Rio-Sao Paulo axis leading title chase

The Brasileirao is well-known for its competitive and well-balanced field, to the extent that picking a favourite for the title is always notoriously difficult. The 2011 edition has followed that pattern to the letter so far, with only eight points currently separating leaders Corinthians from sixth-placed Palmeiras as the campaign nears its halfway point.

Intriguingly, a marked geographical trend has also emerged, with the top six places all occupied by sides from the states of Rio de Janeiro or Sao Paulo since Matchday 11. Both areas are home to Brazil’s biggest supporter bases and their clubs have won more national titles than any other. Yet it remains the first time since the current league championship format was adopted in 2003 that Cariocas and Paulistas have been so dominant. Indeed, of the two states’ top-flight representatives, only 2010 champions Fluminense and Copa Libertadores 2011 winners Santos have drifted off the title pace and currently occupy ninth and 14th spot respectively.

“In recent years there’s been more of an even spread [among the states],” said Ricardo Gomes, whose Vasco da Gama side are fourth but only three points behind O Timão. “But a lot can still happen between now and the end of the season.” 

It is not unusual to see Cariocas and Paulistas tussling it out for the title, with clubs from one or other of the two states emerging victorious in the last seven editions: Santos in 2004, Corinthians in 2005, Sao Paulo from 2006 to 2008, Flamengo in 2009 and Flu last year. What does bear noting is the states’ current level of overall dominance, even if, as Gomes admitted, it remains early days.

It’s easier for them to spend more on bringing players in, which means they can assemble a stronger squad with quality players in all positions.
Fabio of Cruzeiro on teams from the states of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo

Historically, at least two teams from states other than Sao Paulo or Rio have finished in the top six every year since 2003. In addition, with the exception of 2007, a team from another region has finished in the top two – with Cruzeiro coming first in 2003 and second in 2010, Internacional taking second in 2005, 2006 and 2009, and Porto Alegre rivals Gremio finishing runners-up in 2008. Besides which, 2007 and 2008 also ended in the ignominy of relegation to Serie B for Corinthians and Vasco respectively.

Both this illustrious pair have bounced back strongly and, though they are yet to taste Brasileirao glory since returning to the top table, O Timão claimed the Copa do Brazil 2009 and A Gigante da Colina won this year’s tournament. What's more, the Copa has been lifted by Rio or Sao Paulo state clubs every year since 2004, with the exception of the triumph by Pernambuco’s Sport Recife in 2008.

Big teams, big names
Potentially setting these states’ representatives apart is the financial power they wield, with many of the players brought back from foreign shores in recent years making a major impact on their fortunes. For Corinthians, you have prolific striker Liedson and attacking midfielder Alex, as well as former Inter Milan and Brazil powerhouse Adriano lying in wait on the treatment table, while Fla fans are revelling in attacking trio Ronaldinho, Thiago Neves and Deivid. Nor should we forget Renato at Botafogo or even veteran Rivaldo’s influence for Sao Paulo, with the latter club set to be further reinforced by the return of lethal ex-Sevilla hitman Luis Fabiano – another long-term injury absentee.

“Everybody’s working hard and making good signings, bringing in big-name, established players,” said Thiago Neves, before Cruzeiro keeper Fabio, once of Vasco, expanded on the theme: “In budgetary terms, they’re the sides that earn the most money.

“They don’t always make the right moves in the transfer market but, generally speaking, they get it right with the very best players, who end up standing out. It’s easier for them to spend more on bringing players in, which means they can assemble a stronger squad with quality players in all positions."

That said, the likes of Internacional, currently two points behind Palmeiras in seventh, and Cruzeiro, further back in 11th, cannot claim to be short of squad depth or big-game experience. Both have been regular challengers for major honours at home and abroad in recent years - Inter, for example, lifted the 2006 and 2010 Libertadores and the FIFA Club World Cup Japan 2006 but are undergoing transitional periods this campaign.

Nor can they be counted out of the race for the Brasileirao 2011 just yet, with over 20 league games still to go and thus over 60 points still to play for. Members of the Rio-Sao Paulo axis, you have been warned.