This final stage of this year’s Copa do Brasil is one of firsts. Never in the history of the tournament have all semi-finalists been previous cup winners, neither has there been a year in which the last four hail exclusively from the states of Minas Gerais and Rio Grande do Sul.
When the semi-final ties were confirmed, pitting Cruzeiro against Grêmio and Internacional against Atlético Mineiro, neutrals licked their lips at the prospect of the Copa boiling down to a Gre-Nal or Clássico Mineiro – two of the most intense rivalries in Brazilian football. However, this looks unlikely after last week’s first legs, with the smart money going on a Grêmio v Atlético Mineiro final.
The first legs of the semis belonged to the visitors. Cruzeiro supporters packed the Mineirão stadium only to see their side beaten 2-0 by Grêmio, while a late Atlético Mineiro goal saw Internacional beaten 2-1 at home in Porto Alegre. Though a comeback or two are certainly not out of the question, it will be challenging for Cruzeiro or Internacional to turn things around, especially after conceding two away goals apiece.
Of the two first-leg losers, Internacional will feel more aggrieved about their defeat last week. After conceding an early goal to Venezuelan midfielder Romulo Otero, Internacional controlled the match in front of their home fans. Improvised on the right of midfield, 21-year-old full-back William was particularly impressive, constantly involved in the play and creating a number of good chances which were spurned by the Inter forwards or kept out by Atlético goalkeeper Victor.
The home side eventually got their equaliser when midfielder Anderson went down in the box and won a second-half penalty kick. The 28-year-old former Manchester United player has hardly endeared himself to Inter fans since returning to Brazil in 2015, but he gave a good performance in the first leg of the semi-final.
Anderson’s future at the club was cast in doubt the previous week after getting involved in a training ground punch-up with the aforementioned William. The two players later made peace and fittingly it was William who converted the penalty won by his one-time sparring partner.
Inter went on to have several chances to win the match but were dealt a crushing blow when Atlético sneaked the victory after a flawless counterattacking move with two minutes to play.
From a high clearance out of defence, Ecuadorian international midfielder Juan Cazares collected the ball on the halfway line with a gorgeous touch of control that took him away from two Internacional markers and left Atlético with a 3-on-2 attacking situation. Two simple passes later and Argentinian centre-forward Lucas Pratto had the ball in the back of the net.
Internacional can take positives from the quantity of chances they managed to create, but their composure in front of goal was deplorable and they will find it difficult to overturn this deficit away from home. As a general rule, Atlético Mineiro do not lose in front of their own fans. In 2016 they have suffered only four home defeats, the last of those coming in June.
Looking over his shoulder at the relegation zone, Internacional boss Celso Roth appears to have thrown in the towel at the halfway stage of this semi-final tie. Inter have chosen to rest some important first-team players on Wednesday evening, looking ahead to their league game on Sunday against top of the table Palmeiras.
Internacional’s task is not an enviable one. Regardless of their opponents, they will need to score a minimum of two goals – no easy prospect for a forward line that has turned the waste of clear opportunities into an art form.
Were Atlético to avoid defeat and progress to the final, this would be coach Marcelo Oliveira’s fifth Copa do Brasil decider in the last six years. He was runner-up with Coritiba in 2011 and 2012 and Cruzeiro in 2014, before finally getting his hands on the trophy last season as manager of Palmeiras.
In the other semi-final, Cruzeiro and Grêmio came into the tie fully focused on pursuing cup glory. The former, after a difficult first half of the season, seemed to have finally exorcised the spectre of relegation by putting some comfortable distance between themselves and the bottom four. A cup win would put a thoroughly positive spin on what has been a frustrating year for the Belo Horizonte club.
Likewise, Grêmio were able to fully turn their attentions towards the Copa having dropped out of the title race back in August. This downturn in form culminated in the resignation of promising coach Roger Machado, and Grêmio’s top brass promptly handed a short-term contract to club idol Renato Gaúcho, tasking the 54-year old with winning the domestic cup, no less.
In a packed Mineirão stadium, Grêmio shocked their first-leg hosts, comprehensively outplaying Cruzeiro and winning 2-0. Away goals in either half from Luan and Douglas have all but sealed the Tricolor’s place in the final.
Grêmio’s control of the match was astounding, defending responsibly and rarely allowing any Cruzeiro passes to penetrate their midfield block. In possession, Grêmio toyed with their hosts on occasion, pinging the ball around with short passing moves that lasted for minutes at a time, such as the one that culminated in Luan’s opening goal. After a passage of play that comprised 22 passes, Grêmio’s Olympic gold medallist scooped a gorgeous, curled shot into the Cruzeiro net, needing precious little space and almost no back lift.
Though he has been away from the club for two months, Grêmio’s victory had former coach Roger Machado’s name written all over it. Collective passing moves and smart defensive positioning were hallmarks of Roger’s spell at the club, and Renato Gaúcho has been wise not to interfere with such impressive foundations.
Renato’s best quality as a coach lies in his ability to instil belief in his squad. As a former player himself, Renato is fluent in the língua dos boleiros, or the language of the footballer. While not sufficient for any successful long-term coaching projects, this type of mentorship can do wonders over short spaces of time in Brazilian football – the best example being Luiz Felipe Scolari’s world champion Brazil side in 2002. Progressing to the cup final would certainly earn Renato an extension to his three-month contract, but it will be interesting to see how he copes as Roger Machado’s legacy begins to wear off.
While the second leg would appear to be a foregone conclusion – Cruzeiro will need to win by two clear goals to win the tie or take it to penalties – it promises to be an entertaining clash. The away side, with nothing to lose, will no doubt go on the offensive to try and claw their way back into the semi-final. Meanwhile, in front of a sell-out crowd, Grêmio will be equally inclined to push forward and pick holes in Cruzeiro’s porous defence. An early goal for the visitors would certainly make this a match worth watching.