Flu leading the way in Brazil
This year’s Serie A championship is providing a roller-coaster ride for Brazil’s legions of football fans, who have been taking nothing for granted over the course of what has been an unpredictable season so far.
The first half of the campaign came to a conclusion on Sunday, with leaders Fluminense having seen their once-comfortable lead over Corinthians cut to a single point and a quartet of teams closing in fast on the top two. There is not much to choose between the sides positioned further down the table either, all of which should make for an exciting close to the season, with 19 games still to go.
Despite having had their cushion reduced, O Fluzão boasts a squad that is the envy of the league. Portugal veteran Deco has brought his craft and guile to a classy midfield unit in which Argentinian playmaker Dario Conca has already made a name for himself. Fluminense pack plenty of punch up front too, with an experienced and effective strike force awaiting the return of the free-scoring Fred. And with three-time championship winner Muricy Ramalho in charge from the sidelines, Flu fans have every reason to be optimistic about their side’s chances.
Yet, as to be expected, the wily Ramalho is not getting carried away. “I’ve always said that our first objective is to qualify for the Libertadores. Then we’ll take it from there,” he says before referring to Sao Paulo’s dramatic title charge in 2008, one he masterminded. “The championship is tough and unpredictable. After all, one season I won the league after being 11 points behind the leaders at the halfway stage.”
Having led the way for the last eight weeks, O Tricolor Carioca are being chased hard by Corinthians, who have a crucial game in hand. Adding further pressure are the group formed by Santos, Internacional, Botafogo and Cruzeiro, all of whom lie only six points off the pace. Copa do Brasil winners Santos and Copa Libertadores champions Internacional also have a game in hand, albeit against each other.
Ups and downs
It is hard to see any of the sides outside the top six making a successful title push. That includes habitual candidates Sao Paulo, who would normally be right in the mix but appear to have dropped out of contention following a disappointing start to the season. Flirting with the relegation zone for many weeks, O Tricolor Paulista eventually put together a four-game unbeaten run to pull into an altogether more comfortable position.
“Maybe all we were thinking about before was avoiding relegation but now we’ve given ourselves some breathing space and we’ve got our minds set on our next win,” comments talismanic goalkeeper Rogerio Ceni. “The title’s a long way off because the teams at the top are picking up lots of points. Even so, we ended up winning the league in 2008 after a great run and I’m not ruling anything out.”
With only 14 points separating Santos in third from Goianense in 18th, much can still change, as it surely will with each passing week. “We’re going to be assessing our chances as the situation develops,” adds a watchful Ceni. “I still feel anything can happen, even winning the championship.”
Adding to the unpredictability is the fact that many clubs still have to bed in their new signings, making the second half of an already topsy-turvy campaign even harder to call.
Right-back Ilsinho has yet to make an appearance for new employers Sao Paulo, while Cruzeiro are still getting acquainted with the Argentinian duo of Walter Montillo and Ernesto Farias and arch-rivals Atletico Mineiro have just brought in Ecuadorian attacking midfielder Edison Mendez.
The league’s lowest scorers with only 14 goals so far, Flamengo have recruited former Fenerbahce striker Deivid and ex-Olympiacos forward Diogo in a bid to improve that statistic, which compares unfavourably with their defensive record of only 15 goals conceded, the joint-lowest along with Ceara.
The main title aspirants have been making some adjustments of their own, with Deco and Belletti having only just arrived at Fluminense and Corinthians welcoming back striker Ronaldo from his latest injury lay-off. It remains to be seen just what kind of impact those three big names will have in the months ahead.
Whatever happens between now and the season’s finale, the teams clustered together at the top are unlikely to be dropping their guard, as a cautious Ramalho explains: “In football, when you win a game you can’t just sit back and think everything’s wonderful, just as you can’t think everything’s wrong when you lose. There’s a long way to go yet.”