Saturday saw two huge fixtures at the top of the Brasileirão as second place Flamengo travelled to the Mineirão to face third place Atlético-MG, and Santos, in fourth before kick-off, hosted leaders Palmeiras at the Vila Belmiro.
First it was the turn of Atlético and Flamengo, who kicked off at 4:30. The Rubro-Negro were coming into the weekend on the back of a loss and a win that had seen Palmeiras open up a six point gap at the top of the table; three points were necessary to keep the pressure on the São Paulo side. A win for o Galo meanwhile would have seen them leap-frog their visitors into second place.
The game started in a fairly frenetic fashion with consecutive corners for the home side and a pair of half chances for Flamengo. The first of those fell to Fernandinho who latched onto a Paolo Guerrero flick-on and shot from a difficult angle, forcing a save from Victor in the Galo net. The resultant corner fell to the other wide-man Gabriel on the edge of the area and his low shot was deflected dangerously over the bar.
After this early flurry Flamengo took control of proceedings, having 56.4% of possession in the first period, with experienced playmaker Diego managing to control the game from his position in behind Guerrero. The pass map above shows the importance of the former Atlético Madrid man to Flamengo’s attacking play.
Despite the control they exerted, however, Flamengo failed to create many real clear-cut chances in dangerous positions, as can been seen in the expected goals (xG) graph below, most of their shots coming from outside the central portion of the box.
A lot of their probing came down the right side with attacking full-back Pará and winger Gabriel and it was the latter’s cross that indirectly lead to the opening goal of the game after 33 minutes.
Erazo managed to clear the initial centre but it was headed back in towards the area by Márcio Araújo. Guerrero once more climbed above the defence to flick it on and Diego managed to capitalise on a difficult opportunity, sliding in to slot home beyond Victor via a slight deflection from the lunging Galo centre-back Gabriel.
Victor was forced into two more saves before the end of the first period, the first from another Fernandinho shot from a narrow angle and the second from a Guerrero header after a fine cross from Gabriel.
Atlético were poor in the first period and at half time their manager Marcelo Oliveira withdrew ineffective Ecuadorian forward Juan Cazares and replaced him with Luan. This swap changed the complexion of the tie with Luan offering improved distribution from the central area and an outlet through which Galo could build attacks.
The Atlético pressure built as the second half wore on, Alex Muralha saved one-on-ones with Junior Urso and Robinho before Fred slotted into a gaping net but from an offside position.
The equaliser finally arrived with eight minutes left on the clock. Réver threw Fred to the floor by his neck in a challenge that would have brought a spell in the sin bin in a rugby union match, the ref pointed to the spot and Robinho converted calmly.
Five minutes later the majority of the 48,000 people that filled the Minerão exploded in joy as Argentine substitute Lucas Pratto rounded the keeper and slotted home to make it 2-1 to the home side. Marcelo Oliveira had introduced Pratto in place of defensive midfielder Leandro Donizete after 64 minutes to cries of “idiot” from the crowd but it was the manager who looked set to have the last laugh.
That was until Guerrero popped up in the Atlético area just moments from time. Recent substitute Leandro Damião passed to Diego who attempted to turn and shoot. His effort was blocked but it fell to the unmarked Peruvian who smashed home from six yards.
On the overall balance of the game a draw was perhaps a fair result, though it is obvious from the xG chart that Atlético created the clearer goalscoring opportunities.
It was a game packed with action, at the Atlético end in the first half and at the Flamengo end in the second, but it lacked real cohesion and one was left with the impression that better tactical organisation, particularly on the part of Atlético, could have handed either side the result they were looking for.
A solitary point was a big disappointment to both teams and gave Palmeiras the opportunity to open up an eight point lead in the late evening kick off against Santos on the São Paulo coast.
O Verdão had won four and drawn one of their previous five games coming into Saturday’s encounter, getting the required results but without looking wildly convincing.
Gabriel Jesus, after some scintillating form in the first half of the season and four in four for the Seleção, has been struggling to find the net in recent weeks and Palmeiras have been forced to rely instead on the impressive depth of their squad.
Santos, meanwhile, had been keeping pace with the top three with some narrow victories of their own. After the draw in Belo Horizonte earlier in the day a win would have seen them move above Atlético and into third place, important as only the top-3 avoid a difficult Libertadores qualification round.
In a nice gesture from the club every Santos player had ‘Obrigado Carlos Alberto’ printed on the back of their shirt in homage to the Eternal Captain and former full-back, who passed away earlier in the week.
Palmeiras manager Cuca decided that for a tough away match against one of their oldest rivals it was necessary to go with Moisés, Tchê Tchê and Jean as a midfield three to try and control the game and provide more defensive stability. As a result Dudu was pushed out to the left, with Jesus up top and Argentine Agustin Allione making a rare start on the right.
Palmeiras’ plan to block up the midfield appeared to work in the first period and it was a game with very, very few opportunities (see xG chart below). Santos were restricted to a pair of long-range efforts and Palmeiras had their best chance when Jean ran onto a through ball from Tchê Tchê and shot from a tight angle.
As shown in the pass map below Palmeiras had little width down the left hand side of the field, Dudu spent the evening cutting in towards the centre as is his wont and the aging legs of Zé Roberto were unable to provide endless overlapping runs. Gabriel Jesus was often found coming deep in search of the game as he was receiving little service from the midfield.
In the second 45 Santos came out looking like a different side, attacking with far more verve and intent. Colombian attacker Copete had the first opportunity of the half three minutes in when he met a Jean Mota cross from the left but could only direct his shot wide under pressure from Vitor Hugo.
It took 20 more minutes before o Peixe could find the breakthrough though.
Lucas Lima ran in behind the Palmeiras rear guard and crossed low and hard from the left by-line. It was initially punched away by Vinicius in the Palmeiras goal but rebounded off Vitor Hugo and fell to Copete. From a foot out he couldn’t miss.
Cuca threw on front-men Leandro Pereira, Rafael Marques and Cleiton Xavier in search of a goal but it was to no avail. The creative juices that have seen them become the top scorers in this year’s Brasileirão ran dry and they finished the game with an xG of only 0.36, surely one of their lowest since Cuca took the reins.
The final whistle was greeted by a loud cheer from the 14,000 Santistas inside the Vila Belmiro. The three points mean they move into third and close the gap to Palmeiras to six points with five games remaining in the season.
You’d still make Palmeiras the overwhelming favourites to take the trophy in December but after this victory there might be a few Santos fans who are quietly daydreaming about adding the Brazilian title to the São Paulo state championship they conquered earlier in the year.
Flamengo fans and players alike would also have been celebrating as the Santos win means they too are still within touching distance despite dropping points earlier in the day.
There is certainly still time for the chasing pack to catch up but they need to hurry, the fat lady is warming up her vocal cords.
Here are the standings after the weekend:
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