By Robbie Blakeley, Senior Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – As the Campeonato Carioca, the Rio State championship, approaches conclusion, clubs across the country already have one eye on the Campeonato Brasileirão, which kicks off the weekend of May 20th and 21st. Having provided two of the last three winners (Flamengo in 2009 and Fluminense in 2010), Rio clubs, who enjoyed good campaigns in 2011, are preparing a serious assault on national glory in 2012.
Last year, for the first time in history, three Carioca clubs – Vasco da Gama, Fluminense and Flamengo – placed high enough in the Brasileirão to qualify for the Copa Libertadores, the most coveted prize in South American football.
Flamengo suffered elimination at the group stage but Vasco and Flu have qualified for the knock-out rounds with the Laranjeiras outfit, alongside current Libertadores champion Santos, being touted by Brazil’s press as a potential successor this time around.
Last year’s Brasileirão league runners-up were Vasco who ran eventual champions Corinthians right to the very wire. The São Januário side also picked up the Copa do Brasil in June and reached the semi-finals of the Copa Sul-Americana, making 2011 a successful effort for the club despite suffering the terrible setback of losing coach Ricardo Gomes in July.
The trainer suffered a stroke during a Flamengo-Vasco classico and was forced to hand over the reins to able deputy Cristovão Borges. Borges has simply picked up where Gomes left off and the team, despite lacking stand-out stars, is more united than any other in Rio and Vasco should be amongst the frontrunners, but perhaps lacking the firepower to seal the crown.
2010 champions Fluminense have spent over R$25 million during the summer transfer window and as a result have catapulted themselves into the “favorites” label. The likes of Thiago Neves, Wágner and Jean have all swelled the Tricolor ranks and coach Abel Braga’s biggest headache will be trying to shape his various attacking options into a potent starting XI.
Their start to 2012 has been promising; the club picked up the Taça Guanabara and have qualified for the latter stages for the Libertadores with ease. But stronger tests will come from São Paulo’s leading clubs and Porto Alegre club Internacional with Flu’s leaky defense still a major worry.
Current state champions Flamengo have endured a tumultuous start to 2012, more in keeping with the novelas broadcast each evening rather than a structured football club. Having dispensed with coach Vanderlei Luxemburgo despite him guiding the side to Libertadores football, president Patricia Amorim appointed Joel Santana for his fifth spell at the club.
Thus far, Santana has overseen a Taça Guanabara semi-final exit and premature elimination from the Libertadores. With Ronaldinho’s exit seemingly more likely with each passing week after fans blamed him for the club’s poor showing in continental competition, it will be difficult for the club to repeat the moderate achievements of 2011.
Botafogo remain the only side unbeaten in Rio, a run which stretches eighteen games. Yet they have failed to turn performances into instant success and without further investment in their front-line it is hard to see coach Oswaldo de Oliveira repeat the success he enjoyed at Corinthians and Vasco.
Uruguayan international Loco Abreu remains an idol with the club’s fans, but at 35 his best days may be behind him. Matched with an inconsistency in front of goal, which includes five penalty misses in six, and it becomes evident a more potent force is needed.
The side’s defense and midfield, especially their playmaker options of Elkeson and Maicosuel, are impressive, but what they deserve in front of them is a striker who knows where the goal is.
Kicking off in less then a month, the Brasileirão 2012 is set to be another thrilling year for Carioca sides. The tournament runs from May until December, providing Brazil with plenty of time for the drama to play out.