On the walk towards the Morumbi on Saturday evening the tension in the air was palpable. São Paulo vs. Palmeiras is, of course, a big local derby, so pressure is to be expected. But this time there was more to it than bragging rights, especially for the hosts.
The talk of crisis at São Paulo has been mounting over the last month and a half. First there was the Campeonato Paulista exit at the hands of intense rivals Corinthians. Then o Tricolor were dumped out of the Copa do Brasil by Cruzeiro and out of the Copa Sul-Americana by Argentine minnows Defensa y Justicia. Rogério Ceni only kept his job because he is Rogério Ceni, São Paulo legend, any other manager would have fallen (or perhaps been pushed) onto his sword.
That has left the Campeonato Brasileiro campaign as São Paulo’s only focus for the rest of the year. Success, or at least an improvement on last year’s poor performance, is therefore a necessity. The first two games of the as-yet-nascent campaign had yielded a total of three points for Ceni’s side; an unconvincing home win over relegation favourites Avaí following a 1-0 away defeat to a strong Cruzeiro side.
In these circumstances a game against South America’s strongest side and reigning Brazilian champions Palmeiras may not have been top of the São Paulo manager’s wish list. Palmeiras, though, had not won in the Morumbi since 2002, a run of 24 games, and were coming off the back of a tough midweek Libertadores fixture against Atlético Tucumán.
It was little surprise that Ceni opted for the 3-4-3 formation that he had employed against Cruzeiro, but far more interesting was the fact that his opposite number Cuca decided to match him up, going with a 3-4-1-2. The recently dismissed Eduardo Baptista had been heavily criticised after using a similar system to dreadful effect shortly before being sacked, so it was a bold move from the man who led o Verdão to last year’s title. Combative midfielder Felipe Melo dropped into the middle of the three-man back line with Colombian Yerry Mina to his right and new signing Juninho to his left.
The opening exchanges were breathless and a good opportunity fell to either side within the first ten minutes. Palmeiras were the first to arrive in front of goal after a delightful combination down the right-hand side between Alejandro Guerra and wing-back Mayke gave Jean a shooting opportunity, which he sent fizzing wide from the edge of the area.
It was then São Paulo’s turn to threaten. Flying young winger Luiz Araújo skipped past Yerry Mina and reached the by-line before cutting back in the direction of centre-forward Lucas Pratto. The Argentine international could not make any meaningful contact, however, allowing Juninho to come across and clear over his own bar.
From there the pace of the game slowed considerably with São Paulo happy to drop back into their well-drilled shape and invite Palmeiras to break them down. The defensive organisation São Paulo showed in this game was a vast improvement on some of the ragged displays throughout April and May.
Palmeiras’ Venezuelan playmaker Guerra was the stand-out performer until the interval, his silken touch and cerebral movement at times making him look like a Rolls Royce plonked unceremoniously in the middle of a Renault showroom. At one point mid-way through the half he took the ball down in the middle of the pitch before feinting to go one way and knocking the ball the other, leaving São Paulo’s Jucilei in a tangled heap on the floor.
The movement in front of him, however, was poor. Willian, nominally playing as the most advanced role, roamed out to the right and Dudu looked to float into spaces in front of the defence, neither providing the penetrating runs that force defenders to turn and face their own goal. Michel Bastos, playing at left wing-back, also failed to provide the attacking width and athletic bursts the position requires.
On the occasions that São Paulo did manage to get out of their own half they were let down by some poor touches from their Peruvian number 10 Christian Cueva. He is a player extremely low on confidence and, perhaps unhelpfully, the murmurs of exasperation from the crowd grew louder each time he misplaced a pass or miscontrolled the ball.
After the break São Paulo came out with renewed vigour. It seemed as if doing the defensive basics well in the first half had given them some confidence and a platform on which to build. Araújo in particular took the game to Palmeiras and his combination play with Pratto was extremely promising. The Argentine likes to drop deep to receive the ball into feet and this opens up spaces that Araújo can exploit with his lighting pace and desire to get beyond the defence.
At this point the crowd, which until half-time had been subsumed by a tense hush, interrupted only by intermittent groans of frustration, started to warm up its vocal cords and really push their team forward.
On 67 minutes right wing-back Marcinho, playing his first game in that position, received the ball ten yards outside the Palmeiras area and threaded an inch-perfect pass through to Pratto who shot low and hard towards the near post. The shot squeezed between the upright and ‘keeper Fernando Prass and nestled in the back of the net. The 33,021 people inside the stadium erupted in a communal outpouring of relief.
The celebration was short-lived, however, as Palmeiras won a penalty with their first attack after the restart. Jucilei clumsily brought down Jean in the penalty area and the referee correctly pointed to the spot. The man who won the penalty was charged with taking it and the crowd was plunged back into its previous fretful silence. Jean, though, thundered the ball wide of Renan Ribeiro’s left-hand post and the celebratory scenes resumed. From that moment on there was a sense that this was destined to be São Paulo’s night of redemption.
The home side once more fell back into formation and resisted the Palmeiras push for an equaliser, each hoofed clearance, block or challenge greeted with a cheer of appreciation from the crowd. Centre-back Lucão, a player booed by home supporters before the start, deserves a special mention for his commitment to the cause.
It was more of a gentle saunter in the direction of the goal than a real onslaught from Palmeiras, however, and as time wore on it seemed more likely that São Paulo would snatch a second on the counter than that the men in green would draw level. Even the entrance of Miguel Borja and a switch back to 4-2-3-1 did little to inspire the visitors, who looked tired after their midweek exertions.
Four minutes from the end Pratto again came short to receive the ball before turning and running towards the heart of the disorganised Palmeiras back-line. Luiz Araújo made the run in front of him and Pratto dispatched a delightful through ball which the youngster hit first time. The shot squirmed under the body of Fernando Prass and into the onion bag to guarantee the three points for the home side and cap off a night to forget for Palmeiras’ ageing shot stopper.
It was Palmeiras’ second defeat in their first three games of the season and means their title defence has got off to a rocky start. It is certainly not what the directors and sponsors would have been hoping for when they made the decision to reinstate Cuca at the expense of the struggling Eduardo Baptista at the beginning of this month.
There is still a very long way to go, though, and Palmeiras will be looking to bounce back in style when they host Atlético Mineiro at Allianz Parque next weekend. It is not an easy tie but Atlético have also been struggling to balance the demanding Libertadores with domestic fixtures and have recently suffered some poor results.
São Paulo, on the other hand, will be away next time out as they travel the short distance to Campinas to face Campeonato Paulista runners-up Ponte Preta. Ceni will be hoping to carry over the confidence they showed in the second half on Saturday.
As I said before São Paulo now only have the league to focus on, which appeared to benefit them significantly in the second half of this game. If they can put that advantage to good use perhaps Ceni and his boys can prove the doubters wrong and make a push towards a place in next year’s Libertadores. If they can consistently perform at anywhere near the level they did on Saturday, they will certainly have an enjoyable season ahead.