Matchday 34 of the Brasileirao 2009 takes place this weekend, with a clutch of teams still firmly in the hunt for the title. Sao Paulo are out in front on 59 points, but with the four-team chasing pack all having a game in hand on the leaders, the situation is set to take another dramatic turn. The close finish is being eagerly followed by Brazil's football followers, who are starting to warm to the straight league system adopted back in 2003.
"The fact is that no-one knows who the Usain Bolt is in this race," joked Ricardo Gomes, the coach of a Sao Paulo side bidding for their fourth consecutive championship - an ambition only slightly dented by Wednesday's 1-1 draw at Gremio.
"Sao Paulo have a better idea than the rest of what it takes to win the league, as their three successive titles show. All the teams know how to prepare for the league season now, though, and that's why the competition is so tight."
Just how tight is reflected by the fact that O Tricolor Paulista could drop to third if results go against them this weekend. Poised to overtake them are Palmeiras and Atletico Mineiro, one and three points behind them respectively, while Flamengo and Internacional are still well in the hunt.
The photo finish is a virtual replica of last season's nail-biting climax, when Sao Paulo, Gremio, Cruzeiro, Palmeiras and Flamengo all entered the final straight with designs on passing the tape first.
In previous years, the championship run-in has been something of a procession, with Sao Paulo cantering home 15 points clear of the field in 2007, and nine points ahead the previous season. Cruzeiro were similarly dominant in 2003 - the maiden time the competition was operated on a straight league format - streaking home 13 points clear, although Santos and Atletico Paranaense engineered a thrilling conclusion in 2004, with Corinthians and Internacional serving up another intriguing two-horse race a year later.
Too close to call
The evidence of the last two campaigns suggests that standards at the top are levelling out, with the pack reeling in the previously dominant Sao Paulo. One man better equipped than most to comment on recent developments is Muricy Ramalho, who led O Tricolor Paulista to their championship hat-trick.
The 53-year-old coach has been working his magic again this year, taking up the reins at Palmeiras on Matchday 15, overseeing a win over Fluminense in his first game in charge and keeping O Verdão at the top of the table until Sao Paulo sneaked into pole position this week. And regardless of whether his side regain this lead at the weekend, the wily Ramalho is expecting plenty more twists and turns between now and the season's end.
"Whoever wants to be champions will have to suffer for it," he said. "When we were five points clear and everyone said we were the favourites, I kept saying to people we should wait and see what happened. It's going to be very competitive for sure. I've always had that very clear in my mind."
The current season has been one of constant fluctuation. Since the start of the campaign no fewer than 15 teams have held a place in the top four, or the G4 as it is known, whose occupants qualify for the Copa Libertadores 2010. Down at the other end of the table, some 12 sides have flitted in and out of the relegation zone, otherwise known as the Z4.
"I can assure you that the Brasileiro is the most competitive league in the world," commented Brazil coach Dunga. "In Italy or England you know that the leaders are always going to beat the bottom team. But you can't say the same about the Brazilian league." Just to underline the former midfielder's point, in the eight meetings between teams in the G4 and the Z4 in this second half of the season, the top four have failed to win a single game, losing six and drawing two.
That kind of unpredictability has given to rise to plenty of drama at both ends of the table, increasing interest in the league, as the President of the Brazilian Football Association (CBF) Ricardo Terra Teixeira explained: "We've now got at least five teams challenging for the title, three or four more with a chance of getting into the G4 and another six battling against relegation."
As a result, the average league attendance up to Matchday 33 was 17,573, the highest since the league was restructured. "It's a high-quality competition and that's creating a lot of interest," continued Teixeira. "It all shows that we did the right thing in sticking to this system."
The permutations facing the championship-chasing quintet over the next five games are endless. And you can work them out for yourself by checking out the remaining fixtures below;
São Paulo (59 points)
Atletico Mineiro (home)
Atletico Mineiro (56)
Atletico Mineiro (away)
Atletico Mineiro (away)
Santo Andre (home)
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