Title TBD – Brazil’s six championship candidates

Click here to read the first part of this blog: What makes Brazilian football so competitive?

Favourites and current leaders of the Brazilian championship are Palmeiras, who after 22 matches sit in first position with a three-point advantage over second place. Going by the numbers, this seems to be the São Paulo club’s trophy to lose: they have the best home form, away form and goal difference, having spent over half of the season in pole position.

Palmeiras’ good form can be separated into three key components. Firstly, team coach Cuca – brought in at the beginning of the season – has breathed new life into a speedy, attacking squad. Arriving with a reputation for building intense (and often inconsistent) teams that promise dizzying highs peppered with soul-crushing lows, Cuca has already left his mark on Palmeiras, introducing his quick and direct style of play that Brazilian defences find difficult to deal with.

cuca

Palmeiras coach Cuca has been crucial to his side’s success (Getty)

Secondly, Palmeiras have a deeper squad than most of their rivals. After years of woeful transfer policy, haemorrhaging accounts and disastrous results on the pitch, Palmeiras appear to have organised themselves and are investing wisely in their team. They have multiple options in important positions and a glance at their substitutes bench sees names such as Arouca, Egídio, Cleiton Xavier and Lucas Barrios, players who would walk into the starting line-up of most other sides in the division.

Lastly, Palmeiras’ title push has been helped no end by the emergence of sensational 19 year-old forward Gabriel Jesus – an early candidate for Brazil’s player of the year award. After gradually making his way into the side in 2015, Gabriel is now the club’s (and the league’s) leading goalscorer, despite missing six matches while he was busy winning gold for his country at the Olympics.

Thankfully for Gabriel, he is playing under a coach who is desperate to get the most out of him. His current role as a centre-forward with freedom to roam into the channels and out to the flanks, appears to be his best. He is often seen starting in a trequartista position – in the space between the opposition’s defence and midfield – from where he faces goal and runs at his markers.

Gabriel Jesus has agreed a January transfer to Manchester City and, judging by the treatment he has been receiving from opposition defenders, he needs to start taking care of himself if he wants to arrive in England in one piece.

The question that remains about this Palmeiras side is whether or not they can keep it up until December. Their home form has stalled, winning only one of their last four in front of their own fans. What’s more, they face a difficult next four matches, playing rivals São Paulo and Corinthians, as well as title competition Grêmio and Flamengo.

Speaking of Flamengo, the Rio de Janeiro club are a surprise presence in second place, trailing Palmeiras by only three points. Despite being Brazil’s best supported club, Flamengo have seldom been able to transfer that popularity into trophies. They have not been dominant since the 1980s, while their vast nationwide following has more to do with the expansion of radio and some intelligent branding by club president José Bastos Padilha in the 1930s, as opposed to any period of footballing superiority.

torcida-flamengo

Rio de Janeiro club Flamengo boast a fanbase in the tens of millions, the biggest in Brazil

That said, Flamengo are the current leaders of the form table, suffering only one loss in their last nine matches. This is made all the more impressive considering Flamengo have reached these heights without having a home stadium at which to play. Thanks to the Olympic Games and the upcoming Paralympic Games, the iconic Maracanã stadium has been under the control of the Rio 2016 organising committee since March and will not be handed back until December.

So far, Flamengo have divided their time between the national stadium in Brasília and the 20,000 capacity Kleber Andrade in the modest town of Cariacica, some seven hours drive from Rio de Janeiro.

You would expect their form to worsen over time, but they have been buoyed by the arrival of former Porto, Juventus and Atlético Madrid playmaker Diego, who has made an impressive start to his Flamengo career.

In third and fourth are last year’s runners up and champions, Atlético Mineiro and Corinthians. The former are steadily improving, establishing themselves as second favourites for the title with Robinho on excellent form. However, their performances away from home inspire no confidence whatsoever.

Corinthians, on the other hand, are still coming to terms with the loss of their emblematic coach Tite, who is now in charge of the Brazilian national side. Tite’s Corinthians had a sense of sovereignty about them reminiscent of Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United sides, an inevitable dominance that they appear to be losing.

Finally, we have Santos and Grêmio. Both have played some of the most attractive football in 2016, with Santos in particular putting together some great performances and being near untouchable at home. They will have to adapt to the departure of young forward Gabigol, who has moved to Internazionale.

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