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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!

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Right after the draw with Atlético Mineiro at the Independência stadium some ten days ago, coach Cuca set a partial goal for Palmeiras: win the upcoming six games in order to keep the Brazilian championship title in sight. After two consistent 1-0 victories – at home against Coritiba and last Sunday away against Fluminense – the first third of the plan has been successfully fulfilled. “We are looking for those 18 points. It’s a partial goal. Against Santos, it will be difficult, but we’re growing in the competition and need to believe. We were 15 points behind the leader and we’ve shaved four off”, Cuca explains.
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Palmeiras currently rests in fourth place with the same 43 points as Grêmio, with Santos in second, one point ahead of the duo. Cuca believes the next four games will define the championship: Santos (home), Bahia (home), Atlético-GO (away) and Ponte Preta (home). “After this sequence of six games, we will make another mini-project. These partial goals make everything more fragmented and we can mobilize a little better”, the coach argues.

Palmeiras play Corinthians on 5 November. Out of the six rounds before the derby, Palmeiras play four at home, while the rival play only two. Add to this the rather different phases the teams are in, are we are likely to see the gap diminish further.

Palmeiras pre derby
30/9 – Palmeiras vs Santos (Allianz Parque)

12/10 – Palmeiras vs Bahia (Allianz Parque)
15/10 – Atlético-GO vs Palmeiras (Olímpico)
19/10 – Palmeiras vs Ponte Preta (Allianz Parque)
22/10 – Grêmio vs Palmeiras (Arena do Grêmio)
29/10 – Palmeiras vs Cruzeiro (Allianz Parque)

Corinthians pre derby
01/10 – Cruzeiro vs Corinthians (Mineirão)

11/10 – Corinthians vs Coritiba (Itaquera)
15/10 – Bahia vs Corinthians (Fonte Nova)
18/10 – Corinthians vs Grêmio (Itaquera)
21/10 – Botafogo vs Corinthians (Nilton Santos)
29/10 – Ponte Preta vs Corinthians (Moisés Lucarelli)

These next few weeks should be enjoyable. There’s nothing like the hunt, especially when unpretentious and rather relaxed. Not at all like being hunted…

Scoppia che la vittoria è nostra!

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“Regardless of Sunday’s result, Cuca stays until the end of the year”, Palmeiras president Galiotte declared the other day. A firm statement with a feather’s weight: anyone remotely familiarised with Brazilian football knows Cuca was under substantial pressure ahead of today’s derby against relegation-prone São Paulo FC.

With Prass between the posts, Cuca initiated in a 4-4-2, repeating Moisés and Guerra together on the midfield, joined by Tchê Tchê and Bruno Henrique.  Michel Bastos on the left flank, Jean on the right. Dracena and Luan centre lock. Willian and Deyverson up front.

Palmeiras were vastly superior throughout the 90 minutes, with three times as many shots fired. Nevertheless, the game was a cardiac test, with The Enemy opening up the scorecard early in the first half, Palmeiras turning the tables after two quick ones by Willian, then the equaliser just before halftime.

Cuca promoted three substitutions during the second half: Keno for Bruno Henrique, Thiago Santos for Deyverson and Hyoran for Guerra. Keno and Hyoran scored the winners. Highlights below.
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After 22 rounds out of 38, Palmeiras rest in fourth with 36 points, 14 points behind leader Corinthians, who are finally showing signs of fatigue. Too bad Palmeiras, and not only Palmeiras, threw in the towel early in the Brasileirão, giving priority to the Brazil Cup and, in particular, the Libertadores cup. Kicked out of both, there are obvious lessons to be drawn from Palmeiras’ 2017 campaign.  

The Brazilian championship now takes a two-week pause due to World Cup qualifiers. Today’s victory brings a certain level of peace to Cuca and the squad. Training and rest, with the right mind-set, will hopefully do wonders. Brushing up on defence is a priority: it has been shaky for weeks and today was no exception, to state it mildly.

Scoppia che la vittoria è nostra!

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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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lula

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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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