to be in vain.

(3) Football should never (ever) be played on a ploughed field.

Remember that, La Plata groundsmen.

(4) Patience is needed with Neymar and Paulo Henrique Ganso.
The Santos pair entered the Copa América as headline acts, tipped by all and sundry to light up the tournament. In truth, they have done so only in brief flashes, otherwise failing to stamp their authority on matches. Against Paraguay, Ganso wondered aimlessly during the opening period, whilst an increasingly ineffective Neymar was withdrawn in the second; poor performances in Brazil's hour of need. Before the two youngsters are written off, however, some perspective is needed; this was their first major tournament, one which they entered with just seven senior caps between them. The Copa may have constituted a false dawn for the youngsters, but their future remains bright.

Disappointment; Neymar lament's Brazil's Copa exit.

(5) Nelson Haedo Valdez is a great human being.
It isn't the unkempt hair. It isn't the tireless running. It isn't the goofy grin. It isn't even the brotherly spirit that saw him stop to inquire about the state of the cameraman (and camera) he went crashing into during the match. It's something... intangible. I just want to be his friend. And to get drunk with him at weekends.

(6) Centrebacks should be last in the queue to take penalty kicks.
Actually, maybe that's too strong. Siniša Mihajlović was a centreback, after all. Let me make an amendment...

(6a) Injured centrebacks should be last in the queue to take penalty kicks.
Now there's something we can all agree on. Sorry, Thiago Silva, but you shouldn't have been anywhere near that spot.

(7) Any road back to o jogo bonito will be a long and hard one.
When he took over last year, Mano Menezes was heralded by some (including, to some extent, himself) as the man to restore the Brazil side to its former mercurial glory. His faith in youth and his preference for an attacking 4-2-1-3 provided strong early pointers that he was going in the right direction. Brazil's performances in the Copa, however, have demonstrated that a return to the golden days (1970? 1982? Even 2002?) is still far from being realised. Stodgy in midfield, and reliant on discreet moments of penetration (rather than consistent build-up) in attack, Menezes' side has rather more in common with Dunga's World Cup team than it does with the standout iterations in the Brazilian pantheon. Again, patience is necessary. The question, however, is whether Menezes is the right man to be patient with. For now, it appears that the CBF will keep faith with the 49-year-old. If and when the situation is reassessed, however, Brazil's disappointing Copa América campaign will certainly count against him.

(Photo credits; (1) Ricardo Nogueira, (2) Leo la Valle.)

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Brazil Beat Ecuador to Reach Last Eight of Copa América

Punctuality never was the strong suit of South American culture. After 225 turgid minutes, Brazil finally arrived at the Copa América, turning in a much-improved second half display to pick up a 4-2 win against Ecuador. The result ensured the seleção's place in the last eight of the competition, and should serve to reduce the pressure on coach Mano Menezes.

Brazil 4-2 Ecuador
Following his side's disappointing opening performances, Mano Menezes reshuffled his pack for the final group game; Robinho was restored to the attack at the expense of Jádson, and Maicon got the nod at fullback in the wake of Daniel Alves' horror show against Paraguay. Fred, who rescued the seleção with a late strike against La Albirroja, had to content himself with a place on the bench. In midfield, Ramires again started slightly to the right of Lucas Leiva.

Mighty duck; Pato celebrates his opener.

Brazil, as so often in recent months, started brightly; Maicon powered down the right to excellent effect, whilst Neymar, Pato, and Robinho sought to confound the Ecuadorian defence with frequently position-switching. It would take a discrete moment of brilliance, however, to break the deadlock; André Santos swung in a stunning cross from the left, giving Alexandre Pato the simplest of headers. The goal provided vindication for all of those (SKP included) who have voiced substantial admiration for the Fenerbahçe leftback over the past few years.

The strike, however, did not signal the start of any kind of fluency on Brazil's part. Ramires continued to frustrate with his inconsistent (read; terrible) passing, whilst Paulo Henrique Ganso again struggled to stamp his authority on proceedings. It would be one of the seleção's most experienced campaigners, though, who really let the side down. With the interval approaching, Júlio César allowed Felipe Caicedo's tame shot to slip under his body, gifting Ecuador an equaliser. Frangaço!

Whatever Menezes said to his charges during the half time break seemed to work; the seleção were almost unrecognisable in the second period. Ganso and Neymar suddenly burst into life, combining brilliantly for Brazil's second; the latter slammed home after Ecuador failed to cut out a perceptive through-ball from his Santos teammate. La Tri briefly rallied, levelling the match once more through Caicedo, but their opponents were in the ascendency. An exhilarating Neymar run culminated in a shot that Marcelo Elizaga could only parry, allowing Pato to nip in for his second of the evening.

Hair-raising; Neymar salutes a higher power after netting Brazil's fourth.

With their lead restored, and with Ecuador looking increasingly disheveled, Brazil finally fell into a rhythm. Paulo Henrique Ganso demonstrated the vision and passing range that have made him one of the world's most promising young players, and Neymar began to entertain the Córdoba crowd with his repertoire of flicks and turns. Another goal seemed inevitable, and so it proved; Maicon marauded down the wing once more, and squared for Neymar to clip home. With a two-goal cushion established, Menezes had the luxury of resting Ganso, Pato, and Neymar for the last few minutes. He'll need them to be fresh and firing once more on Sunday, when Brazil meet Paraguay in the quarter final.

(Photo credits; (1) Leo la Valle, (2) Sebastián Salguero.)

Monday, 11 July 2011

Flamengo Snatch Victory in Clássico Carioca; Palmeiras Batter Peixe at the Pacaembu

It was a weekend replete with city rivalry in Brazil, with three clássicos taking place in Série A. Flamengo delighted their fans with a 1-0 victory over Fluminense in the Rio derby, whilst Santos and Atlético Mineiro also earnt local bragging rights. Elsewhere, Rivaldo returned to the São Paulo lineup, and inspired the Tricolor to victory over Cruzeiro.

Brasileirão Gameweek 9 Round-up
Rio, for some unfathomable reason, has tended to produce derby matches of almost unbearably low quality over the last six months. That trend was instantiated once more at the weekend, when Fluminense met Flamengo; there were no fewer than ninety misplaced passes, as both sides struggled for fluency. The match, in the end, was settled by Rubro-Negro midfielder Willians, who headed home at the end of a rare flowing move. That win for Fla - their fourth in a row - puts them second in Série A, just behind Corinthians, who beat Atlético-GO 1-0 on Sunday.

Maikon Leite rounds Santos 'keeper Rafael to score for Palmeiras.

In the clássico paulista, Palmeiras brushed Santos aside to consolidate their place in the top four. The Verdão were irresistible in the first half at the Pacaembu; Maikon Leite opened the scoring against his former employers, before further strikes from Márcio Araújo and Patrik put the game to bed. São Paulo returned to winning ways on Saturday evening, overcoming in-form Cruzeiro. Rivaldo, restored to the Tricolor starting lineup after months of frustration (and complaining) under the stewardship of Paulo César Carpegiani, turned in an excellent display, contributing to both of his side's goals.

The weekend's third derby saw Atlético Mineiro host América-MG at the Arena do Jacaré. In a hard-fought game, it was the Galo who did enough to claim the points; Jônatas Obina and Neto Berola netted either side of the interval to give Atlético a 2-0 win. In Porto Alegre, meanwhile, former seleção midfielder Gilberto Silva scored his first goal since returning to Série A; the 34-year-old thumped home a header to send Grêmio on their way to a routine win over Coritiba. Leandro, a player at the other end of the football age spectrum, excelled in that match, providing assists for both of the Tricolor's goals.

O Reizinho voltou! Juninho salutes the Vasco fans after the victory over Inter.

Another week, another penalty area crisis caused by a Juninho Pernambucano free-kick. Young Internacional goalkeeper Muriel was the unlucky party this time out; he blocked Juninho's strike, only for Vasco defender Dedé to nod home the rebound. That goal sealed a 2-0 win for the Gigante da Colina. Fellow Rio giants Botafogo, meanwhile, were held to a 1-1 draw by Bahia in Salvador. In-form striker Elkeson put the visitors ahead, only for Fahel to equalise against his former club. The week's final two matches - Atlético-PR vs Avaí and Figueirense vs Ceará - both ended in deadlock.

*Update*
Corinthians hosted Inter on Thursday night, in another inexplicable piece of Série A scheduling. for the second time this week, a single strike from the excellent Willian handed maximum points to the Timão. Tite's side are now six points clear at the head of the table.

Série A results; São Paulo 2-1 Cruzeiro, Vasco 2-0 Internacional, Atlético-PR 0-0 Avaí, Fluminense 0-1 Flamengo, Grêmio 2-0 Coritiba, Atlético-GO 0-1 Corinthians, Bahia 1-1 Botafogo, Palmeiras 3-0 Santos, Atlético-MG 2-0 América-MG, Figueirense 1-1 Ceará, Corinthians 1-0 Internacional.

(Photo credits; (1) Tom Dib, (2) Bruno de Lima.)

Sunday, 10 July 2011

Tristeza Não Tem Fim; Struggling Seleção Scrape Draw Against Paraguay

Tristeza não tem fim.
Felicidade sim.
Tristeza não tem fim.
Two games without a win.*

Brazil 2-2 Paraguay
First things first; Paraguay were never going to be easy opponents for the seleção. Brazil's neighbours are South America's resident awkward customers, frequently posing problems for the putative giants of the continent. Solid in defence, and with a number of potent attacking threats, La Albirroja entered the Copa América confident of building upon their promising displays in South Africa last summer. A stalemate in their tournament opener against Ecuador, however, placed added pressure on Gerardo Martino's men ahead of their clash with Brazil.

Desespero geral; Neymar and Pato struggled to make an impact against Paraguay.

They needn't have worried. The seleção turned in another disappointing performance, and needed a late strike from Fred to rescue a point. As I (and many others) predicted, Mano Menezes left Robinho out of his starting eleven, preferring another midfielder in a withdrawn role on the right. Contrary to expectations, however, it was Jádson - rather than Elano - who got the nod in Córdoba. That decision, although provoking the ire of many Brazil fans, was vindicated late in the first half; the Shakhtar Donetsk man opened the scoring with a low shot from distance.

Until that point, Brazil had flattered to deceive. A minor reshuffle in the centre of the park (Lucas Leiva operated to the left of Ramires, rather than on the right) made little difference to the fluency of the side, and Neymar produced the kind of insipid performance that will provide his myriad suitors with plenty of food for thought. The presence of Jádson alongside Ganso, however, did (on occasion) lend Brazil more of an attacking threat. The two combined neatly early on to create an excellent chance for Alexandre Pato, only for the Milan striker to be denied by Justo Villar. Unfortunately, that promising axis was to be broken at half time; Elano replaced Jádson, who was running a disciplinary tightrope after picking up a yellow card.

Defensively, Brazil looked more shaky than usual. They were given a warning in the opening minutes of the match, when a poorly executed offside trap gifted a golden opportunity to Roque Santa Cruz. The experienced forward didn't hit the target on that occasion, but made amends after the interval, turning home coolly after Brazil's backline had been dragged out of position. Paraguay added a second not long after; Daniel Alves (who struggled throughout the match) dallied on the ball inside his own area, allowing Marcelo Estigarribia and Santa Cruz to tee up Nelson Haedo Valdez. The substitute saw his shot blocked by Lúcio, only for the ball to ricochet off his body and into the corner of the net. Some guys have all the luck.

Right said Fred; the Fluminense striker celebrates his late strike.

With his side needing a goal, Menezes restructured his attack; Lucas Moura came on for Ramires (meaning Elano dropped yet deeper), and Neymar was withdrawn for Fred, a more orthodox striker. Those changes, allied with a growing sense of desperation, seemed to spur Brazil on. With just two minutes left on the clock, Fred seized upon Ganso's hopeful flick and arrowed a volley into the bottom corner of Villar's net. The opportunistic nature of the goal hinted at what Brazil have been missing in their two Copa América games thus far; a genuine presence in the penalty area. Fred may not be everybody's cup of tea, but his physicality and positional sense could make him an invaluable option in the coming games.

So what next for the seleção? It seems fairly clear that the upcoming clash with Ecuador is a make or break moment for Menezes; victory (and progress to the knockout stages) could draw a line under this week's shortcomings, whilst anything less would surely make the 49-year-old's position all but untenable. Tactically, Mano must decide whether to stick to his guns, maintaining Pato as a nominal reference in attack, or bite the bullet and select a more traditional (read; Fred-shaped) focal point. With the pressure mounting, Menezes may be forced, like many of his recent predecessors, to abandon o jogo bonito in favour of a more pragmatic approach. More's the pity.

*Lyrics; 75% Vinicius de Moraes, 25% SKP.

(Photo credits; (1) Danilo Verpa, (2) Marcelo Sayão.)

Saturday, 9 July 2011

Corinthians Stay Top With Win Over Vasco; São Paulo Part Company with Carpegiani

Apologies, reader, for both the lateness and brevity of this post; SKP spent the week travelling, far from his trusty laptop. Yes, I had a lovely time, thank-you for asking. Série A, however, is an unforgiving beast, sneaking in a midweek round whilst I was away. Let's see how it went.

Brasileirão Gameweek 8 Round-up
Juninho Pernambucano started for the first time since returning to Vasco da Gama, and made an immediate impact; a trademark free-kick put the Rio side ahead in their clash with Corinthians. The Timão reacted in style, however, snatching all three points thanks to goals from Ralf and Paulinho. At the Engenhão, Darío Botinelli's precise strike handed Flamengo victory over São Paulo. That result - São Paulo's third defeat on the bounce - prompted the dismissal of Tricolor coach Paulo César Carpegiani. Yep, that's the same Paulo César Carpegiani who led them to wins in their opening five games. Further proof, if any were needed, that the notion of 'job security' is an utterly vacuous one in Brazilian football.

Superman; Walter Montillo (centre) celebrates his second goal in Cruzeiro's win over Grêmio.

Cruzeiro continued their revival under the stewardship of Joel Santana with a straightforward win against Grêmio. A stunning brace from Walter Montillo (who else?!) gave the Raposa their third successive victory. Fellow Belo Horizonte giants Atlético Mineiro are having a tougher time of it; they were thrashed 3-0 by Ceará at the Presidente Vargas, and are plummeting down the table at an alarming rate. Coritiba, meanwhile, seem to have weathered their early-season storm; they picked up maximum points from their game with fellow new boys Figueirense.

A late strike from young midfielder Oscar allowed Internacional to see off struggling Atlético-PR at the Beira-Rio, a result that will further ease the pressure on Colorado boss Paulo Roberto Falcão. Elsewhere, there were draws between Avaí and Bahia, Botafogo and Atlético Goianiense, and América-MG and Palmeiras. Yet again, Santos didn't feature in the gameweek; their tie against Fluminense was postponed until later in the year. The Peixe are going to have a lot of catching up to do.

Série A results; Internacional 1-0 Atlético-PR, Cruzeiro 2-0 Grêmio, Avaí 2-2 Bahia, Corinthians 2-1 Vasco, Ceará 3-0 Atlético-MG, Flamengo 1-0 São Paulo, Botafogo 1-1 Atlético-GO, Coritiba 3-0 Figueirense, América-MG 1-1 Palmeiras.

(Photo credit; Gil Leonardi.)

Monday, 4 July 2011

Seleção Draw Blank Against Venezuela in Copa América

As opening gambits go, it was far from convincing. Having watched their most bitter of rivals stutter against Bolivia (a result which was reported with considerable verve in Brazil) the seleção met Venezuela, hoping to put down an early marker in the competition. A year after being knocked out of the World Cup with barely a whimper of protest, opportunity hung heavy in the La Plata air; this was the moment for Brazil to shake off the dust, to reintroduce itself to the world. A team rich in youthful vim and logic-defying hair styles marched onto the pitch. Mano Menezes looked on sagely as Neymar, Ganso et al. took their starting positions. The stage was set. And then... nothing.

Brazil 0-0 Venezuela
The seleção, in fairness, started the match with considerable intent; Neymar was typically busy, combining with André Santos on the left, and cutting inside to good effect. As usual, Daniel Alves channelled his inner mad dog, sprinting wildly up and down the right flank. One such burst brought Brazil their best chance of the match; Alexandre Pato's effort clattered back off the bar with Renny Vega well beaten. Defensively, Menezes' side started impeccably, pressing high up the pitch, and regaining possession before their opponents had time to mount any threat. Consequently, Venezuela only managed one notable foray in the opening period, an attack which resulted in the (otherwise faultless) Thiago Silva being booked.

Shackled; Neymar is crowded out by Venezuela defenders.

This level of comfort should have increased Brazil's attacking capabilities, prompting one of the deeper midfielders to contribute more in attack. Given Lucas Leiva's recent success in shielding the back four, that duty fell on the shoulders of Ramires. Unfortunately, the Chelsea man (a good player though he is) simply doesn't have the skill set to be effective in this task; energetic surges culminated with the ball bobbling away from him, and passes, when played forward, seemed to be observing some overly draconian speed limit. Paulo Henrique Ganso, who looked slightly sluggish in only his second match back since injury, was deprived of any purposeful link-up in the centre of the park, and as a result spent rather too much time trying to play ambitious through-passes to the forwards.

And what of Brazil's strikers? Neymar faded somewhat after his bright start, yet still attracted two or three markers every time he received possession, thus (theoretically) creating room for his colleagues. Alexandre Pato turned in a middling performance; two moments of sublime skill (his effort against the bar, and a jaw-dropping piece of control from a Dani Alves long ball) didn't disguise the fact that he was marked out of the game for long periods. That just leaves... (checks team sheet)... oh, Robinho. Well Robinho was... He had a shot in the first half, didn't he...? Or was that someone else...?

Plenty to think about for Brazil's stars.

Worryingly for Menezes, the match followed the script that has defined a number of recent Brazil matches. Despite exerting early pressure, the seleção couldn't manage a break-through, and proceeded to turn in a disorganised, panicky, second-half display. His substitutions (Fred, Lucas, and Elano all entered the fray) made scant difference, and Venezuela grew in confidence as the match wore on. Both Júlio César and Lúcio needed all of their experience to snuff out a couple of promising counter attacks from the underdogs. The final whistle almost came as a relief to Brazil; one sensed that they wouldn't have scored in another hour of play.

So far, so gloomy. A little perspective, however, is called for. This wouldn't be the first time that a team fluffed their opening lines before embarking on an impressive tournament run; Spain demonstrated as much in South Africa last year. The performance (and the attendant criticism) could also serve to galvanise the seleção, motivating players for the battles ahead. Menezes will be aware, though, of the severity of his situation; further turgid performances against Paraguay and Ecuador would almost certainly lead to calls for his head.

Back to Dunga's lopsided 4-2-2-2 against Paraguay?

It would not be surprising if, due to that mounting pressure (and his side's lack of fluency), Menezes sacrificed Robinho against Paraguay. Elano, who has proved himself to be a dependable figure in recent years, would be the main candidate for inclusion, and would occupy a withdrawn role on the right. That, ironically, would transform Menezes' formation into almost the exact system employed by Dunga in South Africa; the lopsided 4-2-2-2. We have already seen that one of the shortcomings of Dunga's reign - the refusal to employ a regista in the midfield platform - has merely been reproduced by Menezes. The main difference, then, is largely one of attacking personnel. Menezes must hope that his faith in Brazil's emerging stars is justified.

(For more on the tactical state of the seleção, check out this post from the ever-excellent Santa Pelota, and this one over at the brilliant Zonal Marking.)

(Photo credits; (1) Paulo Whitaker, (2) Lea la Valle.)

Saturday, 2 July 2011

Ronaldinho Shines in Flamengo Victory; Inter Put Four Past Galo

With the Copa América imminent, Série A made another convincing plea for our continued attention this week, packing in plenty of goals and drama. Ronaldinho continued his resurgent form with an excellent display in Flamengo's win over América Mineiro, whilst there were convincing wins for Internacional and Cruzeiro. Without further ado, then...

Brasileirão Gameweek 7 Round-up
São Paulo hosted Botafogo on Wednesday night, hoping to put their hammering at the hands of Corinthians behind them. Caio Júnior's side, however, had other ideas; the visitors turned in a commanding performance to record a 2-0 victory. Recent signing Elkeson was on target once again for O Glorioso, and Herrera bagged his first of the campaign from the penalty spot. Santos also suffered an unexpected defeat; a brace from Aloísio gave Figueirense maximum points from their clash.

Up and running; Ronaldinho celebrates his first against América Mineiro.

After flattering to deceive in the early stages of the season, Ronaldinho finally appears to be finding some form; he scored twice in Flamengo's 3-2 win over América-MG. His first, a subtle free-kick from the edge of the area, was followed by a cool finish in the dying minutes. Ronaldinho's boyhood club Grêmio, meanwhile, underwent a far more difficult week; a disappointing 2-2 draw with bottom club Avaí prompted coach Renato Gaúcho to end his reign at the Olímpico. Renato, who is still worshipped by Gremistas due to his playing days at the club, may regret the day he decided to take the hotseat in the first place.

Joel Santana's Midas touch at Cruzeiro continued this week; he guided them to a superb win over Vasco da Gama. Despite being on the back foot for long periods at the São Januário, the Raposa managed three second half goals to stun their hosts. The pick of the bunch came, predictably, from Walter Montillo, who nutmegged his marker before slotting home. That result saw Cruzeiro overtake local rivals Atlético-MG in the Série A standings, as the Galo succumbed to Internacional on Thursday. The Porto Alegre side were irresistible in attack, hitting the net four times in a 25 minute spell after the interval.

Fluminense were stunned this week by the news that talismanic playmaker Darío Conca had accepted an (enormous) offer from Chinese side Guangzhou Evergrande. The Argentine was influential in Flu's 2010 title win, and has become a firm favourite among the Tricolor faithful. His final appearance, in the 3-1 win over Atlético-PR on Thursday, was evidently an emotional one; he will be sorely missed by all those who follow the Brazilian game.

He came, he saw... Flu fans bid farewell to Darío Conca.

Série A leaders Corinthians were far from their best in their game against an under-strength Bahia side, but came away with a narrow victory thanks to an effort from Chicão. City rivals Palmeiras also consolidated their place in the top three; débutant Maikon Leite was on target as the Verdão overcame Atlético Goianiense. (Pretty terrible week for the Atléticos, this one!) At the Couto Pereira, Coritiba picked up their second win of the campaign against Ceará. Oh, and in case you were wondering; yes, the João Sorrisão celebrations continued in ernest this week. Wibble wobble!

*Update*
Saturday night saw Santos catch up on one of the matches that was postponed due to their Libertadores run. In a dire clash at the Pacaembu, the Peixe snuck a 1-0 victory over América Mineiro.

Série A results; Vasco 0-3 Cruzeiro, Grêmio 2-2 Avaí, América-MG 2-3 Flamengo, São Paulo 0-2 Botafogo, Figueirense 2-1 Santos, Bahia 0-1 Corinthians, Palmeiras 2-0 Atlético-GO, Coritiba 3-1 Ceará, Fluminense 3-1 Atlético-PR, Atlético-MG 0-4 Internacional, Santos 1-0 América-MG.

(Photo credits; (1) Ramon Bitencourt, (2) Paulo Sérgio.)
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