When the season began, there were three favorites for the Brazilian League title: Corinthians, Vasco and Fluminense. They were 1st, 2nd and 3rd in the league table last season respectively, and they were also expected to challenge for the title again this year. But at the moment, while Vasco and Fluminense are pretty much on the title run and looking like good contenders and Corinthians lost much of their step after focusing on Copa Libertadores, there is a party crasher in the middle of them, one that stands at 1st place and doesn’t seem to be willing to move from there: Atlético Mineiro.
Galo, how Atlético is affectively known by its supporters, was fighting against relegation last year when coach Cuca was brought in. Cuca was also responsible for Fluminense’s amazing recovery in 2009, when the team was unbeaten in a run of 10 matches by registering 7 wins against title challengers at the season like Cruzeiro, while also sending a 96% probability of relegation to the trash can. Unfortunately, Cuca had some problems in the following year in Rio State Championship, and was soon replaced by now-Santos coach Muricy Ramalho.
In Atlético Mineiro’s run last year, they also managed to upset Fluminense, which was after the league title, at their home ground in a game that had they lost, they’d start to dig their own grave to relegation. Even though they had a pretty bad loss at the season’s last turn when they lost 7-1 to their main rivals Cruzeiro, Galo was Minas Gerais State Champions at the season beggining, and one league game doesn’t have as much value as a title.
Cuca must have most of the credits for managing to take so much from his squad. One of the main reasons why his team had 11 goals in their last 3 matches is his tactical flexibility. He might as well be today the best Brazilian coach in that aspect, and he would be complete had he had better man-management skills.
Another reason is that the club’s “renegades”, Ronaldinho Gaúcho and Jô, have been playing superbly in an environment where there isn’t as much pressure as there was when they were featuring for Flamengo and Internacional, respectively. Ronaldinho and Jô are tied with Danilinho, who was brought from Mexican team Tigres UANL, as Galo’s top scorers with 4 goals. That also contributes in Atlético’s goal difference, as they have the best attack in the championship with 23 goals scored while only 8 goals has entered their goal, much of it due to a solid defense led by central defender Réver and ex-Grêmio goalkeeper Victor.
If it wasn’t enough, Cuca also knows how to use Atlético’s youngsters; Ronaldinho Gaúcho said this mix of veterans and youngsters was a reason for their success so far. One of the team’s main assets has been attacking midfielder Bernard, who’s only 19 years old but is Atlético’s top assister. Once considered a promise when he was brought to the team for a season already considered lost, Bernard is now regarded as a “reality” by his coach. Sooner or later, European teams will an eye on him.
But there aren’t only flowers in Atlético’s garden. They’re enjoying Brazilian League’s schedule, which hasn’t been much tight so far, but August and September are mounting up to have 14 games without giving teams a week to rest. In this part of the season, quality depth is needed and as it stands, Atlético Mineiro doesn’t have it.
Their only move in the international transfer window was bringing right back Michel from Almería on loan, and while the national transfer window will remain open until September, once a player has featured in 7 matches for a team in the Brazilian League, he can’t feature in another team if he is transferred. That means Atlético won’t be able to get quality backups if they don’t move fast, and that might end badly for them.
Considering that Brazilian referees gives yellow and red cards with ease, and stating that Brazil’s got bad pitches is an understatement, Atlético will likely suffer from suspensions and injuries in the next 2 months. Teams already prepared for this situation, like Corinthians and Fluminense, might outrun Atlético in the future due to having bigger squads with quality backups.
But Atlético might be lucky as well, and in football much of its “mystique” is due to those unexpected events. That could be seen in Atlético’s match against Figueirense 2 rounds ago, where after Figueirense had the lead in a 3-1 match entering its closing minutes, Atlético fought back and won the game 4-3 away from home.
We still have 27 (and a half) rounds until the season end. Until then, let’s just enjoy the spectacle.