The extended 2020 Serie A season is nearing its end and with eight games left, six teams can still win it.
It wasn’t too long ago that the Brazilian league winner was not the team that accumulated the most points, but the team that won a season-finale mini knock out cup competition among the best placed teams. It might not have been the ‘fairest’ system, but it did mean that it rewarded the team that produced the goods when it really mattered, and it was more exciting too.
Some fans still complain about the new ‘boring’ system, but at least they can’t this year. It’s such a shame that fans aren’t allowed into stadiums, but with eight games left to play, six teams are still in with a shout of winning the league. The six teams in question: Internacional, São Paulo, Flamengo, Atlético Mineiro, Palmeiras and Grêmio. It’s almost like the knockout system again. Those six played each other last week.
Internacional thumped São Paulo 5-1, to add all kinds of pressure on Fernando Diniz and their players. They did so well earlier this season and were leading the league for 14 rounds of games – but their recent fall has been just as spectacular as their rise earlier in the season. Last night I watched them slump to a 1-1 draw at home to relegation threatened Coritiba – that was shortly after their team bus was attacked with stones and BOMBS by an angry mob of their own so-called fans.
Before getting thumped by Internacional, São Paulo had only picked up a point in three games. After the Coritiba result, that’s now two points in five – not the form of title winners. After tonight’s game it is possible that Fernando Diniz could get the boot. But, despite all this turmoil, they are still just a point behind league leaders Internacional (albeit having played one game more). They are definitely in with a chance, if only they can turn their form around.
Grêmio and Atlético Mineiro battled out a 1-1 draw in midweek last week, while Flamengo got the better of Palmeiras, beating them 2-0. These results meant that going into this weekend there was just eight points separating Grêmio in sixth and leaders Internacional. That’s might not sound the smallest gap with eight games left, but Grêmio have a game in hand and they play Internacional in one of the most important clássicos in Porto Alegre in recent years. If they win their game in hand and the classico, the difference falls to two points. That’s how tight things are.
It’s been such a strange season: no fans in stadiums; matches and team selections being affected by COVID outbreaks in squads; a tighter-than-usual calendar; and the season running over Christmas, New Year and the height of summer. For these reasons, but not only these reasons, teams have found consistency extremely difficult. Nobody thought anybody could stop Flamengo going into this season, but then Jorge Jesus left and opened the door to the competition. Flamengo blew hot and cold under Domènec Torrent, who was eventually fired and replaced by Rogerio Ceni. But their form under Ceni has been just as mixed. They’ve still got the best squad in my opinion and the win against Palmeiras gives them an excellent chance.
Palmeiras have oscillated too and were disappointing against Flamengo last week. But the fact that they are in the mix in the league, given the amount of games they have played on their way to both the Brazilian Cup final and Copa Libertadores final, is impressive. That reflects their strength in depth to handle the volume of games. But they have struggled with consistency even when their best players are available, highlighted by their dominant 3-0 Libertadores semi-final first leg win against Rive Plate and agonising 2-0 loss (and clinging on for dear life) in the second leg.
Grêmio will play Palmeiras in the Brazilian Cup final and they really are Brazil’s cup specialists. They don’t have tthe biggest squad, and often rest players for league games (keeping them fresh for the cup). That they have come so far in the league is impressive. They don’t have the biggest budget, a point that their coach Renato Gaucho likes to tell whoever will listen, but they have also benefited from stability, something that few of their rivals have. Renato has been their coach for four years, while the managers of three of their rivals have been in their position for less than four months. He, and his team’s results, benefit from this stability. Of course, Renato is one of the reasons for the stability himself, but he can equally be thankful that he doesn’t have a trigger-happy Chairman.
Atlético Mineiro are managed by the crazy and mercurial Argentine Jorge Sampaoli. I admire the way he gets his teams to play: with pace, skill and guts. But they lost 3-2 to Vasco last night. Like a lot of the games they failed to win, there was a lot to admire about their performance, but a few individual mistakes and lack of cohesion at key moments, were costly. Last night’s result confirms what I have now suspected for some time: they despite the promise, they might just fall a little bit short this year.
Finally, the title favourites at this point in time are Internacional. They were flying earlier in the campaign under the leadership of Argentine coach Eduardo Coudet, who was doing a great job. They weren’t playing the most beautiful football, but they were organised, hard working and difficult to beat. That seemed to make sense with the players at their disposal and with Thiago Galhardo in their ranks, they had the league’s deadliest marksman in their ranks. Gameplan: stifle the opposition and nick a goal through Galhardo.
But in the middle of the season and the team well-placed to be serious title contenders, Coudet decided to pack his bags and move to Spain to take the Celta Vigo manager’s job. Inter’s form dropped alarmingly and new manager Abel Braga was dismissed by many, including the club’s hierarchy, as a stop gap. In fact, he is a literally a stop gap now because the club’s hierarchy took the unusual move of appointing talented Spanish manager Miguel Angel Ramírez as their new coach for the 2021, while Abel Braga was in the job. Braga wasn’t happy, understandably, but agreed to stay on until the end of this season and to prove a point, he has put the team on a seven-game winning streak.
Title winning form for sure. And what has been particularly impressive is how he’s transformed the team’s style of play into a more attacking style of play and done so by unleashing youngsters like Bruno Praxedes, Caio Vidal and Yuri Alberto. Beating their neighbours and title rivals Gremio today would be a huge step towards winning the league.
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