Brazil’s domestic cup competition, the Copa do Brasil, has reached the quarter-final stage with the first legs of all four ties to be played on Wednesday evening. I’ve written extensively about the idiosyncrasies of the Copa: its origins as a political tool to consolidate the power of the Brazilian FA, the tournament’s ability to sate fans’ hunger for high-stakes knockout football, and its two-legged format that benefits big clubs and inhibits giant-killing. This year is no different.
With the exception of one, the final eight of the Copa do Brasil comprises clubs from the Dominant Dozen of Brazil’s south and south-east. Furthermore, five of the quarter-finalists are among the top eight of the national championship, including current leaders Palmeiras. This is surprising, as traditionally teams have found it hard to juggle the two competitions.
The pig tail in the quarter-final feijoada (not necessarily a good or bad thing, just a matter of preference) are Juventude, the traditional club from the Serra Gaúcha who are currently fighting for promotion from the third division. They eliminated an afflicted São Paulo side in the last 16, primarily thanks to a 2-1 first leg victory in the Morumbi stadium.
These are not unchartered waters for Juve, however. They were a regular fixture in the first division for most of the 1990s and 2000s, even winning the Copa do Brasil in 1999.
Atlético Mineiro, Juventude’s quarter-final adversaries, won their first and only Copa the season before last when they beat rivals Cruzeiro in the final. On that occasion, the runners up were coached by Marcelo Oliveira, who has since turned his coat inside out and now manages Atlético.
In the national championship, Atlético are in third and clinging on to their title aspirations. They lie five points behind leaders Palmeiras with 11 matches remaining, so some defensive improvements and a winning momentum could certainly put them back into contention, though focusing on the cup may make more sense. With their array of individual attacking talent and creaking defence, Atlético’s team is better suited to head-to-head cup competition. Meanwhile, against the modest Juventude they have an uncomplicated path to the final four.
Wednesday sees the two sides face off at the Arena Independência, where Atlético are traditionally strong and have not lost in their last 11 matches. The home side should be at full-strength, barring cup-tied centre-forward Fred, who will be replaced by Argentina international Lucas Pratto.
The winner of that tie faces either Santos or Internacional, who also go toe-to-toe early on Wednesday evening. Santos are clear favourites, as the mind of Internacional’s squad will be on league concerns.
Despite a strong start to the season which saw lead the league in the middle of June, Inter are in a freefall that has lasted for three months. From their last 19 league matches they have picked up just eight points, a meltdown which has seen two coaches given their jotters, with a third already walking the tightrope.
After only six weeks in charge, Internacional manager Celso Roth, left, is already feeling the heat
Their inexplicably good opening to the league has left Internacional with enough points to dream of salvation – they are currently in 18th place, four points from safety. The last thing the squad needs is a cup run, keeping them busy during the week when they could be preparing for league matches. For example, on Sunday evening Inter play Figueirense, the first club above the relegation zone, who will have had the entire week to rest and train.
On the other hand, Santos will be paying full attention to the cup so as not to repeat their errors of 2015. This time last year, Santos found themselves in the top four in the league and the quarter-finals of the cup, when they made the decision to prioritise the latter in search of a trophy.
First-choice players were rested in the league and Santos dropped out of the Copa Libertadores qualification spots. They did manage to reach the Copa do Brasil final, but lost to Palmeiras, leaving them with no silverware and no Copa Libertadores place.
Santos find themselves in the same scenario this season – fourth in the league and with a winnable quarter-final tie. It is doubtful they will make the same mistake again.
For previews of the other half of the quarter-final draw, including the reigning national champions and the cup holders, continue reading part two.