The 2009 Brasileirao championship proved to be something of a nightmare as far as pundits, predictions and the football pools were concerned, with unforeseeable swings and shifts throughout and a dramatic and thrilling finale. Arguably one of the closest-fought contests in Brazilian national league history, it was definitely the most balanced title race since the current format was introduced in 2003.

Indeed, the destination of the trophy was only decided on the 38th and final matchday, with eventual winners Flamengo staving off an unprecedented three challengers in the shape of Internacional, Palmeiras and Sao Paulo. Each of this chasing trio had at one point led the standings and been considered favourites to emerge victorious, with Atletico-MG, Cruzeiro and Vitoria also enjoying spells in top spot during the course of the campaign.

Five days on from the final round of matches, with the dust finally beginning to settle, takes a look over a competition that ended in triumph for O Rubro-negro.

Fraught nerves at the Gavea
Despite a change in coach, board members stepping down, injury absences and a worrying run of defeats, Flamengo kept their nerve to bring a 17-year league title drought to an end. And the silverware was just reward for the Estadio da Gavea faithful who, with an average of 40,036 paying spectators per game, topped the country’s attendance charts by more than doubling the divisional average of 17,807.

What makes the feat all the more surprising is that coach Andrade, subsequently voted the best in the division, was a far from popular choice when handed the reins with the club marooned down in 14th spot with 17 matches to play. Yet the former Rubro-negro midfielder quickly steadied the ship, thanks in part to the astute signings of defender Alvaro and Chilean midfielder Claudio Maldonado, as well as inspirational returning heroes in 19-goal Adriano and 37-year-old Serbian maestro Dejan Petkovic, scorer of two goals direct from corners against title rivals Palmeiras and Atletico-MG.

Flamengo thus brought to an end the dominance of Sao Paulo, winners of the last three Brasileirao, though O Tricolor Paulista did at least ensure a Copa Libertadores berth – their seventh successive qualification for the continental showpiece. Internacional and Cruzeiro will join them in battling for Libertadores honours in 2010, though there was disappointment for coach Muricy Ramalho’s Palmeiras and Atletico-MG. The former had led the standings for no fewer than 19 consecutive rounds only to end up in fifth, while the latter’s seventh-place finish was their lowest position since the opening matchday.

There was no shortage of drama in the lower reaches of the table, with Rio de Janeiro heavyweights Fluminense in the relegation zone between rounds ten and 36, only to bounce back in remarkable fashion during a purple patch which also took them to the final of the Copa Sudamericana – where they were beaten by Ecuador’s Liga Deportiva Universitaria de Quito. However Coritiba, Santo Andre, Nautico and Sport, Brazilian Cup winners in 2008, all failed to avoid the drop to Serie B and will be replaced in the top flight in 2010 by Vasco da Gama, Guarani, Ceara and Atletico-GO.

Catching the eye
Though injuries prevented Ronaldo from keeping up his prolific start to life at Corinthians, the former Barcelona, Real Madrid and Inter Milan goalgetter still managed 12 strikes in 20 appearances. Ex-Lyon striker Fred also grabbed a dozen to help Flu to safety, having enjoyed a very productive partnership with Argentinian creator Dario Conca. Also proving his calibre was Sao Paulo defender Miranda, a regular in Dunga’s Brazil squad and a key figure in ensuring O Tricolor Paulista boasted the division’s best defensive record.

Other lesser-known names came to the fore, among them forward Diego Tardelli, who in recent years had drifted from club to club unable to find the consistency to match his vast potential. At Atletico-MG, however, the pieces finally fell into place for him to match Adriano’s top-scoring tally of 19 goals and move him back in Seleção contention. National supremo Dunga will also have noted the steady hands of Gremio keeper Victor and a fine campaign from Palmeiras midfield man Diego Souza.

On the rise
None of the above stars mentioned are younger than 24, though that does not mean Brazilian football’s status as a prolific producer of up-and-coming talent is slipping. Santos’ Paulo Henrique Ganso and Giuliano of Internacional both earned call ups for the FIFA U-20 World Cup Egypt 2009 while another Inter player, midfielder Sandro, would also have graced Egyptian soil had he not been called up directly to the Auriverde senior squad.

Cruzeiro wide-man Diego Renan, Botafogo attacker Jebson (who has just made the switch to Cruzeiro), Corinthians midfielder Jucilei and Fluminense youngsters Maicon and Alan are yet others who appear to have a bright future in the beautiful game. Meanwhile, last but not least are 24-year-old Barueri duo Fernandinho and Thiago Humberto who both had integral roles to play in the Serie A new boys' sparkling brand of attacking football.