Corinthians, Palmeiras, Santos or Sao Paulo - the experts were split over which of the 'big four' was going to win this year's Campeonato Paulista. The pre-tournament consensus was that a four-way battle would ensue, with only the odd pundit backing a middle-ranking power such as Portuguesa, Ponte Preta or Sao Caetano to cause an upset.

Eleven matchdays into the 19-round league stage, from which the top four will progress to the semi-finals, and that upset is being threatened. Nobody, however, could have predicted the team on course to provide it.

Founded in October 1998 and having only participated in the state's top flight for the first time in 2007, Guaratingueta rest atop of a division that includes a quartet of last-decade Copa Libertadores finalists, three of whom won the competition, with two, Corinthians and Sao Paulo, going on to seize the FIFA Club World Cup crown.

"I'm very pleased with the way things are going," said coach Guilherme Macuglia, whose side sit two points ahead of second-placed Ponte Preta, a club that was 98 years old when Guaratingueta came into existence. "We've been working towards this as a group since November and it's paying off.

"Of course we'd love to lift the title but first we're concentrating on finishing in the top four and reaching the semi-finals. That's what we'd like to achieve at the very least."

It is a goal that Guará appear on course to realise. After losing 2-1 at home to Sao Paulo on their opener, Macuglia's team claimed seven straight victories, a run which included five clean sheets and a 3-0 defeat of Palmeiras in their reputable opponents' backyard. Thereafter, they curiously lost two successive home games before responding with a 1-0 win at Juventus on Sunday, a result which restored them to the summit of the standings.

Clearing the hurdles
Guaratingueta Futebol Ltda may only be nine years old, but their meteoric rise has included four promotions. Nevertheless, it has not all been plain sailing for O Tricolor do Vale. "In our first professional game in 2000, our stadium was not fenced in," explained club president Mario Augusto Rodrigues Nunes. "The ball would get lost all the time.

"A few years later we had our kits stolen shortly before a game. Fortunately our manufacturers managed to produce replacements urgently and we able to play the match, but it was just one of several problems we encountered. We also had trouble registering the club but eventually they saw that we were serious enough and allowed us our place."

Gradually, though, Guaratingueta's problems lessened and then came the 2007 campaign, their first among the elite. In finishing tenth in the 20-team league stage, they clinched the final place in the Torneio do Interior (an event comprising the four highest non- Paulistão semi-finalists from outside the city of Sao Paulo) and, against the odds, overcame Paulista and then Noroeste for their first-ever honour. Now their eyes are on a far more prestigious prize.

Guaratingueta will look to consolidate their position when they host struggling Marilia on Thursday, but the brains behind their unlikely glory charge is refusing to take three points for granted. "We have to work hard, it is a crucial game and the players need to be focused. After all, we will be up against a very strong team," Macuglia warned.

Captain Carlinhos, who alongside playmaker Michael and striker Nene, has been central to Guaratingueta's success, believes the club's supporters can inspire a defeat of Marilia. " With the unconditional support of our fantastic fans, we will play with an extra player on the field," declared the defender.

Victory on Thursday would be another step towards the Paulistão's youngest member causing arguably the biggest shock in the history of Brazilian football's oldest competition.