Act 1 – The Game
Freshly eliminated from the Paulistão and with coach Eduardo Baptista under pressure, Palmeiras travelled to Montevideo without Dudu, suspended, to face Peñarol. The away game promised to be every bit as tough as the home game in mid-April, the Uruguayans having already shown their nastier side. However, not their nastiest.
Baptista tried to surprise Peñarol by using the same formation as against Ponte Preta the other week: a 3-5-2, this time with Vítor Hugo operating to the left, Dracena centred and Mina to the right. Promoting Vítor Hugo back into the line-up, Baptista hoped to add both speed and superior aerial cover, both offensively but in particular defensively. He rested Tchê Tchê, populating the midfield with Felipe Melo, Guerra, and Michel Bastos. Jean and Egídio on the flanks, Roger Guedes and Borja up front.
Baptista’s battleplan failed miserably. Although the 3-5-2 turned into a 5-4-1 when pressured, Palmeiras were still unable to stop the crosses from happening, several of them reaching Peñarol’s hovering forwards. When recovering the ball, Palmeiras’ transition was typically a punt up the field, where Borja, completely isolated, faced two or three defenders. Palmeiras created nothing but suffered great pressure, succumbing at 12 (goal should have been void due to a clear foul on Mina) and again at 40. Things looked very grim at halftime.
The second half kicked off with Palmeiras back to basics: Vítor Hugo and Egídio out as Palmeiras reshaped into a 4-1-3-2, with Willian as Borja’s wingman and Tchê Tchê adding quality in the middle. The only novelty was Michel Bastos, dislocated to the left flank. The changes had immediate effect, Willian closing the gap with four minutes on the clock and Mina equalising at 18. Peñarol were on the ropes and suffered the third blow at 27, again by the feet of Willian. Palmeiras controlled the game until the final whistle, securing another epic victory.
Act 2 – The Ambush
Final whistle. Felipe Melo raises his arms in a victorious gesture and walks slowly toward the centre of the pitch, but is intercepted by Peñarol players and the aggression starts, while supporters clash on the stands. Fernando Prass, Willian and others are targeted on the pitch, as havoc spreads all over. Melo defending himself with his fists. As Palmeiras players run for the exit – for the tunnel that leads to the locker rooms – they find the gates shut. Impossible to know what would have happened had not Palmeiras’ directors predicted something of the sort could go down and brought a batch of extra security with them to Montevideo: these men now go to work on the gates, forcing them open, finally permitting our staff and players to exit the pitch. The ruckus continues in the tunnel and down the corridors, but eventually stalls, again thanks to Palmeiras’ guards. No police in sight, outsourced stadium security or anyone else concerned with the safety of the visitors. On the contrary: there are reports of stadium management people, photographers and others attacking Palmeiras players and supporters.
Anything except heavy fines for Peñarol would be a tremendous scandal; CONMEBOL had better act fast and with vigour.
Act 3 – Relief & Revolt
During the press conference that followed, Eduardo Baptista let the dogs out. He showed initial relief by the fact that no one was seriously injured, mixed with anger at the outrageous behaviour of Peñarol and the stadium administrators. However, an underlying issue quickly surfaced: all the bull written in the press about Palmeiras in general and Baptista’s work in particular. He really laid it out, pitched voice and fist slamming the table. All the frustration of being a serious and dedicated coach, leading a group of equally dedicated professionals, and having to read gossip and outright lies day in and day out, as if football was tabloid material. How much this hurts the sport and how much it damages the work he and others try to carry out. His bottom line: journalists have a huge responsibility, but many ignore that in their increasingly obsessive quest for audience rating and online clicks.
In the words of former Palmeiras director Custódio Dias: “I’d say we just witnessed Eduardo Baptista take command at Palmeiras”. And I agree with him. Things will never be the same between supporters and Baptista after yesterday’s victory and the way he later positioned himself vis-à-vis the press. Many might continue sceptical about his capacity as a coach, but he won the respect of everyone. Yes, I dare say everyone.
— ooo —
Palmeiras now have 10 points, leading Group 5 four points ahead of Jorge Wilstermann and six points ahead of Atlético Tucumán. Peñarol is at the bottom with three points. In the next round, Palmeiras travel to Cochabamba, Bolivia, to face Wilstermann on 3 May.
Scoppia che la vittoria è nostra!