Atletico Mineiro may only have set off for Morocco on Monday but, thanks largely to the meticulous preparatory work of coach Cuca, they have looked ready to tackle the FIFA Club World Cup for some time. From priming a team that has undergone changes since July’s Copa Libertadores triumph for the rigours of an elite competition, through to overseeing travel arrangements and doing homework on potential opponents, Cuca has put everything in place to give O Galo the best possible chance of success at Morocco 2013.
And having done so, the respected supremo was in calm yet focused mood when speaking exclusively to FIFA.com just days before catching the plane to north Africa. Suitably wary of whoever his side will face in the semi-finals and determined to avoid the scares endured on the way to Libertadores glory, Cuca remained confident in his charges’ ability and admitted to having already analysed Atletico’s possible final opponents: Pep Guardiola’s FC Bayern München.
FIFA.com: When you watch Atletico play, you can see just how well the players complement each other. Did you shape the style according to the players at your disposal, or did your vision for the side come first?
Cuca: Building a team is no easy task: you need to know the market well and be at a club that gives you the resources to sign people, like Atletico did for me. The club believed in me, in the names that I gave them, and brought me all the players I asked for. So, we’ve achieved a lot in a couple of years, thanks to good players who gel with each other. You’ve got a big striker like Jo, who can hold the ball up; a clever player like Ronaldinho – who I gave licence to roam, instead of putting him out on the left – to bring quick guys like Bernard, [Diego] Tardelli, Luan and now Fernandinho into play… Then you’ve got the central midfielders in Josue, Donizete and Pierre, who do a lot of covering to make the system work, and defenders like Leo and Rever who’ve been playing together for a long time. It’s a well-assembled side.
With such an attack-minded team, is it difficult to convince your forward players to track back and defend?
They go along with it, but it’s not for all of them. There are a few that don’t do as they’re told! (laughs) You won’t get anywhere asking Neto Berola to do that, or by making Tardelli chase his full-back all the way up the line. They’ve got a different style, which you have to respect. But what you can do is ask them to get behind the ball. In my view, football’s a simple game: when we’re not in possession, the more players I can get behind the ball the more competitive we are. Likewise, the more players I have ahead of the ball, the greater the [numerical] disadvantage and the more open we are to the counter-attack.
How much do you think FC Bayern have changed as a team since Pep Guardiola’s arrival?
Guardiola is clever, no? He uses everything, absolutely everything he can get from a player. Sometimes he’ll change a player’s role, because he’s genuinely seen something [in them]. It’s something I try to do too and you sometimes get frowned upon for it: if it works you’re good, if it doesn’t you’re “Professor Pardal” [Disney character Gyro Gearloose, Brazilian football-speak for a coach who makes strange decisions]. But Guardiola can see the characteristics a player has [that might suit a different position], such as how he’s putting Philip Lahm into central midfield or [Bastian] Schweinsteiger in the holding role. He [Guardiola] often leaves his defenders one against one [with opposition forwards]. And I’ve heard him say how he forces his players into that situation by saying: 'if you [defenders] have got a man each, that means I’ve got an extra player in midfield.' It’s just that, if you’re playing with two defenders against two attackers then they have to be good and fast, but he’s got players who are. So, he’s by no means crazy. He’s crazy smart, because he gets everything his players have to give. And, of course, he’s got some of the best players in the world at his disposal.
If O Galo end up facing FC Bayern, will you have to take a more defensive approach?
What we’ll have to do is have a magical, perfect day when everything we do goes right, and still hope that things don’t go 100 per cent right for Bayern. If that happens, we can do it. A lot of people say, “Ah, but Corinthians beat Chelsea last year.” Yes, it’s true they did, but they caught Chelsea in a transitional phase. So, it’s not the same as taking on a Bayern team on a roll. Even though the coach hasn’t been there that long, all the players have played together for ages and they’re at the peak of their powers. Isn’t [Franck) Ribery the best player in Europe? [Arjen] Robben’s the Netherlands leading man isn’t he? Then you’ve got Dante, who’s in the Brazil squad, half a dozen Germany internationals…You’ve got a whole group of international players who’ve been playing well together for a long time. Now, the sense I’m getting from them is that they’ve got a systematic way of playing and so, if we really work on that, we might be able to get a little edge.
Have you been watching extensive video footage of them?
No, not yet. I don’t think now’s the time for that, because we’ve got other things to worry about first. You only have to see what happened to [fellow Brazilian side] Internacional a couple of years ago [when they lost in the last four to African champions TP Mazembe in 2010]. I’ll be worrying about [CONCACAF Champions League winners] Monterrey first, as I think they’ll be our opening opponents, and they’re not a team to be taken lightly.
Indeed, in the 2013 Libertadores Atletico were taken to penalties by another Mexican team in Tijuana who are, supposedly, not as strong as Monterrey...
Exactly. And we need to be aware that Monterrey will be, at the very least, on a par with Tijuana. We’ll therefore need to be very careful. There’s lots of banter among the players, they’re all in very good spirits, but they’ll have to be very much on their guard if they don’t want to get caught out.
Is that a vital facet of the pyschological part of your role: keeping the players motivated and aware that it’s not just Atletico vs. FC Bayern, that they’ll start the tournament against another, very difficult team?
Of course. That’s why I’m pleased about the fact we won’t meet the team that, in theory, is strongest until last. That way, we’re not diving in at the deep end and, from my side of things, I can cover all the angles. My part of the bargain is to go over everything for them [the players], up to how many hairs the opposition have on their heads. And so, by working hard and getting past those [semi-final] opponents, we’ll grow in stature going into the final.