Any team taking on Brazilian outfit Cruzeiro in recent months would have been well advised to do their homework on roving attacker Kleber, the type of player whose movement between the lines and ability to pop up in dangerous areas is a headache for any defence. And now, opponents of A Raposa have another, equally threatening prospect to contend with following the rise to prominence of 24-year-old Thiago Ribeiro.
Next in line to face the dynamic duo are Ribeiro’s former club Sao Paulo, in the first leg of the teams’ quarter-final tie in the 2010 Copa Libertadores, with the two Brazilian outfits having already met at the same stage of last year’s continental showpiece. Can former Brazil defender Ricardo Gomes, currently at the helm of the 2005 Copa Libertadores champions, find a way to nullify a forward pairing that has plundered 15 goals so far in the competition?
Eight of those have borne the name of tournament top scorer Ribeiro, who struck four times in Cruzeiro’s 6-1 aggregate win over last-16 opponents Nacional de Montevideo, including a clinically taken first-leg hat-trick on home soil. “I’m in great form at the moment and I’m hoping to keep going like this and help Cruzeiro win the title,” the man-of-the-moment told FIFA.com. Indeed such has been Ribeiro's progress that his 13-goal tally since the start of 2010 is four higher than his total for the whole of 2009.
Injury jinx lifted
“I think the main reason (for my good form) has been avoiding injury,” said Ribeiro, previously considered as someone yet to fulfil his vast potential. “The fact I spent a lot of the time on the sidelines held me back a lot last year. It wasn’t until the second half of the campaign that I got a run of games under my belt.”
That run has continued into this year, with the forward already appearing in 20 matches in all competitions compared to 46 for the whole of last year. Moreover, the Brazilian national championship is yet to begin and Cruzeiro, last year’s Libertadores runners-up, will play at least two more encounters in the competition – starting with Wednesday’s hosting of O Tricolor Paulista. “We’ve got a strong team, a good cup side, which knows how to tackle the Libertadores. Every round is very tough from now on, it’s not easy to get through. But we’re well prepared.”
Sure to be the subject of close attentions from the Sao Paulo defenders, the nimble front-man is confident of still making enough space to hurt his opponents. “I’m ready to handle the marking. It’s normal that the better I play the tighter I’m going to be marked. But my game is mainly about movement, be it down the right- or left-hand channels, creating chances and getting into the box to score goals. That makes it hard for markers, so the secret is to continue like this.”
Match made in heaven
Ribeiro’s range of movement dovetails well with partner-in-crime Kleber, who tends to operate nearer the box than his team-mate but is also not averse to unpredictable bursts which pull defenders out of position. “We know each other pretty well. He (Kleber) plays nearer the area, but in some games our roles change slightly. We’ve got a great understanding going and we’re scoring lots of goals this year,” continued Ribeiro, before touching on a tactical switch by coach Adilson Batista which led to that hat-trick against Nacional. “Adilson told us beforehand that their defence wasn’t the quickest, so I should be the one to play furthest forward to make the most of my speed.”
And just like the Nacional tie, A Raposa must play the first leg of the quarter-final against Sao Paulo at the Estadio Mineirao. “I prefer playing the first match at home anyway. We’re going to try and get a good result at the Mineirao, where we’re playing really well. We’ve won all our games there by healthy margins,” added Ribeiro, whose side will need some sort of cushion to take to the Morumbi in Sao Paulo, where their opponents have also been in imposing form.
“Sao Paulo are a special club. They believed in me when I was still unknown and gave me the chance to shine, so I’ve got a lot of affection for them,” said Ribeiro, who was an unused substitute in the club’s FIFA Club World Championship final triumph over Liverpool in 2005. As the interview drew to a close, however, the player was keen to emphasise where his priorities now lie: “Life moves on, and Sao Paulo are now part of my past. Cruzeiro are my team now and I’m just going to keep doing my job.”