Ramalho still the man to beat

Sao Paulo's domestic dominance between 2006 and 2008, when they won an unprecedented three consecutive Brasileirao titles under Muricy Ramalho, was seen as a remarkable feat. In hindsight, their coach's success was no great surprise, given his hitherto and subsequent track record in the competition, making him very much the coach to beat on the eve of the new championship.

Since the introduction of the league’s new format back in 2003, sides led by the 55-year-old have only finished outside the top ten in 2004 – when he resigned from his post with former surprise packages Sao Caetano with the team languishing down in 18th spot. That spell with the 2002 Copa Libertadores runners-up was a mere blip, however, with Ramalho teams sitting in first place after more than a third of total matchdays spanning the last eight seasons. What's more, the coach has claimed no fewer than four titles over the same period, including the 2010 edition as Fluminense boss, as well as making Internacional runners-up in 2005 and guiding Palmeiras into fifth in 2009.

All of which makes good reading for fans of Ramalho’s new club Santos ahead of Saturday's big kick-off. Particularly when O Peixe’s faithful have already had a taste of what the coach has to offer. His 12 games so far at the helm have brought eight wins and four draws, results which have helped Santos reach the semi-finals of the Libertadores and claim victory in the Paulista state championship.

And having earned widespread admiration for their blistering attacking approach last year, under Ramalho Os Santistas have also added greater defensive steel - as evidenced by the concession of just four goals. “After he came in, our team went seven games without conceding. He’s what makes the difference,” was the verdict of Santos’ striking starlet Neymar.

He’s what makes the difference.
Neymar on Ramalho

Ramalho is fully aware, however, that the demands of the Brasileirao are quite different to both the Libertadores and the state championship. A keen advocate of a fast start to the season, with a view to having some margin for error over the course of a lengthy campaign, Ramalho has repeatedly stated that “planning, logistics and squad depth” are all crucial in a “unique” title chase featuring a plethora of potential contenders.

Nevertheless, his new club’s Libertadores progress could well impact on Ramalho’s determination to hit the ground running in the Brasileirao. Indeed, the coach is likely to rest key players for this weekend’s league opener with a view to their midweek Libertadores semi-final first leg. So will competing on two fronts end up costing Santos dear?

Evenly matched field
With a host of clubs now boasting expensively assembled squads with a view to withstanding the rigours of the next nine months, there are contenders aplenty for the 2011 Brasileirao crown. The recent strengthening of squads goes back to the close of the 2010 campaign, with the majority of big clubs managing to prevent a mass exodus of star names to foreign shores. While there were notable exceptions in the shape of Jonas, Giuliano, Elias and Jucilei, to name but a few, most clubs and their fans were able to savour holding onto the core of their 2010 line-ups.

This trend was given a further boost by a favourable economic climate which has enabled the return of many big-name Brazilian stars after lengthy spells abroad. With the likes of Ronaldinho Gaucho and Thiago Neves (Flamengo), Elano (Santos), Liedson, Adriano and Alex (Corinthians), Luis Fabiano (Sao Paulo), Juninho Pernambucano (Vasco), Mancini (Atletico-MG) and Brandao (Cruzeiro), all making their way home in 2011, it will do the Brasileirao’s global profile no harm at all.

Further boosting the title credentials of the leading contenders is the number of emerging talents to have underlined their potential in recent months. With Santos gems Neymar and Paulo Henrique Ganso rapidly expanding their medal collections and now firmly established in Brazil’s senior Seleção, 20-year-old Alan Patrick and 19-year-old Danilo have become the new rising stars for O Peixe.

Sao Paulo, for their part, have high hopes for 18-year-old attacker Lucas, so outstanding in Brazil’s victory at this year’s South American U-20 Championship, though O Tricolor Paulista will still need veteran ex-Sevilla goalgetter Luis Fabiano back to his lethal best. Another side looking to make the most of a talented crop are Internacional, who in Leandro Damiao (21) and Oscar (19) have the lungpower and inspiration required to take Inter far. Other gifted youngsters to keep an eye on are Casemiro (Sao Paulo), Renan (Avai), Diego Mauricio (Flamengo) and Leandro (Gremio).

Coming from far and wide
There will also be a greater geographical spread of competitors in the 2011 Brasileirao, particularly when it comes to the southern and south-eastern regions. Along with Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo remains the state with most top-flight representatives with four, despite losing two clubs compared to last year’s competition in Gremio Prudente and Guarani. In contrast, the states of Minas Gerais, Parana and Santa Catarina all gained one extra representative, in the shape of America, on-fire Coritiba and Figueirense respectively.

However, whatever a club’s location, recent seasons in the Brasileirao have made one lesson extremely clear: to be in with a chance of the title, you have to outdo Muricy Ramalho.