Palmeiras are league champions
Former national coach defies doubters
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