After a group stage that saw Corinthians finish undefeated, Santos surpass expectations, São Paulo fire their coach, and Palmeiras go through an up and down campaign while trying to integrate their new signings, the Paulistão enters the quarterfinal stage this weekend. All of São Paulo’s big four finished atop their groups and will be joined in the quarterfinals by Ponte Preta, Botafogo-SP, Red Bull Brasil, and XV de Piracicaba.
With the quarterfinals set to begin Saturday, I ranked the 8 sides remaining in the Paulistão, looking back at what they accomplished in the group stage, and ahead to what might happen in the quarterfinals.
8. XV de Piracicaba
XV de Piracicaba were forced to wait until the final night of the group stage to confirm their place in the quarterfinals, but they advanced thanks to a 2-2 draw against a heavily rotated Corinthians side. XV’s 18 points are the lowest of all the sides to advance to the quarterfinals, and a tough quarterfinal matchup with Santos at the Vila Belmiro awaits them on Sunday afternoon. XV struggled to start the campaign, losing 5 of their first 6 matches, but went undefeated over their final three matches to book their place in the quarterfinals.
Botafogo-SP benefited from a weak group 3, and caught São Paulo at just the right time, defeating them 2-0 last weekend in the final game for coach Muricy Ramalho. Their reward for advancing is a matchup with Palmeiras early Sunday morning (11:00 AM local time).
The only hope for Botafogo-SP is that they catch Palmeiras napping with such an early start. Even with a loss on Sunday, the side from Ribeirão Preto should be proud of their performance in the Paulistão.
6. Red Bull Brasil
In their first season in the top division of the Paulistão, RB Brasil are lead by Edmílson and his 7 goals which has him tied for fourth-most in the competition. RB Brasil showed their fighting abilities in a 0-0 draw at the Arena Corinthians which came in the midst of a six-match unbeaten streak that also saw them defeat Palmeiras 2-0.
RB Brasil closed the group stage by losing 1-0 to Linense, but rested the majority of their starters in an effort to preserve them for this Saturday’s clash with São Paulo at the Morumbi. RB Brasil have drawn arguably the weakest of the big four, with São Paulo still potentially reeling after firing Muricy Ramalho. Of the three quarterfinal sides that don’t compete in the Brasileiro Série A , RB Brasil are the most likely to pull off an upset.
5. Ponte Preta
Ponte Preta is the fifth side from the state of São Paulo that will be competing in the Série A, which begins the second weekend of May. Ponte had an up and down group stage, but are easily the most talented of the four visiting sides in the quarterfinals. However, they are also the most unluckly, as Ponte must travel to the fortess that is the Arena Corinthians, where the hosts are unbeaten in their last 29 matches, and have lost just once sine the stadium opened last June.
Ponte defeated Santos 3-1 during the group stage, using set pieces to their advantage, as well as good aerial play. Against Timão, it will be key for Ponte to take advantage of whatever chances they may get. It’s possible that there won’t be many chances, but if they do well to take advantage of them, they could pull off the upset.
4. São Paulo
I wrote at length earlier in the week about how São Paulo must move quickly to hire a new coach. As of this writing, there’s still no word on who the new boss will be, creating a sense of uncertainty for the club. On the pitch, however, São Paulo responded with one of their best overall performances Wednesday night, pounding Portuguesa 3-0. It will be key for São Paulo to take the momentum from that performance and extend it into the quarterfinals.
Alexandre Pato was the best goal-scorer in the group stage, and the heavily criticized forward will be keen to show that his strong performance wasn’t just because of the lack of quality in his competition. Pato will probably never be able to fully silence his critics, but he can certainly quiet them if he were to lead São Paulo to a surprise Paulistão title. Another bright spot for São Paulo has been the play of the Argentinian midfielder Centurión. The 22-year old, who is in his first season with the club, has provided critical pace and playmaking on the wings, and will be key if São Paulo want to make a run at the title.
Palmeiras have been the most inconsistent of the big four so far in 2015. Verdão played spectacularly in a 3-0 win against São Paulo, but then lost a few days later to RB Brasil. Palmeiras then scored 3 first half goals in a 3-1 win against Mogi Mirim, but followed up that performance with a disappointing 2-2 draw with Ituano.
Dudu has floated in and out of matches all year, a representation of the inconsistency Palmeiras have shown. He had a fantastic hat trick in the match against Mogi, showing just how supremely talented he is, but struggled in matches against the bigger sides. Jorge Valdivia, whose contract expires in August, returned to the side against Mogi, and played 45 minutes against Ituano on Wednesday night. It’s uncertain if he will be available for Verdão against Botafogo-SP on Sunday.
The key for Palmeiras will have to be their defense. The unit that struggled mightily last season has had its share of miscues so far this season as well. Vitor Hugo has played poorly at times, giving away a ball that lead to the only goal in the 1-0 loss to Corinthians. Palmeiras has tried a number of combinations on the back line, with none proving to be incredibly effective just yet. If Verdão want any chance of taking home the title, the defense must play better, especially against the bigger sides.
Santos have probably been the most surprising team of the Paulistão, and represent the best shot to prevent Corinthians from winning it all. At the midway mark of the competition, I remarked that Santo were the most likely of the big four to falter, I was wrong. Ricardo Oliveira has scored 8 goals, and Santos appear to be clicking on all cylinders.
A 1-1 draw with Corinthians at the Arena Corinthians just last weekend should give Santos confidence. They are also fortunate enough to have drawn XV, the weakest of the remaining sides. For Santos, anything less than an appearance in the finals would be a disappointment. They’re clearly the second-best team in the competition, and while beating Corinthians will be no easy task, they’re the team best equipped for it.
Before last Sunday, I would have called you crazy for suggesting that there was any chance Corinthians didn’t win the Paulistão. However, for the first time all season (save for a few early round matches with they were juggling the Paulistão with critical Libertadores matches) Corinthians looked stuck last Sunday against Santos. Corinthians scored first, but Santos tied the match in the second half when Ricardo Oliveira’s header beat Cássio. Following that moment, Corinthians looked as though they didn’t have any answers, and Timão settled for a 1-1 draw. Whether that performance was just the result of a heavy schedule, or whether Santos figured out how to limit Corinthians remains to be seen.
Corinthians are the favorites in this competition, and rightfully so. Paulo Guerrero is playing at a high level, as well as Elias, who just earned a call up to the Brazilian National Team. Ponte Preta should provide a good test for this team in the quarterfinals.
Corinthians will have to play smart football to beat Ponte team that isn’t flashy, but can capitalize on mistakes. Anything less than a title would be a disappointment for Corinthians at this point, and while they’re the favorites to win, their performance against Santos showed me just enough to say it won’t be easy for Timão to take the title.