Palmeiras are league champions

For­mer na­tional coach de­fies doubters

World Soccer - - Contents -

Luiz Felipe Sco­lari walked into a storm at the end of July when he took charge of Palmeiras for a third time. Coach of the na­tional side when they lost 7-1 to Ger­many in the 2014 World Cup semi-fi­nals, he was de­nounced as a has-been and a back­ward step for an am­bi­tious club.

On his ar­rival, Palmeiras were sixth in the ta­ble, eight points be­hind the lead­ers. They did not lose an­other league game and cruised to the ti­tle with an eight-point mar­gin while also reach­ing the semi-fi­nals of the Brazil­ian and Lib­er­ta­dores Cups.

At his best as a man-man­ager, where his “fa­ther fig­ure, strong man, with a sen­ti­men­tal streak” act goes down best, Palmeiras proved ideal for “Big Phil”.

With their im­pres­sive new sta­dium prov­ing a suc­cess­ful source of income and the back­ing of a wealthy sponsor, the Sao Paulo-based club are well funded and have as­sem­bled a deep squad – with the num­ber of op­tions avail­able per­haps con­found­ing Sco­lari’s less-ex­pe­ri­enced pre­de­ces­sor, Roger Machado.

Sco­lari used the depth of the squad to his ad­van­tage by turn­ing the de­fi­ciency of the Brazil­ian cal­en­dar into a pos­i­tive.

With so many games to play, many clubs are forced to pri­ori­tise. And with huge prize money and a place in the fol­low­ing year’s Lib­er­ta­dores at stake, plenty choose to con­cen­trate on the do­mes­tic cup, of­ten putting out re­serve sides for league games.

Palmeiras, though, have enough play­ers to form two strong sides, so Sco­lari played one team in the cup and, with a lit­tle crossover, an­other in the league. By do­ing so, ev­ery­one felt im­por­tant and the re­sults started to flow.

But the same can­not be said of their foot­ball as there was lit­tle flow about Palmeiras. Their league tri­umph was based on deep de­fence and quick counter at­tacks – a cau­tious model of play that served them, and other Brazil­ian clubs, badly in the Lib­er­ta­dores.

The 2018 na­tional cham­pi­onship will cer­tainly not go down as a vin­tage year as a paucity of ideas was met by – with the ex­cep­tion of Palmeiras – a paucity of re­sources.

Cruzeiro were happy to win the Brazil­ian Cup and drift along mid-ta­ble, while Gremio came close to a sec­ond suc­ces­sive Lib­er­ta­dores Fi­nal but lost some of the shine of their pleas­ing, pos­ses­sion-based game on their way to fin­ish­ing fourth in the league. Fla­mengo fin­ished run­ners-up to Palmeiras but ended the year with a sen­ti­ment of frus­tra­tion af­ter com­ing up short in the cup com­pe­ti­tions. They played well in patches but were un­der­mined by a con­tin­ued fail­ure to add more pace to the heart of their de­fence.

Among the sea­son’s sur­prise sides were pro­moted In­ter­na­cional, who were not ex­pected to be se­ri­ous con­tenders but per­formed solidly to fin­ish third, and Sao Paulo who many had seen as rel­e­ga­tion can­di­dates. They led the pack for a while be­fore trail­ing away to fin­ish fifth and their Uruguayan coach, Diego Aguirre, was a classic case of be­ing a vic­tim of his own suc­cess. He ex­e­cuted the counter-at­tack­ing model so well that dreams of a ti­tle chal­lenge de­vel­oped, but when such un­re­al­is­tic ex­pec­ta­tions could not be met he was sacked.

A decade af­ter their last tri­umph, it is prov­ing hard for Sao Paulo to watch the league ti­tle be­ing shared by their lo­cal ri­vals over the past four years: Palmeiras com­ing top this year and in 2016, while 2015 and 17 be­longed to Corinthi­ans.

There was lit­tle chance this time round that Corinthi­ans might hold on to their crown. While the new sta­dium of Palmeiras is a money-spin­ner, that of Corinthi­ans is a drain. And while Palmeiras are fi­nan­cially sound, Corinthi­ans have run into money prob­lems – which meant they lost their coach and many key play­ers dur­ing the mid-year trans­fer win­dow, and ended the year be­ing sucked dan­ger­ously

close to the rel­e­ga­tion zone.

They were safe with a round to go, but it was a nervy last Sun­day for Chapecoense and Rio gi­ants Vasco da Gama and Flu­mi­nense.

It was en­tirely pre­dictable that Chapecoense’s sec­ond sea­son af­ter the air dis­as­ter would prove harder than the first, and so it proved. Vasco, mean­while, have been in fi­nan­cial and po­lit­i­cal tur­moil for a while and were threat­ened with their fourth rel­e­ga­tion in a decade. Flu­mi­nense’s grave fi­nan­cial prob­lems saw them field a cut-price team that had been in mid-ta­ble un­til a run of seven games with­out a goal left them gasp­ing for air.

All three would have been down with a de­feat in their fi­nal game, but all three man­aged to hang on: Chapecoense in rel­a­tive com­fort, Flu­mi­nense with a streaky 1-0 win and Vasco grimly pro­tect­ing a goal­less draw.

In­stead, Parana and Amer­ica Mineiro were rel­e­gated, along with Sport and Vi­to­ria, the two po­ten­tial gi­ants from the un­der-rep­re­sented north east of the coun­try. But at least the re­gion has a cou­ple of re­place­ments, with sec­ondtier champions For­taleza and run­ners-up CSA from Ma­ceio – who man­aged a third con­sec­u­tive pro­mo­tion – go­ing up, along with Avai and Goias.

De­spite all the 2014 World Cup in­vest­ments, Brazil­ian foot­ball’s cen­tre of grav­ity lies as strongly as ever in the south east and the south, with those ar­eas sup­ply­ing all but four of the 20 top-flight sides, all of 2018’s top 10 and ev­ery winner for the last 30 years.

‘Big Phil’...Sco­lari (in blue) with his Palmeiras side

Strug­glers...Ayr­ton Lu­cas of Flu­mi­nense (right) and Vasco da Gama’s Yago Pikachu

Chal­lengers...In­ter­na­cional (in red) keep out Gremio

Cup winner...rafinha of Cruzeiro

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