By Robbie Blakeley, Senior Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – The Campeonato Brasileiro, Brazil’s top-tier football (soccer) league championship, is approaching the final hurdle with just eight rounds remaining. For the first time in a decade, the odds are firmly in favor of a club outside the dominating forces found in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo claiming the national crown.
Minas Gerais outfit Cruzeiro currently sit nine points clear at the top of the table, ahead of second-placed Grêmio of Rio Grande do Sul. The highest-placed Carioca club, Botafogo, sit fourth after letting a two-goal lead slip against Vasco in their 2-2 draw on Sunday, October 20th.
For the vast majority of the season, Botafogo looked like genuine title contenders alongside the Mineiros but, as has often been the case, the second half of the season has brought a steady decline in the club’s form. Just two wins in their last nine outings, including a 3-0 demolition by Cruzeiro, have left the club with a slim chance of lifting their first trophy of any distinction since 1995.
They remain, however, in with a good chance of winning the country’s second most prestigious title, the Copa do Brasil. Today (Wednesday), is the second leg of their quarter-final cup tie against city rivals Flamengo. The first-leg ended 1-1 leaving a nicely poised decider to play out at what will be a packed Maracanã.
So whilst Botafogo still have two routes open to next season’s Copa Libertadores, South America’s version of the UEFA Champions League, for Flamengo, tonight’s tie is all or nothing. The 2013 league campaign has been a major disappointment for the Rubro-Negro, rarely straying too far from the edge of the relegation zone.
As an indication of their plight, the club are with their third coach of the season and only now beginning to find some consistency, despite Sunday’s narrow defeat to current Libertadores champions Atlético-MG. The year started with young hopeful Jorginho at the helm but the former Figueirense coach lasted just fourteen games before former Brazil coach Mano Menezes took over.
Menezes resigned following the team’s 4-2 loss to third placed Atlético-PR, claiming he couldn’t instill his philosophy upon the players at his disposal, but interim coach Jayme de Almeida has done an effective job since taking over the reins.
It has also been a year to forget for Fluminense. The defending champions, praised for a consistently excellent campaign last year, have been shorn of their most talented players and looked a shadow of the creative force that won the title. Playmakers Wellington Nem and Thiago Neves were sold to Shakhtar Donetsk and Al-Hilal respectively at the beginning of the championship, whilst star striker Fred has missed games with a combination of international duty and injury.
The Carioca team in most trouble, however, remains Vasco da Gama. The Cruz-Maltino currently sit in the relegation zone, three points adrift of safety and beset by financial woes. After an encouraging start to the season the team has won just two of their last twelve encounters and not even the return of club idol Juninho Pernambucano has proved sufficient to steady the club as it battles the prospect of a second relegation in five years.
Fans have begun to turn on club president and former player Roberto Dinamite over his running of the club, and a crucial fixture against fellow relegation candidates Ponte Preta could be a turning point in the season, for good or bad, in the next round.
Round 30 Results:
Fluminense 1-1 Ponte Preta
Náutico 1-5 Santos
Corinthians 1-0 Criciúma
Bahia 0-1 São Paulo
Internacional 2-2 Grêmio
Goiás 3-0 Atlético-PR
Atlético-MG 1-0 Flamengo
Botafogo 2-2 Vasco
Coritiba 2-1 Cruzeiro
Portuguesa 1-1 Vitoria