The old adage goes that the state championships in Brazil are old hat these days, of little importance and little interest to anyone except the leaders of the various state federations. Try telling that to the 41,000 who packed into the Allianz Parque this past Sunday afternoon (8 April) to see Palmeiras and Corinthians lock horns in the second leg of the Paulistão final – the São Paulo state championship.
Corinthians and Palmeiras arguably contest the fiercest derby across this mammoth land and Sunday’s offering was just the tonic the low-quality and outdated regional tournaments needed. The São Paulo competition is renowned for being the toughest of the 27 state offerings – in addition to São Paulo, Santos and our two finalists, there are a number of smaller outfits, such as Ponte Preta, Santo André and São Caetano more than capable of causing an upset.
Sunday’s final, won by Fábio Carille and Corinthians following a highly contentious second leg, has been the talking point of the week thus far. After Palmeiras won the first leg at the Arena Corinthians, they conceded in the second minute at the Allianz Parque and saw three penalty calls turned down, including a Ralf challenge on Dudu in the dying stages which the referee appeared to give, before apparently changing his decision to a corner following advice from the fourth official.
With Corinthians prevailing from the spot kicks, Carille and his playing staff now kick off the defence of their Brasileirão title this Sunday afternoon against Rio outfit Fluminense. The point has been made before but it is a good one: such is the packed, hectic nature of the Brazilian football calendar that there is precious little time for suspense and anticipation allowed to build prior to the start of the national campaign.
No sooner have the state titles been awarded, the supposed main event of the season is starting in what seems an unnecessary hurry. However, thanks to what we have witnessed over the last two weekends in São Paulo, this year the ante may be ramped up slightly.
For it is these two paulista outfits that head into the new Brasilerão campaign as the favourites to take the national crown. Over the course of the last three seasons the title has been shared by these two giants of the Brazilian game, Corinthians winning it in 2015 (under Tite) and 2017 and Palmeiras the year in between.
Furthermore and perhaps the most encouraging aspect of this is that for the 2018 season both Palmeiras and Corinthians will be led by two of the most promising young coaches in Brazil. Both are protégées of current Brazil boss Tite, Fábio Carille and Roger Mahcado have been handed arguably the two greatest ships to command.
Yet while Corinthias look to be on a stable footing with Carille at the helm for over a year now, the situation currently looks very different at Palmeiras. The side were comfortable league winners in 2016 under the charismatic and exuberant Cuca, but 2017 was a tumultuous time for the club as the citadel came crashing down.
In what can be described as typical Brazilian fashion, the 2016 champions went through three coaches last season. First came young boss Eduardo Baptista, who did not even make it from January to the start of the national campaign in mid-May.
He was then followed by Cuca returning as the apparent saviour, having initially stepped down having won the league crown in December 2016. However, shorn of Gabriel Jesus and routinely failing to get the best out of Colombian forward Miguel Borja, he did not even make it through the entire campaign.
In came Alberto Valentim to steady the ship and ultimately steer Palmeiras to second place, but his audition was not enough to land him the leading role. That, instead, has gone to Roger, whose start in the hot seat has already had its conspicuous moments.
However, Roger has shown that he is moving Palmeiras in the right direction. Back in February, Carille recorded his fourth successive victory over Roger Machado, with a comfortable 2-0 win against Palmeiras at the Arena Corinthians and the gap between the two teams looked to be widening.
But Machado is not considered one of the brightest tacticians on the Brazilian circuit for nothing. By the time of Palmeiras’ 1-0 win at the Arena Corinthians just a few short weeks later, some notable changes were already evident in the make-up of the side.
Gone is the 4-1-4-1 and in its place there is a 4-2-3-1, with Bruno Henrique charged with offering protection to the back four and Lucas Lima operating in a deep lying creative role. However, arguably Roger’s biggest success is drawing the best out of Borja as a spearhead, and he could well be one of the most potent offensive weapons in this Brasileirão campaign.
In addition, Roger has brought in Kin Analytics to measure the speed at which his players recover the ball after losing it. In an attempt to get back on top of the pile, no expense is being spared at Allianz Parque, with huge marquee signings Weverton and Lucas Lima arriving during the off-season.
The club’s transfer policy has been frighteningly similar to that employed last term, when Borja and Alejandro Guerra were drafted in from Colombian club and then Libertadores champions Atlético Nacional, while veteran holding midfielder Felipe Melo also joined the ranks. Players of undoubted quality yes, brought to the club at huge expense to fix short-term problems – in this corner of the world, it is hardly seen as a long-term solution to a team’s shortcomings.
Carille, meanwhile, has now been at the helm of the Corinthians ship for 15 months, which is almost miraculous in itself, and even more so when you think that he is a young coach still learning the ropes. That relatively short time span has already yielded two state titles and the league crown last term, while this season the club is expected to mount serious challenges for national and domestic honours.
The side are currently undefeated in the Copa Libertadores (the South American version of the UEFA Champions League) and are yet to concede a goal in the continental competition after two games. It all points to the type of football Carille has played since taking over at Corinthians – tight, compact but ruthless when given a chance in front of goal.
It is a method which offers stark contrast to Palmeiras last term, who suffered the worst defensive record of any side in the top six. They leaked 45 goals last term and that was with the now departed Yerry Mina bossing the back line.
In short, Carille has turned his Corinthians outfit into the best possible sum of their parts. There is no craque, or star outlet, in this side, just a hugely efficient unit fully capable of getting the job done.
Last season, they won key matches at key times throughout the Brasileirão campaign to establish themselves as the undisputed leader of the pack, a label they rarely looked like shredding. Ten rounds in they were neck and neck with Renato Gaúcho’s more expansive Grêmio outfit; Corinthians went to the Arena do Grêmio and emerged with a 1-0 win.
A few weeks later they made the short trip down the road to the Allianz Parque and put in what was arguable the performance of their season in a 2-0 victory which saw Palmeiras boss Cuca left scratching his head, ordering his wide players to swing balls into the box in vain.
Carille, however, has one major headache as we head into the new season. Having lost last year’s leading scorer Jô to Japanese outfit Nagoya Grampus, the boss has tried a whole host of players in the centre forward role.
Colin Kazim Richards, Júnior Dutra, Emerson Sheik and Danilo have all been employed as a lone front man to varying degrees of success. Carille now looks to have settled on a more fluid, strikerless formation with Rodriguinho and Jadson operating furthest forward.
Playing the hand dealt has been the true beauty of Carille’s tenure at the club. This is by no means the greatest or most aesthetically pleasing Corinthians side you will ever lay eyes on, but it is one that knows what needs to be done to obtain a result.
Even shorn of their talisman, Corinthians remain among the front runners to defend their crown, a feat last repeated in 2013 and 2014 when Cruzeiro won back-to-back league titles. And that is what is very much at play here. Two great rivals, two promising young coaches, two contrasting styles and transfer policies.
Brazil is often praised for competition on the field, how a lack of organisation amongst the country’s “elite” clubs means any number of clubs can consider themselves in with a chance of taking the league title. Since the battle between Fluminense and Atlético Mineiro back in 2012, however, there has not been a neck-and-neck title race for half a decade now.
That all looks set to change over the coming months. Corinthians and Palmeiras are about to be put to the test. Finding out which comes out on top will be intriguing to say the least.