By Robbie Blakeley, Contributing Sports Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – Flamengo kept the pressure on league leaders Corinthians after two straight wins in rounds eight and nine of the national Brasileiro tournament which started in May and runs until December. The last week has also seen the return of Vasco legend Juninho Pernambucano and a thrilling Carioca “FlaFlu” derby ending in Flamengo’s favor.
Flamengo continued their early good-season form with a narrow 1-0 victory over São Paulo at the Engenhão to go second. In a tactical stalemate which saw few chances, it was left to substitute Bottinelli to strike the winning goal barely five minutes after coming on.
It was Flamengo’s third successive win and set them in good stead for Sunday’s showdown with Fluminense. The match ended 1-0 to Flamengo, but for two refereeing decisions could have ended in Flu’s favor.
In the first half, the referee failed to give a penalty when Junior Cesar tugged down Marquinho in the area, and in the second Airton escaped a red card after lunging dangerously at Souza.
Flu, the 2010 champions, started the game at a more frenetic pace, creating three clear openings in the first twenty minutes.
On each occasion, young striker Ciro took one touch more than he needed, giving the Flamengo defense and goalkeeper Felipe time to close down space. Perhaps overawed by the big occasion, the young striker never looked sure of himself on the ball and lacked the self confidence to try something audacious.
Flamengo scored the only goal in first-half injury-time. Junior Cesar was given too much space down the left, pulled the ball back to Thiago Neves, who swung in a deep cross for Willians to nod home unmarked. It was cruel on Flu, who many considered to have looked the better side.
Fluminense continued pressing in the second half, but as a defensive unit Flamengo remained sharp. Every time Rafael Moura or Ciro found an inch of space it was snuffed out in an instant. Abel Braga brought on a third striker in Rodriguinho hoping his pace would profit from tired legs, but the Flamengo defense remained robust to earn a fourth successive victory.
Juninho Pernambucano made the perfect start upon his return to Vasco, scoring a trademark free-kick after just 90 seconds against Corinthians. However, it was not enough as they lost 2-1 at the Pacaembu.
The Paulista side are not top of the league for nothing; after suffering the early set-back, they refused to let their heads drop as Tite’s men stuck to their offensive game plan. They pegged Vasco back with a fine volley from Ralf before Paulinho’s superb individual effort saw them stay on top.
Vasco bounced back on Saturday with a comfortable 2-0 victory over Internacional at São Januário. The 2011 Copa do Brasil champions pressed their opponents from the start and an Eder Luis strike at 24 minutes put fire into the Vascainas on a chilly evening.
The visitors tried to up their tempo after the break, but Juninho, deployed in defensive midfield, used the experience of his nineteen-year career to slow the game down and keep Vasco on top. His pass-rate success was nearly 100 percent, and it was only an out of form Alecsandro which prevented Vasco from profiting from his insight. Eight minutes from the end the result was made secure when Dede rose to head in a Juninho free-kick.
Botafogo dropped four points over the last two rounds as they surrendered leads to draw 1-1. Last Thursday, they hosted Atletico-GO and went ahead after four minutes through Herrera.
Then a headed goal from Anselmo leveled things, and Botafogo failed to retake the initiative. They cranked up the pressure in the closing stages but were left to rue a wasted opportunity to close the gap on the league leaders.
Caio Junior’s team failed to learn their lesson on Sunday in Salvador against Bahia. Elkeson scored another scorching free-kick, almost identical to his goal against Coritiba. But an ex-Botafogo name was to stick the knife in as Fahel headed an equalizer thirteen minutes from time. The two draws mean Botafogo remain outside the top four, the qualifying places for the Copa Libertadores.