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Out of this world hungover. No better way to describe the Palmeiras that Sunday came on against Ponte Preta for the first leg of the Paulistão semi-finals. With two goals down after seven minutes on the clock, it became clear our men were mentally still in the aftershock of last Wednesday’s epic victory against Peñarol. Ponte were on the other end of the spectrum, each player maxing out as if an entire career was at stake. Three against nil at halftime, fair and square.

In hindsight, coach Baptista’s error was not rotating the squad, putting some fresh legs and minds in Palmeiras’ starting eleven. His lame attempts to turn the tide in the second half were to no use: actually, we were much closer to 4-0 than anything else.

Although the São Paulo championship is the strongest state tournament in Brazil, it is only a regional competition: a Paulistão title is nothing compared to the Brasileirão, the Brazil Cup or the Libertadores Cup. Top teams tend to considered regional tournaments as workshops, where ideas are tested and the squad tweaked for the bigger challenges ahead. That is, until you f*ck it up, like Palmeiras just did. Then things get serious.

The second leg against Ponte takes place next Saturday, only four days before Palmeiras’ return game against Peñarol in Uruguay. Forget going soft against Ponte, saving up for the Libertadores game: out of respect for tradition and home supporters, Palmeiras must and will go full throttle Saturday in an effort to revert the situation, then embark to face Peñarol in life or death modus. Exhausting, sure. Nevertheless, the grim reality.

Scoppia che la vittoria è nostra!
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Palmeiras qualified to the Paulistão semi-finals like a breeze, beating Novorizontino 3-1 (away) and 3-0 (home). The team is evolving game by game, Eduardo Baptista clearly understanding the squad he has at hand and players feeling confident about their leader. And although it is still early, there are hints of something else, which we have not seen in a rather long time at Palmeiras: the drive to play well the full 90 minutes and transform a good performance into an excellent one. With Borja and Guerra adapting to their new team and country, Palmeiras look stronger than ever.

São Paulo FC are through, and so are Corinthians. Today Monday, Santos and Ponte Preta battle it out for the last spot. Next weekend sees the first leg of the semi-finals, but who takes on who will only be known after the final whistle tomorrow.

Not that Palmeiras waste any energy thinking about possible upcoming Paulistão opponents: focus is on Wednesday’s bout against Peñarol in the third round of the Libertadores Cup group stage. Jean has been recovering well after the foot injury and is likely to be found on the bench against the Uruguayans.

bieber_allianz_croppedEnd of March, the pitch at the Allianz Parque was completely removed. Three shows took place in the first week of April: two performances by Justin Bieber and one by Elton John. Then, last Friday, some 14.000 square meters of grass was taken from a farm in Tremembé and installed at the arena. The stadium manager promises that the pitch will be ready by Wednesday, thanks to machines imported from the United States and Europe, capable of cutting a thicker slice of grass: 4.5cm instead of 1cm. The thicker cut allows for not only grass and root, but also part of the rooted soil. In theory, three days should be enough to extend the grass rolls, the pitch being ready for play already on the fourth day.
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Compared to the conventional model, where the pitch needs 30-45 days to reach ideal conditions, this is a huge step forward, albeit expensive: each swap costs approximately R$ 300.000 (US$ 95.000), with the arena constructor foreseeing another four swaps during the year. Those Bieber shows are clearly very lucrative. Palmeiras and sponsors cannot complain either: there has been tremendous visibility and branding, as indicated by the picture featuring the Canadian megastar wearing our jersey. That said, Palmeiras forced out of their home grounds time after another is unacceptable and we need better harmonisation of schedules, combined with a permanent solution addressing pitch quality. On the latter, let’s see how far this thick cut technique takes us.

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Palmeiras will have a series of important and decisive games in the São Paulo championship and Libertadores Cup, starting on Sunday (2), away against Novorizontino, for the first leg of the Paulistão quarterfinals. The three other clashes are Botafogo/SP vs Corinthians, Linense vs São Paulo and Ponte Preta vs Santos.

Next Friday (7), the Verdão receive Novorizontino to define who advances to the semi-final phase of the Paulistão. The game will be played at the Pacaembu stadium, as the Allianz Parque is receiving new grass.

On the following Wednesday (12), back at the Allianz Parque, Palmeiras receive Peñarol (URU), for the third round of the Libertadores group stage. Palmeiras currently head group 5 at four points, having drawn 1-1 with Atlético Tucumán in the opening away game before beating Jorge Wilstermann 1-0 at home.

Palmeiras advancing to the semi-finals in the São Paulo championship (anything else would be a disaster) the games will take place on April 16 and 23. Then, on the 26th, refocus on Libertadores as Palmeiras travel to Montevideo to again play Peñarol.

Should Palmeiras advance to the finals in the Paulistão, the first leg is played on 30 April.

A busy month, every game a decisive one.

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Palmeiras’ spot in the quarterfinals of the Paulistão already secured, coach Baptista has been using remaining games in the group stage to test some ideas and give benchwarmers the opportunity. The alternative line-ups have not cooled down attendance: 21,5K against Mirassol at 8:30 pm on a Thursday and today, at 4 pm against Audax, a whopping 28K on the stands.

Against Mirassol, only two or three regular starting eleven players in the line-up. Same thing against Audax. One must tailor expectations accordingly. The team played surprisingly solid against the former, 2-0, goals by Rafael Marques and Felipe Melo (his first for Palmeiras). Today’s 2-2 against Audax was less satisfying (goals signed Róger Guedes and Willian), but again: only Tchê Tchê, Zé Roberto and Vitor Hugo are normally associate with the starting eleven. In addition, it is natural for players to relax a bit, as the objective – to reach the knockout phase – has already been achieved.
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Felipe Melo celebrates first goal in the Palmeiras jersey

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In any case, from the two games we learnt that Antonio Carlos is a good option in the centre lock and that Guedes is finding his form.

With today´s draw, Palmeiras sustain an undefeated home streak of 19 games, being 15 victories and 4 draws. Eight long months. Eduardo Baptista’s overall percentage is 69: in 15 games for Palmeiras, he computes 9 victories, 4 draws and 2 defeats.

Attendance
Back to the topic of attendance: already in 2016, Palmeiras were pulling ahead of other teams in Brazil. With a 32.471 average attendance in 2016, Palmeiras rank 56th in the world, Corinthians coming in at 74th with an 28.764 average. Internacional is the third Brazilian club on the top 100, at 96th, with an 25.422 average. Considering that Palmeiras also had the highest average ticket price in Brazil last year – R$ 60 (S$ 19) – one can easily imagine the long-term effects.

The aforementioned study was carried out by Brazilian newspaper Correio Braziliense and looked at 2.956 teams in 75 countries. In case you are curious, the top five teams are Borussia Dortmund (81.178), Barcelona (79.724), Manchester United (75.286), Bayern München (75.000) and Real Madrid (71.280).

Allianz Parque now family friendly
Against São Paulo FC, a novelty: Palmeiras debuted a new, designated “family area” at the Allianz Parque. Any adult buying a ticket for this area can bring a child, up to the age of six, without additional charge. Something of the sort has been a long-standing demand from supporters. Finally attended!

Players in the MD
In the medical department, unfortunately centre-back Thiago Martins has joined Moisés. The youngster ripped his knee ligaments during training the other week, and just like Moisés will need at least six month’s recovery time. The misfortune did however not stop Palmeiras from renewing the player’s contract, extending it another year, now running until the end of 2019. 

Two more player are in the medical department. Jean injured his foot against Santos, but a full recovery is expected in another week or so. Arouca had a second surgery to his left ankle yesterday and has being taken off the Paulistão list, with Hyoran replacing him. Should be interesting to watch.

Last game before the quarterfinals is Ponte Preta, away, upcoming Wednesday.

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In what possibly was the best game of football played so far this year in Brazil, Santos suffered a 2-1 defeat to Palmeiras in the ninth round of the Paulista Championship. Last time Palmeiras walked away with three points from the Vila Belmiro was in 2011.

Palmeiras came strong, the line-up consisting of Prass; Jean, Mina, Dracena and Zé Roberto; Melo; Tchê Tchê, Guerra, Keno and Dudu; Borja.

In spite of the rain, the game was highly paced and technical, both sides playing offensive football. Many clear opportunities were created on both sides, Santos perhaps producing the most, but we went to halftime goalless thanks to absolutely outstanding keeper performance on both sides. The scenario pretty much repeated during most of the second half, until Ricardo Oliveira opened up the scorecard with 29 minutes on the clock, forcing Palmeiras coach Baptista to go all in. Egídio already on the flank, dislocating Zé Roberto to the centre (Guerra out), Baptista now promoted Willian and Róger Guedes on behalf of Zé and Keno. Palmeiras became extremely offensive, but kept cool, working the ball. Santos succumbed to pressure, allowing the equalizer as Jean took an unlikely shot from a bad angle with five minutes to go. A few minutes later, the virada: Guedes, also on the right flank, went deep and crossed low, where Willian materialized to stuff the net. Glorious.
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The result mathematically secures Palmeiras a spot in the quarterfinals. For Palmeiras, the three remaining rounds in the group stage will be used to give bench players more pitch time, while guarding first position in the overall score, as that translates into home advantage in the semi-finals and finals. Next up, Mirassol.

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Any sãopaulino infiltrating the Allianz Parque yesterday was surely shaking like a leaf – in the fear of getting caught (after all, only Palmeiras supporters were allowed in, as in every derby in São Paulo as of late) and considering the retrospect of the clash in recent years: last 4 home games, only Palestra victories, with a goal tally 12-1 in Palmeiras’ favour.

With an eye on Palmeiras’ Libertadores Cup game this upcoming Wednesday, and considering previous Wednesday’s physically and mentally tough battle in Argentina, coach Baptista opted for a mixed bag against The Enemy. I first, real test of the squad’s strength. Against a São Paulo featuring the Paulistão’s best offense, how would Palmeiras behave without reference players like Edu Dracena, Jean, Zé Roberto, Felipe Melo, Keno and Borja?

Wonderfully well, we learnt. In what surely was Palmeiras’ best performance so far this season, São Paulo was thoroughly dominated. The line-up consisted of Prass; Fabiano, Yerry Mina, Vítor Hugo and Egídio; Thiago Santos and Tchê Tchê; Michel Bastos, Dudu and Guerra; Willian. Fluctuating between a 4-1-4-1 and a 4-2-3-1, Palmeiras never gave São Paulo a chance to breathe, consistently applying pressure high up on the pitch, compacting the lines, leaving the opponent little option but to clear the ball. Palmeiras created a number of chances, but the first goal came only just before halftime: Egídio won the ball on the midfield, by the left sideline, Dudu snapped it up, glanced over at Denis’ advanced position between the posts and fired away. Brilliant in every sense, a marvellous goal. And for the third time in three years, a São Paulo keeper is humiliated in similar fashion against Palmeiras. Difference is, this time, former keeper and current SPFC coach Rogério Ceni watched it all from the sideline.

In the second half, Palmeiras drove then final nails in the coffin, first through Tchê Tchê, with a terrific left-foot shot (what a comeback for the kid, spending last six weeks in recovery after fracturing his shoulder) and Guerra (his first goal for Palmeiras and his first opportunity playing the full 90 minutes, last 20 of these together with Borja).
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The victory was everything we could have hoped for. Yesterday, we had a clear indicator Eduardo Baptista’s ideas are finally catching on. And as formations, tactics and game plans start to mesh, players loosen up and allow their creativity to flow, leading to better individual and collective performance, better results and a continuous boost in confidence. 

Jorge Wilstermann had better look out. 

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Palmeiras used yesterday’s game as dress rehearsal for the upcoming Libertadores bout away against Atlético Tucumán. Baptista again opted for the 4-2-3-1 formation, this time Felipe Melo taking Thiagos Santo’s place alongside Zé Roberto. Michel Bastos gave way to Guerra. And just as against Ferroviária, Willian started up front.

Even swapping pieces, the formation worked well and Palmeiras controlled the game. The soaked pitch ruined expectations for any class act, but the first half was nevertheless enjoyable, with Willian opening up the scorecard before the ten-minute mark and Palmeiras creating several chances.

In the second half, Baptista promoted Borja and Bastos on Willian and Guerra. The scenario remained mostly unchanged until Zé Roberto advanced his position, transforming Palmeiras’ formation into a 4-1-4-1. With that, the same problems resurged from previous games: Felipe Melo lost and alone, lines too far apart, difficulties in reversing from defence to offence. Baptista watched all this but apparently was not bothered by Red Bull applying more pressure and advancing positions. His third substitution was Roger Guedes on Keno, the young forward coming on red hot, soon increasing the lead after a beautiful pass from Zé.

Red Bull found their goal with five minutes left on the clock. A draw was however never close and in the dying minute, Borja again showed all his lethalness, closing the scorecard.
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In two games for the Verdão, the Colombian striker has had the ball in his possession for 37 seconds, taken three shots and scored twice. If there was ever any doubt, he is the sharpest shooter in the squad. We also learnt that the 4-2-3-1 formation does indeed suit Palmeiras well, even swapping the pieces. And this without two crucial players for game reversal, Tchê Tchê and Moisés, available (the former will be tested tomorrow and might travel with the squad to Argentina).

Now, yesterday’s morphing from 4-2-3-1 into 4-1-4-1 leaves some of us puzzled. As Baptista did not try to mend, Zé Roberto was under instructions. Why does Baptista insist on a formation that is not working? His grace period is coming to an end, and fast. For now, he better settle on a formation and matching game plan that will put out solid, consistent performance. Leave the alternations and trickery to later.

Libertadores Cup. Our obsession. Bring it on.

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