A few hours after Gabriel Jesus, Palmeiras’ star player from last year’s Brasileirão title-clinching campaign, had scored twice in a match-winning performance for his new club Manchester City, his old side kicked-off in their first competitive game of the 2017 season against Botafogo-SP.
It has been a summer of notable change at Allianz Parque with Jesus followed out the door by head-coach Cuca and a number of other players. Cuca was swiftly replaced by 46-year-old Eduardo Baptista, previously of Ponte Preta, Fluminense and Sport.
As well as the new coach there have been several additions to the playing staff as the Verdão prepare for the defence of their Brazilian title and another shot at continental success in the Copa Libertadores. So with these alterations, what should we expect from Palmeiras in the year ahead?
The club’s directors appear to have moved intelligently in the transfer market to add strength to the starting eleven and depth to an already impressive squad. The most eye-catching reinforcements came in the shape of experienced midfielders Alejandro Guerra and Felipe Melo.
The 31-year-old Venezuela international Guerra arrived from current Libertadores champions Atlético Nacional. He was an outstanding performer in that Nacional side and was voted player of the tournament after the club’s successful Libertadores campaign.
He will add cerebral elegance and incisive passing to the Palmeiras midfield and can play in central positions or out wide if required. His Libertadores winning experience will also stand Palmeiras in good stead for their international campaign.
Melo, arriving back in Brazil after twelve years in Europe, will add even more title-winning know-how the São Paulo side. Known as the pitbull for his uncompromising style, he will also insert a bit of steel and an intimidating presence in the middle of the park, something that could certainly come in handy against tougher continental opposition.
Michel Bastos, formerly of Roma, Lyon and Lille has also arrived from cross-town rivals São Paulo FC. At 33, he is another player who will bring composure and maturity to the dressing room. During his time in Europe Bastos mostly played as a left winger but since his return to Brazil he has also been deployed as part of a central midfield three and at left-back, versatility that could come in handy as the season wares on and players are sidelined with injury or fatigue.
Apart from these three experienced heads Palmeiras have added a number of talented attacking midfielders and wingers to their ranks to replace the likes of Cleiton Xavier and Allione, who, frustrated at their lack of minutes, have moved to pastures new. In come Keno from Santa Cruz, Rafael Veiga from Coritiba and Hyoran from Chapecoense, all of whom had excellent seasons for their respective clubs last term.
None of these players will be expecting to arrive at Allianz Parque as an automatic first choice for Eduardo Baptista but they will provide intense competition for places and some much-needed squad depth in a year that could see Palmeiras play as many as 80 games if they go deep in the cup competitions, as they will certainly be hoping to do.
One position that Palmeiras fans are still concerned about, however, is the centre-forward slot that Jesus vacated when he upped sticks and headed for Manchester. The club has brought in Willian from Cruzeiro, a busy and committed little attacker but who perhaps lacks the killer instinct of a top player.
Palmeiras have also been consistently linked to clinical Colombian Miguel Borja, another member of the Atlético Nacional Libertadores winning team, to fill this position but manager Baptista has consistently said that he is satisfied with the attacking options at his disposal.
Palmeiras do already have Alecsandro and Lucas Barrios to play up front and perhaps Baptista believes that he can be the manager to finally coax a consistent run of performances out of the ex-Borussia Dortmund and Paraguay international Barrios. If the new coach could get him anywhere near the level he reached during his time in Germany, or his time in Chile with Colo-Colo, then the decision not to go into the transfer market would certainly appear justified.
There will be elements of Cuca’s playing style that Baptista will try to maintain, such as the high intensity pressing to win back the ball immediately after it is lost and the quick transitions into attack, but he will change the look of the team slightly to suit his own philosophy and will generally look to set them out in his favoured 4-1-4-1 formation.
Felipe Melo is perhaps the key piece in this puzzle, playing as the one between the lines of midfield and defence, shielding his centre-backs and providing, with his sometimes overlooked technical quality, passes to launch attacks and break the lines of the opposition’s midfield.
His partners in central midfield will most likely depend on the opposition with a more attacking player favoured against weaker teams but two more solid workmanlike players coming in against stronger opposition. Like last year expect the ever-energetic Tchê Tchê to provide most of the running for his more experienced midfield comrades.
Palmeiras had the joint-stingiest defence in last year’s Brazilian championship so it is unlikely that Baptista will make any significant changes in that department. The centre-back pairing of 22-year-old Colombian Yerry Mina and 25-year-old Brazilian Vitor Hugo is one of the finest, and youngest, centre-half partnerships in South America and if Pameiras can hold onto Mina the pair will be a cornerstone of the team.
So, with all this in mind what are Palmeiras’ chances of success?
There will, without doubt, be a settling in period for the new coach and his recent recruits and initially this may lead to some underwhelming performances, as we saw in the narrow 1-0 win over minnows Botafogo-SP on Sunday evening.
However, the São Paulo state championship, the less valued competition that starts the Brazilian season, will give Baptista the chance to implement his ideas in a less pressurised environment and come the start of their Libertadores campaign a month from now the team should be close to full speed.
Over the course of the season one would expect Palmeiras’ strength in depth to show through in the league and they will almost certainly be fighting it out at the top of the table come November and December.
The Libertadores presents a greater challenge but with the experience and quality that they have added to their ranks over the summer transfer window there is a strong possibility that we will see Palmeiras become the first Brazilian team to reach the final of the continent’s most important club competition since Atlético Mineiro took the title in 2013.
The near future is looking bright for the boys in green.