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Mar 27, 2014

Luciano and the state championship dilemma

Name: Luciano da Rocha Neves (Luciano) Age: 20 Club: Corinthians Position: Attacking midfield/forward Nationality: Brazilian

Corinthians' start to the 2014 season has been dire, to the point that the world champions of 2012 have exited the Sao Paulo state championship in the first round, despite a tournament redesign that was intended to prevent such scenarios. Coach Mano Menezes had arrived back at the Parque Sao Jorge a hero following his previous exploits with the club and was expected to rejuvenate a side that encountered major difficulties in 2013. However, over the course of just three months, he has already become one of the leading candidates in Brazil's ever-volatile sack race.

Major city rivals Palmeiras, Santos and Sao Paulo have all sailed through to the second round of the competition, with only the latter having lost more than once. For the Corinthians faithful it has been hard to bear and even the fact that new signing Jadson has, so far, looked far better than Alexandre Pato ever did for the club has done little to ease their pain. But could it be that it is the former Shakhtar star's 20-year-old attacking midfield colleague, Luciano, who is the tonic they need heading into the 2014 Campeonato Brasileiro?

It is now less than a month until Corinthians begin their Brasileirao campaign and, having taken a nosedive in the Paulista championship, it is to that competition that attention is already turning. In recent weeks, it would appear that they have an attacking combination that could make a sizeable impact in the creative Jadson, tireless Romarinho and their latest idol, Luciano, signed from Avai to little fanfare just a few weeks ago. Elsewhere, though, they still have much to consider in the next four weeks. However, time off gives them a significant advantage over many of their rivals.

So what is it about "Luciano Ronaldo," as he has already been nicknamed, that has seen the fans take to him quite so easily? The simple answer is goals -- and plenty of them. For all of Corinthians' struggles, Luciano has found the back of the net on six occasions in his seven appearances for the club thus far, forming what appears to be a more than useful partnership with both Jadson and Romarinho around him.

For the Brazilian giants, goals have been an issue. Previously reliable Peru forward Paolo Guerrero has been less than prolific at the start of 2014, while the normally effervescent Emerson has both been rarely used and ineffective when handed an opportunity. Luciano's dramatic arrival on the scene, combined with that of Jadson, was sorely needed. Even Romarinho's hat trick last weekend was a dramatic return to form for a talent that has been off the boil for much of the past year.

Luciano brings a variety of skills to the table. He is comfortable in a number of forward positions, playing off either foot and in different roles. For Corinthians, he has played both centrally, off striker Romarinho, or from the right where he can cut in towards the box and look to make an incisive contribution. In his brief career with the Paulista giants, he has shown glimpses of impressive ability -- whether it be in his dribbling or his clinical finishing in front of goal. There have, though, also been long periods of inactivity in games where he has gone missing. His opponents will soon improve dramatically in quality.

The state championships are a notoriously unreliable stage upon which to judge talent. While the Paulista championship is Brazil's strongest by some distance, the quality gap between the top sides and the weakest is stark, yet Corinthians are far from the first giant to find themselves in trouble at an early stage across the country. The tournaments give players from smaller teams a platform to impress, while also propelling the likes of Luciano into the limelight at bigger sides. Last year, Flamengo's Rafinha was claiming the headlines; for 2012, see Sao Paulo's William Jose. While both are good players, neither were able to maintain their performance levels outside of the estaduais. They are an opportunity to impress, but are relatively meaningless if success is isolated.

Luciano is, thus far, saying the right things. He has played down his Cristiano Ronaldo-inspired nickname, emphasised Corinthians' need to improve and even suggested investment in further attacking players ahead of the start of the league championship. But it will ultimately be on the pitch that his attitude and ability will be tested. The Brasileirao has its faults, but it is a real test of ability and the latest in a long line of state championship stars must now prove himself worthy of a place at a club of Corinthians' prestige. He has taken a significant step in earning the trust of the fans, but has further tests to come. At 20 years old, he has time on his side, but fortunes of emerging players in Brazil turn as frequently as the tide on the country's famous coastline.

It will be interesting to watch how he and the other emerging stars of the 2014 state championships progress over the rest of the year. Luciano has earned his opportunity with one of Brazil's most historic and best supported sides, and has now put himself in pole position for a regular starting berth. Turning initial promise into an extended career in the Brasileirao or Europe, however, is an equally difficult step. With one challenge overcome, there is no time for resting on his laurels in the topsy-turvy world of Brazilian football. Bright starts receive heavy press attention, but they are also quickly forgotten as the sporting calendar races between competitions at a furious rate.

For further discussion on any of the players featured in The Scout's Notebook, Christopher can be found on Twitter @chris_elastico. More of his work profiling rising talents can be found at TheElastico.com.