The 2011 Brazilian championship has proved to be one of the most unpredictable of recent times, throwing up a succession of surprise results that have confounded the pundits, with more than one title challenge coming unstuck in a frenetic run-in.
As recently as 11 days ago only three points separated the top five teams, with every expectation that the season’s finale would be even more nerve-wracking than in the last two years, when three sides went into the final day still harbouring championship aspirations.
Much has changed since then, however. And the main reason for that has been the spectacular form of America-MG, who have climbed off the bottom of the table by first of all beating leaders Corinthians and then conjuring up two more unlikely wins to spike the title bids of Fluminense and Botafogo.
O Timão promptly recovered their poise with back-to-back victories over Atletico-PR and Ceara, two other teams stuck in the relegation zone. With three games remaining, they hold a two-point lead over Vasco da Gama, who beat Rio rivals Botafogo last weekend, but have themselves been on the end of some shock scorelines, the most notable a 4-1 mauling at the hands of America-MG in September.
Now five points off the pace in third, Flu have been left to rue points dropped against supposedly inferior opposition, while Flamengo and Botafogo, who are both four points further adrift, have similar cause for lament.
Having burst into title contention with a spectacular run of six wins in eight games as the season entered its second half, Fluminense have better reason than anyone to ponder what might have been. No sooner had they staked their championship claim than they lost 2-0 at home to Atletico-MG in October, compounding the felony by going down 2-1 to America-MG at the Engenhao last Saturday, a result that left coach Abel Braga scratching his head.
“It’s been anything but an ordinary championship,” he said. “Fluminense, Vasco and Botafogo have all had chances to move to the top and pull clear but they haven’t taken them. Sao Paulo have had their opportunities too.”
The loss of form suffered by O Tricolor Paulista has been dramatic to say the least. Firm candidates a few short weeks ago, a slew of draws and defeats to the likes of Goianense and Atletico-PR has seen them drop out of the title running and even lose ground in the race for Copa Libertadores places.
Flamengo have been equally erratic. Buoyed by the arrival of Ronaldinho, O Rubro-Negro led the table in the first half of the season before inexplicably going ten games without a win. Despite recovering some momentum, Fla have run out of steam once again in the final stretch.
Botafogo’s campaign has been no less exasperating. Presented with no fewer than three chances to hit the top, in games against Coritiba, Santos and Avai, O Fogão lost the lot. Now coachless following a dismal run, the Rio side are in danger of losing a Libertadores slot that was once theirs for the taking.
One team bucking the trend are Figueirense, who have climbed into fourth, eight points behind Corinthians and with a game in hand. Coached by Jorginho, an assistant to Dunga at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, A Furacão have recovered from a mid-season wobble to go 13 games unbeaten, putting them firmly in the frame for next year’s Libertadores. With games against Flamengo, Fluminense and Corinthians still to come, however, they can take nothing for granted.
Closing the gap
While the season has essentially boiled down to a two-horse race, there seems little doubt that the Brasileirão is more competitive than ever. Only 13 points separate Corinthians in first from tenth-placed Coritiba, who are still harbouring realistic hopes of continental football next year. That statistic compares favourably with the last three seasons, when the side finishing tenth ended over 20 points behind the champions on each occasion, all with inferior records to O Coxa.
The relatively high number of defeats suffered by the leading sides is another reflection of how evenly balanced the 2011 season has been. While frontrunners Corinthians have lost a grand total of ten games, Vasco have seven reverses to their name, Fluminense 14, Figueirense eight and Botafogo 12. O Timão’s record, for example, stands in marked contrast to those of Barcelona, Manchester United and Borussia Dortmund in winning their leagues last season, the trio respectively recording only two, four and five defeats.
Who better to have the final word on the Brasileirão’s unpredictability than the vastly experienced Muricy Ramalho, the winner of four national championships between 2006 and 2010, and a coach as well versed in the league’s unique challenges as anyone?
“It’s a different type of championship, unlike any other,” he told FIFA.com. “You can never relax and there’s never a game when you know you’re going to have an easier time of it. That’s why there are always five or six teams in with a chance of winning it at the end of the season.”