The Brasileirao begins
Last year's Brasileirao served up one of the most keenly contested editions since the double round-robin format was adopted in 2003. After a titanic struggle with runners-up Gremio, Sao Paulo finally prevailed to become the first team to win three consecutive titles. Equally captivating was the battle for the other two Copa Libertadores' berths between Flamengo, Cruzeiro and Palmeiras, eventually to be claimed by the latter two.
After the tension and drama of the last campaign, Brazilian fans are hoping for more of the same this time out. And if the recently-concluded state championships are anything to go by, they will not be disappointed when the action gets underway this Saturday.
There are reasons aplenty for this optimism. Firstly, not only do the clubs have the majority of last season's stars still in their ranks - players like Hernanes (Sao Paulo), Keirrison (Palmeiras) and Ramires (Cruzeiro) - but many have also bolstered their squads with impressive signings. Evidence of this can be seen in the fact that three of the Seleção's four strikers from the 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany™ are back playing in Brazil: Fred, with Fluminense; Adriano, at Flamengo, and O Fenómeno Ronaldo at Corinthians, where he is already an idol after firing his new side to victory in the recent Paulista state championship.
From strength to strength
Given the openness of the 2008 edition and the subsequent reinforcements that have arrived, predicting who will lift the trophy on 6 December is far from straightforward. That said, there are several strong candidates, chief among which are serial champions Sao Paulo. Not content just keeping the nucleus of last season's side intact, the Tricolor Paulista have brought in Washington, one of the leading marksmen of the 2008 Brasileirao with Fluminense. And Sao Paulo's own top scorer in that campaign, striker Borges, was also in confident mood ahead of kick-off, saying: "At the moment we're the team to beat. We have an enormous responsibility."
Elsewhere, Gremio, keen to prove last year's achievement was no one-off, have gone for an all-Argentinian front line with the signings of Maxi Lopez (FC Moscow) and German Herrera (Corinthians). The early signs are good with the Porto Alegre outfit having made it through to the knockout phase of this year's Copa Libertadores with the best group-stage record of any side. Another team to hit the ground running this year are Cruzeiro. The club from Belo Horizonte compensated for the loss of striker Guilherme with the signing of Kleber from Palmeiras and recently won their state championship at the expense of archrivals Atletico Mineiro, helped by a memorable 5-0 trouncing of O Galo.
Flamengo, meanwhile, showed they mean business this year with victory in the Carioca state championship for the third year running. Beating Botofogo on penalties to win the title was encouraging enough, and three days later the club delighted their fans with the news that one of their finest ever graduates, Adriano, was coming back. For their part, Palmeiras, fourth in 2008, may have missed out on the Paulista championship this year, but the impressive form of 20-year-old striker Keirrison augurs well for coach Vanderlei Luxemburgo's burgeoning squad ahead of the new campaign.
There are a host of other sides capable of mounting serious title challenges, not least Copa Sudamericana holders Internacional, who had Nilmar, D'Alessandro and youngster Taison all in dazzling form en route to victory in the recent Gaucho championship. Equally impressive this year have been Corinthians. In spite of the media fanfare that has accompanied the arrival of Ronaldo at the Parque Sao Jorge, the 2008 Serie B champions have proven their credentials by going undefeated en route to their latest state title.
Nor should Fluminense be discarded either, boasting as they do the goal threat of Fred and talent of Thiago Neves, not to mention the experience of Carlos Alberto Parreira on the bench. Also in the mix are 2008 Copa do Brasil champions, Sport Recife, who recently won their fourth consecutive Pernambuco state title and claimed a berth in the last 16 of the 2009 Copa Libertadores.
And what of Santos, who have 17-year-old sensation Neymar and goal-getter Kleber Pereira in their ranks, or Parana state champions Atletico Paranaense? With such a strong field and the Brasileirao's proven propensity to surprise, expect drama and twists aplenty before the victor emerges next December.