Finally rubbing shoulders in the Brazilian top flight after a ten-year wait, America, Atletico and Cruzeiro, the three biggest clubs in the state of Minas Gerais, now find themselves locked in a desperate battle to avoid relegation.
Only five games remain in the Brazilian Championship and the Mineiro trio are all languishing at the wrong end of the table, much to the concern of their fans and raising anxiety levels in a part of the world known for its relaxed approach to life.
Bottom of the table for the last 21 games, America are the most perilously placed of the three. Though they still have a mathematical chance of escaping, O Coelho (The Rabbit) are a whole seven points adrift of 16th-placed Ceara and salvation.
Six points and three places above them lie A Raposa (The Fox), who were title candidates at the start of the season but have slipped into the relegation zone during a problematic second half of the campaign, while Atletico, also known as O Galo (The Rooster), are the best placed of the three, five points clear of trouble in 14th.
All change for Atletico
Rooted in the danger zone for 14 weeks, Atletico have put together some fine results in recent weeks to boost their survival hopes. The turning point in their troubled season came after they had spurned countless chances in a frustrating 1-1 draw with nine-man Ceara, a game that ended with pensive Galo coach Cuca collecting his thoughts in the dugout for several minutes before eventually joining his charges in the dressing room.
Concerned that he was pondering resignation, the players begged him to stay and promised they would raise their game. They were true to their word, chalking up four wins, a draw and a solitary defeat to second-placed Vasco da Gama in their six games since then, taking Atletico into calmer waters.
“It wasn’t the right time to make a change,” said 21-year-old midfielder Renan Oliveira. “We knew that the situation would only get worse if Cuca left. We had a chat in the dressing room and we asked him to stay.”
Boasting a clutch of other talented youngsters, including goalkeeper Renan Ribeiro, defensive midfielder Fillipe Soutto and attacking midfielder Bernard, all of them under 21, Atletico now boast the fourth-best record in the land in the second half of the Brasileirão campaign.
“The tide has turned,” explained midfield man Pierre. “We’ve managed to put the bad times behind us, when the ball didn’t want to go in and luck was against us.”
Foxes lying low
Unfortunately for Cruzeiro, they cannot say the same. A Raposa have collected just seven points since the season reached its halfway stage, the second-worst return in the league behind Palmeiras, with last weekend’s 5-1 mauling at Flamengo sending them into the bottom four for the first time.
Fla have had no mercy on the Mineiro threesome this season, inflicting five defeats on America, Atletico and Cruzeiro in six games, the other match ending in a draw. Their executioner-in-chief has been Deivid, who has scored seven of the 15 goals Flamengo have racked up in the six fixtures.
To add to Cruzeiro’s problems, influential midfielder Walter Montillo has been sidelined with injury, to the chagrin of coach Vagner Mancini: “It’s a big loss for us. As everyone knows, Montillo’s the man who knits things together for us, the player who brings a little bit of the unexpected to our play.”
Mancini’s players are not about to throw in the towel, however, least of all the team’s experienced custodian and captain Fabio, who is also pushing for a place in the Brazil squad: “All we need is a win to turn things around completely, and I’m convinced we can do that.”
Similarly, America have not given up hope, despite the fact they have been propping the table up since Matchday 13, and are viewing Sunday’s visit to high-flying Fluminense as an opportunity to spark a late revival.
“It’s upsetting when you keep on losing, and a win would really change the mood round here and give everyone a lift,” said front man Alessandro. “If we can do that, hopefully we’ll be able to build on it and put a good run together.”
O Coelho can take heart from the curious fact that they have beaten the top three teams in the Brasileirão this season, downing Vasco and Fluminense 4-1 and 3-0 respectively and then overcoming leaders Corinthians. A repeat of those performances in their final five games could yet see them pull off a miraculous escape.