South America has not won the competition since the triumph of Corinthians in 2012. Then, as now, the South American champions were from the Brazilian city of Sao Paulo. Then, as now, Chelsea were the UEFA Champions League holders. And then, as now, they look beatable. For the next few days, then, Palmeiras can dream.
The team of Sao Paulo’s Italian community, Palmeiras were originally called Palestra Italia until World War II made that unwise. They switched to something more tropical — Palmeiras translates as “palm trees,” although they’re known by a more porcine moniker. It is believed that the nickname of porco (“pig” in Portuguese) began as an offence hurled at the team during the tensions of the war.
But, as so often in these cases, it has long since been adopted as a badge of pride. And in Abel Ferreira, Palmeiras have a coach who, figuratively speaking, is prepared to wallow in the mud if he thinks it will give his team a greater chance of victory. A somewhat surly Portuguese strategist, Ferreira likes to immerse himself in the task of out-thinking his opponent. And then, with a cool head and a warm heart — one of his catch phrases — he trusts his team to carry out his instructions. In the Copa Libertadores his men overcame Atletico Mineiro and Flamengo, two Brazilian teams with more glamorous lineups than Palmeiras.
Now he dreams of doing the same to Chelsea — whose laboured win over Saudi side Al Hilal offers a glimmer of hope. First, there was the way that the London side ran out of steam in the second half against the AFC Champions League titlists. There may be some connection here with the extraordinary declaration of Chelsea boss Thomas Tuchel a month back, when he complained that his players are mentally and physically tired. He handed his team an excuse — always a dangerous game. And so it is hardly a surprise if the intensity dropped off in a competition which — to the disbelief and fury of the Brazilians — is hardly a priority.
Ferreira will have observed some defensive problems in the Chelsea side, where left wing back Marcos Alonso looked vulnerable in the second half against Al Hilal. This is something Palmeiras can exploit. They made their case in Tuesday’s win over Al Ahly of Egypt. The South American champions showed that they have a wider attacking repertoire than a year ago, when they came fourth in the Club World Cup without as much as creating a chance.
The return of club idol Dudu has something to do with it. Skilful and subtle, he sealed Tuesday’s win over the CAF Champions League winners with a goal that came from a run down that very flank. He also set up the opening goal — a succinct summary of how the team have improved. Last year Palmeiras used Luiz Adriano as a conventional centre forward. He is a fine player, but he was frustratingly under-used in a team that defends so deep.
In his absence, they now field Dudu with Rony — quick little strikers who will hope to get in between Tuchel’s formation of three centre-backs. They can also draw the defenders out wide, leaving space for Raphael Veiga to run in behind them. Veiga, who scored that first goal on Tuesday from a Dudu assist, has been the team’s most improved player. The way the team is now set up requires him to get into the opposing penalty area, and he has responded in style. Many are calling for the attacking midfielder to be given a chance in the Brazil national team. If he can shine against Chelsea, those calls will be very hard for coach Tite to ignore.
Abel Ferreira, though, is well aware that the key battles will be fought at the other end of the field. His team coped with the firepower of Flamengo and Atletico Mineiro. Now can they cope with Romulo Lukaku and company? Before the game there is no way of knowing. Last year Palmeiras were knocked out in the semifinals by Mexican side Tigres UANL and did not face Bayern Munich, the then-champions of Europe. Back in November the final of the Libertadores was settled by a glaring error by Flamengo midfielder Andreas Pereira at a time when it seemed that Palmeiras were happy to hold on for penalties.
It could be significant that, until that game, Palmeiras had a very bad record against Flamengo, as if the deep defence model lost some of its solidity when up against the extra individual talent of this opponent. The Palmeiras defence is marshalled by Gustavo Gomez, a Paraguayan who is widely considered the best centre back in Brazil. As with some of the other big names of Brazilian club football, he failed to make the grade in Europe, joining Palmeiras in 2018 after an unsuccessful spell with AC Milan. He and his fellow defenders had some awkward moments in the closing stages against Al Ahly, even after their opponents had a man sent off. He will have to hold firm under pressure — and Palmeiras will also be looking for something special from Weverton, their outstanding goalkeeper.
Brazil’s last line of defence in the 2016 Olympics, Weverton has since graduated to the senior squad. Tite rates him as highly as Alisson and Ederson, and he has played in four of the current crop of World Cup qualifiers. In the final of the Libertadores, he made an uncharacteristic error, getting his positioning wrong and being beaten at the near post. There was an even more glaring error on Tuesday, when he dropped a routine shot and seemed to have given a goal away — only to be reprieved by the offside flag. There were also a couple of times when he stayed on his line for crosses that he would usually collect. It is hard to imagine a keeper of his quality making mistakes in three consecutive big games.
If he can find his best form — as Cassio of Corinthians did in a man of the match display against Chelsea in 2012 — then it may yet be the year of the pig.
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