Though there are still ten weeks and fourteen matches left to play in this year’s Brazilian championship, Wednesday night’s match between Palmeiras and Flamengo has the whiff of a potential title decider. Separated by only one point, the two sides sit at the top of the league table and unlike the chasing pack, both have the consistency and sense of confidence needed to become champions.
Leaders Palmeiras, who have spent over half the season in first position, are widely regarded as being the league’s best side in 2016 and are rightfully favourites for the title. Since taking over in March, head coach Cuca has introduced an intense, pressing style to a Palmeiras side previously characterised by dull, percentage-based football.
Manchester City-bound teenage sensation Gabriel Jesus leads the forward line and constantly creates havoc in the spaces between opposing defences and midfields. He is given support from the combination of quick wingers Dudu and Roger Guedes and midfield playmakers Moises and Cleiton Xavier. Elsewhere, the impressive all-rounder Tchê Tchê fills the midfield gaps and offers Palmeiras plenty of crucial moments of numerical superiority – especially on attacking transitions.
Along with their interesting array of talent, Palmeiras are the most tactically disciplined side in the league since Tite stepped down from Corinthians to take charge of the national team. Each player knows his job and does it with zeal.
19 year-old Gabriel Jesus is Palmeiras’ leading scorer with 10 goals (Photo: Folhapress)
Flamengo, on the other hand, are a much less obvious title candidate. While they have consistently remained within the league’s top half, it is only in the last few weeks that they have gradually climbed into second position.
The club’s fans joke that their opposition have “let them arrive” at the top, but this rise is completely down to their own merit. Flamengo have won their last four matches and have only suffered one loss in their last 11 – a streak made all the more impressive considering that the club have spent the entire season without a home stadium, with the Maracanã in the hands of the Olympic organising committee for the foreseeable future.
However, beyond their points total, a look at Flamengo’s performances suggests this good form may not be sustainable. Despite being second in the overall standings, the rubro-negro have only the league’s sixth-best defence and the seventh-best attack. Their number of shots on target per game (a reliable indicator of team performance) stands at only 4.2, an average that leaves them 12th in the league. (The leaders in this particular statistic are, predictably, Palmeiras, with 5.8 shots on target per game.)
All of this implies that Flamengo are in the middle of a spell of good fortune as opposed to a credible title push. Wednesday night’s match, however, is sure to be crucial to the outcome of the championship, regardless of Flamengo’s staying power.
Expectation surrounding the clash has been heightened due to memories of 2009, the last time either side challenged for the national championship. That year, Palmeiras spent a huge chunk of the season in first place and were favourites to take the title.
With eight games to go, the two sides faced each other at the Palestra Itália (where Palmeiras’ brand-new Allianz Parque stands today) with Flamengo seven points behind in fifth place. A brace from Serbian playmaker Dejan Petkovic (one of them coming straight from a corner kick) gave the away side the three points.
From that result onwards, Palmeiras saw their title credentials gradually dissolve, while Flamengo came from behind to become national champions in the final rounds.
Returning to 2016, Palmeiras appear to be going into this match at full strength. With towering Colombian centre-back Yerry Mina and tireless full-back Jean returning to the side after serving a one-match suspension. The only question mark surrounds the fitness of Gabriel Jesus, who picked up a knock in Sunday’s 0-0 draw away to Grêmio.
Palmeiras have been criticised for overworking Jesus, and it would hard to argue with such a hypothesis considering the 19 year-old has played 294 minutes of football in the last 10 days, a period that has also seen him play in three different time zones in service of the Brazilian national team.
Jesus, fittingly, appears willing to sacrifice his body for the cause and after playing 40 minutes against São Paulo last Wednesday, he joked that he could have played another 90. While the injury he sustained against Grêmio was not a result of fatigue, his exhausting last two weeks will surely affect his recovery time and it remains to be seen whether he will be 100% fit for Wednesday.
PALMEIRAS – FLAMENGO
São Paulo, Wednesday, 21:45 (UTC -3)
PALMEIRAS: Jaílson, Jean, Mina, Vítor Hugo, Zé Roberto; Moisés, Tchê Tchê, Cleiton Xavier; Roger Guedes (Erik), Rafael Marques (Gabriel Jesus), Dudu. Coach: Cuca.
FLAMENGO: Alex Muralha, Pará, Réver, Rafael Vaz, Jorge; Márcio Araújo, William Arão; Gabriel, Diego, Everton; Leandro Damião. Coach: Zé Ricardo.
Update: After medical examination on Monday evening, Gabriel Jesus was confirmed to have an injury to his left groin and is likely to miss the match against Flamengo. Palmeiras’ medical staff have released minimal information about the injury, but the most likely scenario is the 19 year-old will spend 10 days on the sidelines.