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On one side, a rested bunch, eager to show improvement after a week of training. On the other, a team that played in Japan on Tuesday, returned to Brazil on Thursday after a 30-hour ride, daydreaming about getting out of the relegation zone.

Nothing but a perfect setting for Cuca and Palmeiras to show evolution, pleasing the crowds with Moisés and Guerra together for the first time on the midfield, and with Willian back in offense after four weeks in the medical department.

As expected, Chape played defensively, exploring the occasional counter-attack. Palmeiras showed their habitual difficulty in penetrating two compact lines of four, not helped by Chapecoense taking every opportunity to delay the game, including the use of excessive force. We were heading toward a goalless first half, but a badly positioned defence accepted a set piece from Chape, leaving Fernando Prass to scoop the ball out from the back of the net.

Palmeiras came back more aggressive, with Tchê Tchê and Keno replacing Thiago Santos and Roger Guedes respectively, and things improved somewhat. In the last 20 minutes, Borja came on for Willian. It was play against one goal, pressure a plenty, but with a pinball feel to it, the fluke factor reigning. Far from impressive.

In the dying minute, another moment of inattention from our defense to further drive the point home.  
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The result is unacceptable. Palmeiras’ performance is unacceptable. Nine months ago, there practically was no Chapecoense, team and staff wiped out in the dreadful plane crash in Colombia. Palmeiras’ excuse for less than expected performance throughout the year has been the coach swap, Cuca for Baptista, in early May (mind you Chape swapped coach some two months ago). Put those two club realities – Palmeiras and Chapecoense – into perspective.

Cuca has no credit left, no more fat to burn. Next Sunday, Palmeiras receive relegation-threatened São Paulo FC at the Allianz Parque. Anything but victory against the archenemy will see Cuca in a very uncomfortable position. And yes, that is quite the understatement.

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On Friday, ahead of Saturday’s game against Avaí, coach Cuca told the squad Felipe Melo would not be in the starting eleven nor on the bench. On Saturday night, after a convincing 2-0 against the team from Florianópolis, Cuca laid it out to the press: Felipe Melo will not proceed at Palmeiras.

Melo is an ambitious and strong-headed individual, never comfortable with the bench. Cuca does not see Melo’s playing style as ideal while seeking to emulate the characteristics of the 2016 team: speed, quick transitions, advanced positions paired with aggressive marking of the opponent. This was discussed with the player and mutual consent was reached: better part ways. Simple as that.
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With his extremely outspoken and self-promoting personality, Felipe Melo has divided opinions among palmeirenses. Personally, I have no problem with him leaving. I see better options in Bruno Henrique and Thiago Santos, paired with Moisés’ emminent return. Palmeiras are paying the price for a rather turbulent first six months, Cuca’s absence and subsequent return the pivoting factor. At this point, Cuca needs full backing to catch up for time lost, within limits reshape the squad and find that playing style he so much envisions. Anything not part of the solution is part of the problem. 

Melo has played only five games so far in the Brasileirão, he has not reached the limit that would prevent him from defending another first division team this season. There are however no indications at this point regarding his future: possibly, he will remain at Palmeiras for a few weeks, training in separate, while things are being solved. His contract with Palmeiras formally ends in December of 2019.

During his seven months at Palmeiras, Melo played 27 games and scored twice. Although his passage was brief, he certainly left his mark, always defending the club with blood and sweat.

Anything Palmeiras wishes Melo good luck in his future endeavours.

Scoppia che la vittoria è nostra!

— ooo —

UPDATE, 1/8/2017 – 12:55

We learnt today from Palmeiras’ director of football Alexandre Mattos that removing Felipe Melo from the squad was far from solely based on technical/tactical concerns. A number of incidents involving Melo had occurred previously, but had been dealt with internally. After Wednesday’s elimination from the Brazil Cup, Melo’s disrespectful attitude in the locker room reached new heights. As the news of the occurrence reached Palmeiras’ directors, they decided to remove Melo, having previously consulted Cuca regarding the possible impacts on the field.

Melo was formally communicated on Friday morning. On Friday afternoon, the player apologised to Cuca, club president Galiotte and the squad.

Any possibility of reconciliation was effectively torpedoed yesterday night: in a leaked audio, recorded Sunday night, Melo launches a personal attack on Cuca, in addition to voicing his wish to play somewhere else.

Melo will train separated from the rest of the squad, awaiting interesting offers. Mattos stated there are none on the table at the moment.

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Fair and indisputable. Corinthians came focused, confident and tactically obedient to the extreme, executing their game plan ad perfectum. Full merit to coach Fábio Carille and the squad. Also to Corinthian’s directors, who somehow manage to prevent that turmoil from the club’s shady activities influence day-to-day work. Oh, the irony: on the day Corinthians put an end to Palmeiras’ streak of 28 home games undefeated, already on the 13th round placing both hands firmly on the Brasileirão trophy, the club’s most notorious supporter – former President of the Republic Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva – is sentenced to nine and a half years in prison for corruption.
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Recognising the merit of the opponent does not mean exempting Palmeiras. Coach Cuca was honestly outspoken at the post-game press conference, admitting not yet having found the recipe. He several times referred to last year’s excellent mesh, lamenting his inability to repeat the formula. He took full responsibility.

It is time for some serious soul-searching and stepping up to the challenge: get Palmeiras ready for the two upcoming, very difficult do or die games against Cruzeiro (26 July, Brazil Cup, away, first leg 3-3) and Barcelona de Guayaquil (9 August, Libertadores Cup, home, first leg 1-0).

Cuca needs to find his starting eleven, define positions and patterns. The rest of the season depends on it. The “no time to train” excuse is dead, it is a matter of priorities: with the Brasileirão title down the drain, he must make time available by sparing key players the competition. The squad at his disposal is qualified and numerous enough to muddle through in the weeks to come, while key players prepare for the task at hand: by any means advance in the two cups.

All this, while Palmeiras president Maurício Galiotte is on a month-long holiday. Absurd.

Scoppia che la vittoria è nostra!

Update: If you think the outset of facing considerable prison time would dampen the swagger of former president Lula, think again. The architect behind the Itaqueira stunt today tweeted “Forgive me for not talking to the press yesterday. I needed to see Corinthians beat Palmeiras.”
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A game of two halves, if you ever saw one.

Quarter-finals of the Brazil Cup, and Cruzeiro rolled all over Palmeiras in the first half, Cuca really asking for it. Zé Roberto on the flank is not a viable option anymore. Adding insult to injury, Cuca placed Edu Dracena by his side: excellent positioning, little pace. Thus, an open invitation for Cruzeiro to excel in fast transitions with the ball on the ground. Things did not go much better on the right flank either, where Fabiano had a bad night.

Although Palmeiras did create some chances in the first five minutes, with 30 minutes on the clock Cruzeiro were fully deserving their 3-0 advantage.

Thankfully, our commander drew the right conclusions and made modifications accordingly: after suffering the third goal, he sacked Fabiano, displacing Tchê Tchê to occupy the position. Zé Roberto was consequently displaced to the centre. And Egídio came on to fill Zé’s position on the left flank. Palmeiras improved.

At half-time, Cuca swapped Guerra for Borja, the midfielder suffering some physical discomfort. Dudu dropped down, more centralised, while Willian opened wide and left, mirroring Guedes on the other flank. With the Allianz Parque in a feverish state, Palmeiras suddenly meshed and equalised the score within 20 minutes: Dudu twice, then Willian.

Cruzeiro were at the ropes but used all their experience to cool down the game, holding on to the result until the final whistle.
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Some final remarks:

Cuca is very stubborn. His initial line-up was insane. However, he reads the game well and acts accordingly. Knowing how to use players in different positions allows for much greater tactical tweaking.

Borja and Willian look good together, they grow, they open up space for each other. Borja yesterday was different, more aggressive, and more participatory. In short: instrumental. And more in line with what Cuca envisions.

Dudu is a true leader, captain, the absolute thermometer of the team.

The crowds at the Allianz Parque yesterday were fantastic. Several I spoke with claim it was magical, that never before have the Allianz Parque pulsated like in those first 20 minutes of the second half.

The comeback was spectacular, but the result in itself was not good: in order to advance, Palmeiras will need a victory in Belo Horizonte (or a draw by more than three goals). The second leg is scheduled for end of July: no way of telling in what shape the two sides will be at that point in time.

Grêmio on Saturday, 11th round in the Brasileirão. The current runner-up and Palmeiras are both likely to rest some players ahead of next week’s commitments in the Libertadores Cup. Let us find out who has the stronger squad.

Scoppia che la vittoria è nostra!

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With five rounds of the Brasileirão, Palmeiras have already filled half of last year’s quota of defeats. Hovering just above the relegation zone with four points – a full nine points behind the leader – some palmeirenses are already throwing the towel. Might seem absurd, considering only 13% of the championship has been played, but indeed a recovery must come strong and immediately should Palmeiras stand a chance. Not much hope in that direction though, rather on the contrary: Cuca is using the Brasileirão to try out formation and rotate the numerous squad, certainly with the chancellery of the club’s directors. The priority seems to be the Brazil Cup and the Libertadores Cup.

Under normal circumstances, nothing would justify abandoning the Brasileirão this early. Nevertheless, swapping Baptista for Cuca, combined with a full two-games-a-week schedule – including decisive games in both aforementioned cups – have created serious restrains on Cuca’s possibilities to train and shape the squad to his liking. Libertadores enters the knockout stage in a months’ time, so Cuca uses the Brasileirão as his laboratory.

Against Coritiba, Cuca again presented a mixed bag due to injuries, fatigue and national squad absentees. Only four regular starting-eleven players in the line-up: Prass, Tchê, Felipe Melo and Willian. Nevertheless Palmeiras came out flying, the first ten minutes looking very promising, with Keno again drawing most of the attention. The game however quickly levelled, with all he action concentrating to the midfield.

Early in the second half, Coritiba found the net and Palmeiras suddenly lost all confidence and initiative, the level dropping vertically both collectively and individually. Tchê Tchê has not played well for weeks, but yesterday was exceptionally bad even by his recent standards. Michel Bastos, Keno, Guedes… No shimmer of light anywhere. And Fernando Prass… Perhaps a few games on the bench would do him good, letting Jailson have a go between the posts.
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Cuca is not being eaten alive exactly because he is Cuca and has plenty of credit due to last year’s campaign. Most supporters feel confident he will get it right in the end, but for that to happen he must react, rattle the squad into position, find ways to extract quality from all those good to excellent players. He has a few weeks before things get really serious.

Players taking flak, Cuca taking flak. But not only these. Increasingly, Palmeiras football director Alexandro Mattos is feeling the heat. Elected four years in a row Brazil’s most successful football director will not guarantee you anything, especially not at Palmeiras: the seedy and influential consiglieri – kept low during the Paulo Nobre years – have reflourished with surprising vigour. Mattos’ success stings in the eyes of those who used to call the cards at Palmeiras at the beginning of the decade. With meritocracy being challenged, we are one step closer to the pre-Nobre abyss. Add to that the now constant leaking of inside information to the press and the dramatic increase of hang-arounds, and you perceive some fundamentally important things have changed.  

There is this Brazilian expression, “I was happy but didn’t know it”. Some of us knew. Some of us recognized the enormous effort and saw the bigger picture in what Nobre was implementing. Let us hope it did not stop there.

Scoppia che la vittoria è nostra!

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Sure, Vasco struggled in 2016 to secure promotion back into the first division. And sure, Vasco have not made any significant signings for the 2017 season.

Nevertheless, Vasco have played several major teams this year and never been beaten this thoroughly. Moreover, Cuca had only five (5) days to get the team ready.

What impresses the most is the almost full reversal to Palmeiras anno 2016 that Cuca was able to implement in the short amount of time available. Clearly, the defence needs tweaking, Vasco in the first half wasting several excellent opportunities to drive it home, but otherwise, Palmeiras were fast and furious, the characteristic initial blitz altering the scoreboard within four minutes through a penalty converted by Jean. Halfway through the first half, Vasco had levelled the action and only Prass kept Palmeiras in the lead. Cuca realised he had lost the midfield and instructed Tchê Tchê and Jean to swap positions, which immediately reversed the overall performance, again placing Palmeiras in the driver’s seat. Shortly before halftime, Guerra increased the lead.

Any hope Vasco nourished died within one minute of the second half, Borja making it 3-0 through a diving header peixinho-style. What followed was a walk in the park, Palmeiras blowing several opportunities before closing the scorecard with another penalty converted, this time by Borja. Both penalties bore Dudu’s signature, the “little giant” on fire. Also Tchê Tchê, Borja and Jean showed a lot more than in recent games under Eduardo Batista. It is undeniable: Cuca has this squad in a firm grip and should be able to extract truly great things given a month or two.
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Impossible ask for a better debut in the Brasileirão. However, there is a natural barrier to progress, which is time. Or, rather, the lack thereof. Going into a period with two games a week, space available for training is limited. Already this Wednesday, Palmeiras receive Internacional for the first leg of the knockout phase in the Brazil Cup group of 16. A few minutes of inattention and Palmeiras can say goodbye to the tournament, just as recently against Ponte Preta in the first leg of the Paulistão semi-finals.

Not that Cuca would allow that.

Scoppia che la vittoria è nostra!

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Comeback Cuca

Yesterday, Palmeiras president Maurício Galiotte met the press, with Cuca on his left, announcing Eduardo Baptista’s replacement. From Palmeiras, certainly a discrete probing and an even more discrete “yes” from Cuca took place moments before letting Baptist go after last week’s defeat against Jorge Wilstermann. Cuca’s new contract follows the same framework as last year’s, with duration end of 2018.
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Baptista was in a tight spot from day one, and he knew it. After the successful 2016 campaign, culminating in the first Brasileirão league title in 22 years, Palmeiras did everything to keep Cuca, but the coach had promised his family a six months sabbatical. Baptista was probably not Palmeiras idea of an ideal replacement, but options at the time were scarce. Had the young and upcoming coach presented steady progression regarding the squad’s playing style, attitude and overall performance, he could have outshined the towering shadow of Cuca’s return to coaching. Could have.

Cuca knows the squad well, knows Galiotte and Mattos, knows Palmeiras. He understands the overwhelming pressure – internal and external – that comes with the job. Hopefully he will need little time to tweak at least the basics into place, before starting working on the extras. “Changing the tire with the car in motion” as one says in Brazil. Yesterday afternoon he conducted his first training session with the squad. The 2017 Brasileirão debut, against Vasco da Gama, is on Sunday.
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During yesterday’s press conference, Cuca was an island of serenity and focus. Never dodging responsibility, he stressed that Palmeiras’ considerable investments were no guarantee, that every other team were also doing their best to become champion. He explained that last year, he needed to say “Palmeiras will win this year’s Brazilian championship” in order to bring the squad together after an early exit from the Libertadores Cup. It worked. This year, he said, the situation is different: Palmeiras are the current champions, everyone expects great things and the pressure is on. “No one has the obligation to become champion, but we will do our outmost”, he concluded.

Should Cuca succeed in implementing something similar to what he had last year, the sheer quality and size of Palmeiras’ squad will transform this “outmost” into one or several championship titles – a probability further enhanced if one or both of the reinforcements suggested/requested by Cuca arrive.

Scoppia che la vittoria è nostra!

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