While leagues around the rest of the world are nearing their conclusions, with fights over titles, continental qualification, and relegation dominating the talk, the Brasileiro Série A, the national league of the great footballing nation of Brazil is preparing to open its season this weekend. However, Brazilian clubs have already been playing in the less prestigious state competitions, as well as the Copa do Brasil and Copa Libertadores for the past two months and look to hit the ground running in the Brasileiro. It all starts this weekend with a full slate of games.
Match of the Week: Palmeiras vs Atlético Mineiro, Saturday, 5:30 ET
In any other league, the match of the week would have to be the defending champions Cruzeiro taking on the title favorites Cortinthians, but the Brasileiro is not any other league. Both Cruzeiro and Corinthians played on Wednesday in the Round of 16 of the Copa Libertadores, and both face a crucial second leg coming this week, Corinthians trail Guaraní of Paraguay 2-0, while Cruzeiro trail São Paulo 1-0. Because of that, both of these sides are expected to field rotation squads this weekend in order to keep key players fresh.
Because of that, Palmeiras and Atlético Mineiro enters the spotlight. Mineiro claimed a dramatic 2-2 draw in the first leg of their Round of 16 tie with Internacional Wednesday, while Palmeiras are coming off of a heartbreaking loss to Santos in the finals of the Paulistão. Palmeiras impressed during the Paulistão, and seem to be hitting their stride. This is their first full season in the beautiful Allianz Parque, which hosted 2 matches at the conclusion of last season’s Brasileiro, neither of which Verdão were able to win. Now, they welcome Mineiro, who may not be a title favorite, but are certainly a team capable of finishing near the top of the table. Palmeiras are keen to erase the memory of a disastrous campaign last year, which saw them barely hang on to stay in the Série A. With the possibility that Mineiro could be resting starters ahead of their crucial second leg in Porto Alegre Wednesday, there is a good chance for Palmeiras to get 3 points on Saturday. With matches against newly promoted Joinville and Goiás coming next, there is a decent chance Palmeiras could take 9 points from their first 3 matches.
1. Santos: Santos submitted a strong performance in the Paulistão, and will enter the Brasileiro with momentum. Robinho was called into the Seleção for Copa America which will cause him to miss a number of matches, but Ricardo Oliveira just signed a new contract that will keep him at the Vila Belmiro until the end of 2017. The Vila is always a difficult place to play, and Santos should be poised for a strong campaign in the Brasileiro. Don’t be surprised if Peixe are fighting for a spot in the top four come December.
2. Vasco de Gama: After earning promotion from Série B last December, Vasco continued their strong play by winning the championship of the Carioca the state league of Rio de Janeiro. Gilberto led Vasco with 9 goals, including a penalty in the semifinal against Flamengo that sealed the tie, and the final goal in the second leg against Botafogo in the finals. Vasco opens with a home match against Goiás, a match they should be looking to win.
3. Fred: There’s no doubt that Fred’s performance at the 2014 World Cup was heavily criticized, however the 31-year old striker has started this year by doing what he does best: score goals. Fred led the Carioca with 11 goals, and though Fluminense were eliminated in the semifinals, they appear poised to make a strong run at the Brasileiro. Fluminense are able to enter the Brasileiro completely focused, as they are not playing in the Copa Libertadores, but have also directly qualified to the Round of 16 in the Copa do Brasil, leaving them with just one competition on their plate for the foreseeable future, which is almost a rarity in Brazilian football, especially this time of year. Fluminense open with Joinville in the Maracanã Sunday before traveling taking on Atlético Mineiro in Brasilia next week.
1. Atlético-PR: Yikes. Atlético Paranaense are by no means one of the strong sides in Brazilian football. Regardless, more is expected from a side that will be playing in the top flight this season. Atlético-PR struggled mightily in their state league, being forced into the relegation playoffs before surviving by 5 points. They then followed that up with an early exit from the Copa do Brasil at the hands of Tupi-MG, falling on the away goals rule Wednesday night. Atlético must turn it around quickly, or they could dig themselves into a hole too deep, and could find themselves in Serié B next season.
2. São Paulo: Yes, I know the tricolor won the first leg against Cruzeiro 1-0 Wednesday night, and losing to the eventual champion of your state league is no knock, but something feels off with this São Paulo side. They have still yet to name a permanent coach, leaving caretaker Milton Cruz in charge for more than a month now. This is one of the most talented sides in Brazil, and if the Argentine Centurión continues to play as well as he has, there’s no reason this side can’t compete for the Brasileiro title. That being said, Cruz is not the man to run this side. If you watch any of São Paulo’s recent matches, the team is unorganized, resembling a blob rather than a formation. The new coach, whoever it may be, needs to institute some sort of order. It doesn’t look likely that a new coach will be in place for this weekend’s match with Flamengo, but, as I said over a month ago, São Paulo need to find a new coach, and quickly, if this team wants to capitalize on its talent.
3. Brazilian Officials: It will be tempting throughout the year to include Brazilian officials as the third “trending down”, because there will almost always be just cause, but it’s something I’ll try to avoid. That being said, the officiating in this past weekend’s Paulistão final was horrific. It’s a shame that Brazilian officials are so quick to their whistles, because if they let the game breathe, even a little bit, matches can establish flow and beautiful football is played. However, when officials whistle a foul for every little bit of contact, and hand out yellow cards so easily, it makes the matches disjointed and at times difficult to watch. Brazil isn’t the only country with an officiating problem, and I don’t know that there’s much of a solution, but if officials would let the game breathe, even a little bit, Brazilian football would be much better off.
Bold Prediction: Throughout the year I’ll use this space to make a prediction about what I think will happen in the week ahead, but I wanted to use this space today to give my predictions for this season. Brazilian football is tough to predict, there’s nothing close to the dominance exerted by Bayern Munich or Barcelona and Real Madrid. What there is, is a number of talented teams that could find their way to the top of the table thanks to any number of small reasons. With that said, I think Fred will lead the Brasileiro in goals scored, with Corinthians’ Paolo Guerrero a close second, and Palmeiras’ Fernando Prass to win keeper of the year. I think that Atlético-PR, Joinville, Chapecoense, and Avaí will be relegated, and that Corinthians, Internacional, Palmeiras, and Fluminense will finish in the top four, with Fluminense winning the 2015 Brasileiro.