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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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Nine minutes after the publication of the previous post, Palmeiras announced the exit of Eduardo Baptista. Club president Maurício Galiotte will meet the press tomorrow morning. Baptista led Palmeiras in 23 games harvesting 14 victories, 4 draws and 5 defeats.

Needless to say, Cuca is the replacement of choice. Expect a speedy negotiation: Palmeiras have no time to lose considering the significant player investments done this season and upcoming decisive games.

Baptista deserves all our respect. Unfortunately, it did not work out this time. Anything Palmeiras wishes Baptista the best of luck in hist future career.

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The task of defending Palmeiras’ coach Eduardo Baptista gets harder by the day. Certainly hardworking, studious, passionate about his craft, but not much of that seems to colour the squad. Our players are underperforming badly, same players that a few months’ back were peaking. No defined playing style can be detected. We have lost superiority in the air, both offensively and defensively. Baptista himself makes odd choices, leaving supporters grinding their teeth in frustration. Also very worrying is that he seems unable to motivate: under Cuca, players came on hungry and 49% of Palmeiras’ goals were scored during the first half; under Baptista, only 20% in the first half, with players instead having to chase that draw or winner in the dying minutes of the game. Bottom line, we are yet to see a couple of solid games from start to finish. And mind you, it has been four months since Baptista took office.

Yesterday’s defeat to the Bolivians might have been a turning point. Palmeiras needed but a draw to secure advancement to the knockout stage and finish in pole position. The pitch was bumpy and hard, the altitude played tricks on our players. Nevertheless, Jorge Wilstermann are a limited side and nothing yesterday justified defeat, except for Palmeiras’ stale performance. Instead of going through to the next stage, Palmeiras now face the risk of missing the spot: all it takes is a bad defeat against Atlético Tucumán in the last round, while JW beat Peñarol.
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In spite of all this, Baptista’s boat would not rock much were it not for rumours Cuca could be in Palmeiras’ sights. If club and Cuca come to an agreement, things might happen very fast in order to take full advantage of the ten days at disposal before Palmeiras’ next marathon of important games: 14 May Brazilian championship debut against Vasco da Gama; 17 May Brazil cup debut against Internacional; 20 May second round of the Brazilian championship against Chapecoense; 24 May Atlético Tucumán to secure continuation in the Libertadores Cup.

What do I think?

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Palmeiras were unable to revert the 3-0 from the first leg of the semi-final against Ponte Preta and bid the São Paulo championship farewell. Ponte and Corinthians battle it out in the finals, the latter having eliminated SPFC.

Eduardo Baptista sure tried to shake things up, surprising with a novel 3-5-2 formation, Felipe Melo operating on the left flank of the defensive line completed by Mina and Dracena. The formation allowed for much more aggressive wingplay, with Egídio and Jean frequently driving deep and looking to cross. Sadly, that seemed to be Palmeiras’ only plan: little vertical infiltration, almost no shots from outside the penalty area. Albeit with crushing superiority in ball possession and game control, Palmeiras was too predictable, with cross after cross deflected by Ponte Preta’s compact defence. Borja did not have a great night, neither did Tchê Tchê or Dudu, and we all know that when Dudu is off centre, the whole team wobbles. Guerra and Guedes completed the starting eleven. Keno, Willian and Bastos came on in the second half. Too little, too late. However, this time, no complaints in regard to fighting spirit, the whole squad gave 100%. Not to mention the supporters, who gave 200%. Still, Brazil’s possibly best squad was knocked out by a second division team. That is what happens when your head is somewhere else on gameday.

Physical and emotional wear will have to step aside as Peñarol await on Wednesday. Eduardo Baptista, questioned by some since day one, feel the pressure rising. A negative result against the Uruguayans, and knifes will be sharpened, Brazil style.

Scoppia che la vittoria è nostra!
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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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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. A 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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