Last night’s game was intense, fast and high-quality and the Maracanã was rocking.
Table-topping Flamengo increased their lead at the top of the championship after beating second-placed Santos. The final score was only 1-0, but Flamengo’s dominance and the quality of their play impressed their fans so much that they stayed after the final whistle to wave their phones in the air, sing and praise their team. Quite a spectalce and atmosphere at the Maracanã.
It is now the halfway point in the league, Flamengo are top and their fans are dreaming of a sixth league title. And they are also hoping for a Copa Libertadores victory (and chance to take on Liverpool in the World Club Cup final) and they play Grêmio over two legs in the semi final of that competition next month.
Flamengo may have dominated and won last night, Santos played their part in a great game too. And they were rightly applauded off the pitch by their own supporters who had made the five hundred kilometer trip along the coast to Rio. Ultimately, the gulf in class (and finances), especially in attack, was clear and made the difference on the day.
One of the talking points before the match was that both teams are managed by foreign coaches (Portuguese Jorge Jesus at Flamengo and Argentinian Jorge Sampaoli at Santos). Foreign coaches are a relative novelty in Brazil (unlike the Premier league) and that the two top teams are now coached by foreigners, questions have been raised about the quality of Brazilian coaches.
Brazil may not have that many internationally-recognised managers at the moment, but they do have some very good up-and-coming coaches like Fabio Carille. One of the difficulties for Brazilian managers is that clubs are so quick to sack them when results don’t go to plan, which has created a culture of short-term thinking rather than long-term planning. This makes it hard for the coaches to establish themselves, impose their style and build a reputation at one club.
The arrival of the gringos has been good though in my opinion: it is raising the profile of the Brazilian league abroad and they also bring fresh ideas, tactics, styles and approaches, which can only benefit the Brazilian players. Besides, the fans don’t care too much, as long as their teams are winning and the Flamengo and Santos fans are pretty happy with Jesus and Sampaoli.
Sampaoli’s we’re-not-giving-the-ball-away-no-matter-what at Santos has raised eyebrows at time. I like it, although admittedly, there are sometimes heart in the mouth moments, like last night when Santos keeper Everson passed the ball across the six yard box with an attacker just a few meters away. They survived, and at the end of the day such bravery has been key to the club’s rise to second place in the league. It is risky at times, but when they break through that first line of the press, their own forward players further up the pitch have more space to work in.
Flamengo don’t have such a distinctive style of play, but Jesus is getting the best out of their expensively-assembled team. He’s also been brave with his team selection. Last night, for example, he played with just one defensive midfielder with the attack-minded Gerson partnering Willian Arão in the middle of the park.
Everton Ribeiro, Arrascaeta, Bruno Henrique and Gabriel Barbosa (aka Gabigol) made up an attacking quartet and their form over the last few months has been incredible. Gabigol has scored 16 league goals, seven more than the league’s second best marksman, while Bruno Henrique has forced his way into the Seleção, aged 28, and made his debut in the recent friendly games. Arrascaeta has also been excellent.
Santos might play a possession-based game but the start to the game yesterday was full of pace and it never really slowed down. Flamengo were taking the initiative to attack, but Santos were causing Flamengo some big threats on on the break, especially with the pace of their wide forwards. The diminutive Soteldo on one side, and Marinho, on the other. Wingbacks Jorge and Victor Ferraz like to get forward whenever they can too.
Jesus’ decision to start with the pacey Bruno Henrique on the right was designed to keep Jorge’s bombing runs from left back in check and it worked: not only did Bruno Henrique keep Jorge at bay, he was also a constant threat after returning from Seleção duty.
Santos had the first big chance in the 19th minute as Carlso Sanchez broke drilled in a cross, which was only partially cleared. Soteldo followed up with a the half volley but his scuffed shot bounced off a few players and into the arms of Diego Alves. On another day, it could easily have bounced into the back of the net. That sparked a ten-minute spell of Santos dominance, but good play from Bruno Henrique, now on the left, began to shif the balance towards Flamengo.
The match was face-paced and there were some full-blooded challenges flying in left, right and centre. Gabigol had the bit between his teeth, but there were times when it looked like he might lose his cool. On one occassion he was elbowed in the back of his head by Lucas Veríssimo (probably not intentionally), who was booked, but Gabigol’s furious reaction got him booked too.
Players needed to chill out, but the yellow cards were stacking up. There was a lot of theatre to go with this too, with players rolling around on the ground, and their teammates harassing the referee at every opportunity. Some of it was unnecessary, but to be fair, the challenges were flying in and some of those must have hurt.
Gabigol didn’t let the yellow card affect his play though and just before the half came to an end he ran onto another intelligent throughball before cutting inside Gustavo Henrique and dinking a brilliant chip over the giant Santos keeper Everson and into the goal. So high was his confidence and so buzzing was his state of mind that the moment it left his boot his started to celebrate. It hit the bar and dropped in.
The Maracanã burst into a frenzy to cheer the beautiful goal. Santos had done alright until that point, but the problem was that their three centrebacks are all quite slow and Gabigol and Bruno Henrique knew how to use the space in between them masterfully.
There was a half time mini altercation between Santos’ left back Jorge and Flamengo’s coach Jorge Jesus when the coach gave him a couple of friendly taps on the face. Jesus walked off, Jorge complained and then the two made up further down the tunnel. A bit annoying and cheeky of Jorge senior I would say.
Tensions remained high out on the pitch in the second half and Flamengo started to dominate the game. Really they should have put it to bed. Gabigol, Bruno Henrique, Arrascaeta all had chances to score and there was one situation when Gabigol and Bruno Henrique broke free, but Gabigol took an age to make up his mind whether to pass or go it alone – passing would have been the right thing to do, but he took so long to do it that the pass was intercepted. Gabigol deserves another chance in the Seleção but he’s got to iron out these mistakes from his game if he wants to be a world-class striker.
Santos stayed in the game and while they never really looked like scoring, Flamengo fans did have their hearts in their mouths when substitute left back Felipe Jonathan dribbled and crossed in the third minute of extra time. Flamengo survived and nothing was to stop their fans from a massive party at the full time whistle.
Events on the field may have been orchestrated by two foreign coaches, but Tite was in attendance too; at least one Brazilian coach would have been impressed with the quality, commitment and talent on show.
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