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Two weeks back, things looked on track. Took only two games to spin everything out of control. The disappointing results against Cruzeiro and Corinthians did not only kill the championship aspirations but also the spirit of the group, feeling tired of the constant, uphill battle against all and everything, including the refereeing and outrageously biased media. The early mesh we sensed has dissolved into chaos, Palmeiras defensively leaking like a sieve and offensively depending on individual burst of creativity. Vitória had not experienced victory at the Barradão stadium for months but hit the locker rooms at halftime leading 3-1; a result that stood the test of time, partly due to an incorrectly disallowed goal by Palmeiras midfielder Guerra. Keep counting how many times the refereeing has disfavoured Palmeiras in 2017. Disheartening.
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Alberto Valentim now finds himself needing to conquer exactly what he was mocked for vocalising: a spot in the top 4. With five rounds to go, Palmeiras are in fourth, with 54 points, three ahead of Botafogo and four ahead of Flamengo. Santos in third with 56, Grêmio second with 57 and Corinthians, nine fingers on the trophy, heading the tables with 65.

Can Valentim pick up the pieces and glue them back together, saving what’s left of the season? There is no other option available.

Flamengo at home on Sunday, then relegation-threatened Sport, then another relegation candidate – Avaí – away, then Botafogo at home and Atlético Paranaense away. That is the sequence which will define whether Palmeiras’ 2017 was a failure or a disgrace.  

Scoppia che la vittoria è nostra!

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In a very balanced clash between leader Corinthians and second placed Palmeiras, the refereeing was instrumental, allowing Corinthians to open up the scorecard through a clear offside goal halfway into the first half. Dazed and confused, taking greater risks in the chase for the equalizer, Palmeiras quicly suffered a second blow, then diminished through Mina before allowing Corinthians a third goal, resulting from a dubious penalty. Moisés scored a beauty in the second half, closing the scorecard and Palmeiras’ title aspirations.
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“The refereeing is just poor, the errors even out in the end” is a common argument. An argument that ignores the obvious: Corinthians are the team most times directly and decisively benefitted by the referees in this year’s edition of the Brazilian Championship. On the other side of the scale, Palmeiras, the team most times disfavoured. Mind you, this is not supporters talking, but according to the Brazilian Football Federation’s own data analysis, available online. A quick crunching of numbers, correcting the tables for points won and lost through undisputable refereeing errors, and the current standing would be Santos (61), Palmeiras (60), Grêmio (58) and Corinthians (54).

Palmeiras are now 8 points behind with six rounds to go. 2017 has boiled down to securing a spot in the top four, which would guarantee direct qualification to the Libertadores Cup, in turn crucial for less turbulent 2018 pre-season preparations.

On Thursday, in Salvador, Palmeiras visit Vitória, just below the relegation divider. Expect a “difficult bone to gnaw”, as one would say in Portuguese.

Scoppia che la vittoria è nostra!

Everyone at Palmeiras – players, directors, even supporters – have the last week adopted the same discourse: our aim in the Brasileirão is the G4, the top four teams that earn a direct qualifying spot to next year´s Libertadores Cup. Never mind that a victory against Cruzeiro followed by another against Corinthians would propel Palmeiras to the lead: coach Alberto Valentim’s approach has trickled down everywhere. “Let’s do this one game at the time”. No doubt, the caution is also a reaction to last year’s pathetic “Can you sense the smell (of the championship title)?” campaign that Flamengo wholeheartedly launched into as they approached the top, only to finish in third, nine points behind the champion.

Yesterday’s Palmeiras vs. Cruzeiro was an excellent game, with two teams honestly looking to bag the three points. That being said, Palmeiras dominated the action start to finish, with superior possession and three times the number of shots taken. The draw was the result of an unfortunate own goal, an incorrectly disallowed goal (which would have taken Borja’s count to three on the night) and one penalty not awarded. Yes, the referee directly influenced the result, and that is a rare consensus, even among sports journalists.
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The steady progress under Valentim is clear, and nothing says that louder than Borja’s recent performances. Cuca did not know how or did not want to use the Colombian striker according to his characteristics. A few weeks under the new coach, including three starting eleven appearances, and Borja suddenly resembles the monster that completely took the Latin-American continent by storm last year. In addition, the team is more compact, has transitioned from individual to zonal marking and improved on triangulations.

Did Palmeiras just blow their chance to the title? On the contrary. The draw took Palmeiras one point closer, as Corinthians on the Sunday lost to relegation-threatened Ponte Preta. It should also serve to keep everyone firmly on the ground, continuing to work hard and improve, while keeping the pressure, the “obligation”, firmly on Corinthians’ side for at least a couple of more rounds. Now, Sunday’s derby is crucial: anything but a victory and the gap would remain at five points or even, God forbid, increase to eight. A victory on the other hand would diminish the gap to two points, with Palmeiras strengthened and Corinthians demoralised after a home defeat to the biggest rival and title contender, with six rounds to go. The finish would be epic. Will be epic.

Sunday. Sunday. Sunday.    

Scoppia che la vittoria è nostra!

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Alberto Valentim followed up his 1-3 debut victory away against Atlético Goianense with a 2-0 against Ponte Preta and, today, another convincing 1-3 away victory, this time in Porto Alegre against former runner-up Grêmio. Atlético and Ponte are in the relegation zone, and Grêmio today fielded an alternative line-up, as their priority is next Wednesday´s Libertadores quarterfinal. Nevertheless, Valentim has certainly succeeded in implementing some ideas of his own in these last couple of weeks and Palmeiras are faster, lighter, with players less troubled by excessive defensive task involving a lot of running due to Cuca´s man-to-man marking system. Keno, Tchê Tchê and Mayke are pulling the wagon, putting out extraordinary performances. Borja has been given more pitch time and has corresponded accordingly. The long-awaited mesh seems finally to have arrived. And with Mano Menezes a few days back announcing he has extended with Cruzeiro for another two seasons, suddenly the outlook for Alberto Valentim has shifted considerably. Certainly he has the backing of the squad and the supporters. Valentim however states he is solely concentrating on the tasks ahead, one game at the time, which is wise of him.
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With eight rounds to go, Palmeiras are the runner-up with 53 points, 6 points behind Corinthians. Our rival are one game short: tomorrow, they visit Botafogo, currently seventh in the tables. The Brasileirão everyone treated as a done deal two months ago is shaping up to be quite the thing. Trust me: every single corintiano is fearfully gazing in the rear view mirror.

Palmeiras next commitment is on Monday 30 October, at home, against Cruzeiro. After that, Corinthians await at the Itaqueirão… *Thump Thump*.

Scoppia che la vittoria è nostra!

It was in the cards. Last Thursday’s home draw to relegation-threatened Bahia, after leading two nil, saw coach Cuca’s dismissal. “By mutual agreement”, as the Palmeiras statement read on Friday afternoon.

cuca_211In 2016, Cuca guided Palmeiras to their first top-flight title in 22 years before stepping down for personal reasons. After a few months with Eduardo Baptista in command, Cuca was reappointed in May. The premature exit in the Libertadores Cup was followed by an equally disappointing Brazil Cup performance. Now, with plenty of time for training and rest, improvements were expected but Cuca and the squad failed to deliver. The lack of evolution gradually corroded confidence and both players and coach started to display certain listlessness. The ending is always the same: coach sacked. In this second spell at the club, Cuca led Palmeiras in 34 games, with 16 victories, 7 draws and 11 defeats: only 54% of the points available.  

Always a fierce critic of the constant coach swapping in Brazilian football, I have come to understand just how deeply entrenched in the system it is. Consider the latest turns at Palmeiras: Ricardo Gareca, 4 months; Dorival Júnior, 3 months; Oswaldo de Oliveira, 5 months; Marcelo Oliveira, 10 month; Cuca, 8 months (first spell); Eduardo Baptista, 5 months; Cuca, 5 months (second spell). A club might have the best of intentions, wanting to stick with a coach no matter what: the pressure, from everyone and everywhere, is overwhelming. Considering this, Cuca’s dismissal was well timed. Assisting coach Alberto Valentim immediately assumed, last Sunday leading Palmeiras to a 3-1 away victory against Atlético Goianense. With ten rounds to go, he should be able to keep Palmeiras in the top four, securing a spot in next year’s Libertadores.

That said, Valentim has virtually zero chance of receiving a permanent appointment. My sources say Palmeiras have locked sights on current Cruzeiro coach Mano Menezes, with previous spells at Grêmio, Corinthians, Flamengo and, in 2010-2012, Brazil’s national squad. The 55-year-old has been the name of choice of football director Alexandro Mattos for years. Seems discussions are already involving names of players Mano would like to see added to the Palmeiras squad in 2018. With that, planning for next season is well underway, which is fundamentally important.

To Cuca, eternal gratitude for the 2016 Brazilian championship title. Too bad things did not work out in the sequel. Best of luck in future endeavours!

Scoppia che la vittoria è nostra!

After yesterday having his picture snapped wearing a Palmeiras jersey underneath the Brazilian National Team polo, Neymar frankly admitted he one day would like to play for the Verdão.

“Already as a small kid, I was Palmeiras. My idols were Evair, Marcos, Rivaldo, Alex… These are the guys I looked up to. I became a palmeirense because of them.”
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Neymar and the rest of the National squad today trained at Palmeiras’ Football Academy ahead of Tuesdays World Cup qualifier against Chile at the Allianz Parque.

“Nobody knows about tomorrow, but it would be a great pleasure (to play for Palmeiras)”, the Paris Saint-Germain forward concluded.

Lucas LimaDirector of Football Alexandre Mattos today met with Neymar’s father, but Neymar is not transferring to Palmeiras (quite yet). Now, there is a decent chance playmaker Lucas Lima, currently at Santos, pulls on the green kit next season. So happens, Neymar Senior is Lima’s agent… Stay tuned.  

Scoppia che la vittoria è nostra!

The game destined to be the turning point for Palmeiras, cementing the chase for the championship title, took a different direction. Although Palmeiras effectively blocked Santos throughout the game, not enough was achieved offensively, partially due to the heavy rains that soaked the Allianz Parque pitch. Nevertheless, the second half was basically Santos against the ropes, Dudu missing an open goal shot and then… The ice bucket.
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Palmeiras did not deserve defeat, but that is irrelevant. Corinthians drew against Cruzeiro and Grêmio beat Fluminense. As it stands, Corinthians lead at 55, followed by Santos 47, Grêmio 46 and Palmeiras 43. That is a 12 point gap, with 12 rounds to go. The top six get a spot in next year’s Libertadores. Or the top seven if Cruzeiro – who already secured their spot through the Brazil Cup title against Flamengo earlier this week – are among the top six.

The Brasileirão title is a far, far shot but not impossible: the last five rounds rendered Corinthians five points, while Palmeiras bagged ten. If that pattern is maintained, we’d go into the last two rounds with a two-point difference. Optimism is my middle name.

The championship now takes a ten-day break due to WC qualifiers. Thursday the 12th, Palmeiras receive Bahia at the Pacaembu stadium, home venue as the Allianz Parque host a number of music concerts. If Cuca is serious about remaining in 2018, better continue showing evolution.

Scoppia che la vittoria è nostra!

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