Corinthians' woes add new meaning to Sao Paulo derby vs. Palmeiras
There is unexpected drama as the Brazilian Championship reaches the final straight and that drama takes centre stage when Corinthians host Palmeiras in the Sao Paulo derby on Sunday.
This horse racing reference above may not please fans of leaders Corinthians. In the slang of Brazilian football, the term "Paraguayan horse" is used to describe a team that starts quickly only to be overtaken when it matters most. English speaking fans may be aware of the famous example of Devon Loch -- the horse that seemed certain to win the 1956 English Grand Nacional race. But with the winning post in sight, the horse suffered a mysterious collapse and snatched defeat from the very jaws of victory.
Are Corinthians about to do a Devon Loch? Until recently there seemed no reason to doubt that they would stroll to the 2017 title. And there were two reasons for such faith.
First was their own form. Impressively consistent, they kept stringing together win after win. Second was the form and behaviour of their rivals, all of whom seemed to have given up on their chances of competing with the leaders. The main opposition looked to be coming from Gremio -- but they gave priority to the Copa Libertadores and the Brazilian Cup, and started fielding reserve sides in league matches.
Santos were also more interested in knock-out competitions, and to make matters worse they kept sacking their coach. Former international midfielder Elano is the third man to take charge of the team during the campaign. And something similar was happening at Palmeiras, last year's champions and Corinthians' historic rivals in the sprawling city of Sao Paulo.
After winning the 2016 title, coach Cuca opted to stand down. Palmeiras replaced him with Eduardo Baptista, gave the new man money to spend and were not happy with the results. He was sacked and Cuca was lured back. But he proved unable to repeat last year's magic, and he too was dismissed. And so in mid-October, assistant coach Alberto Valentim was promoted to the top job. Thoughts of a title win seemed ludicrously optimistic at that point. But now the chance exists.
There are seven rounds to go. Corinthians lead Palmeiras by five points, with Santos a point behind. And on Sunday afternoon, the old Sao Paulo rivals meet. Palmeiras travel across town to play Corinthians in their new stadium, built for the 2014 World Cup. A Palmeiras win would cut the lead to just two points. In a dramatic game last Monday, Palmeiras were held 2-2 at home to Cruzeiro. Had they claimed all three points on that occasion, then they would actually go top of the table with a win on Sunday afternoon. The once comfortable position that Corinthians enjoyed is no longer comfortable at all.
This is a tale of the extraordinary -- or perhaps two such tales.
The first one is that, at the start of the year, no one expected Corinthians to be genuine title contenders. True, they are a giant club. But they have financial problems -- paying for that new stadium is proving a problem. And their coach Fabio Carille had been promoted from the position of assistant because the club were unable to convince a bigger name to take the job. For all their size and tradition, Corinthians were seen as the fourth force in their own state; behind money rich, exuberant Palmeiras, behind Santos, with a consolidated style of play, and behind Sao Paulo, who seemed to be embarking on a fascinating experiment under their new coach, legendary goalscoring goalkeeper Rogerio Ceni.
Instead Corinthians surprised by winning the championship of Sao Paulo state -- and they took that form and improved on it, utterly dominating the first half of the league campaign.
But in the second half of the campaign it has been a different story. Corinthians have only the 16th best record. The same players, under the same coach, have been achieving very different results. It is, perhaps, more a case for the psychologist's couch than for the training ground.
This team, who no one had expected to win, suddenly seemed unable to cope with the proximity of victory. In the unbeaten opening 20 games, they had only been behind on the scorecard once. This, then, was a team that had to be fully tested. Adversity would bring new, extra pressures. Would the team be able to play through a difficult phase and retain its self-belief? The answer, it seems, has been negative. Like Devon Loch, they stumbled.
But unlike Devon Loch, there is still time to put things right. They still control their own fate -- and will do so even if they are beaten on Sunday. This game, then, is not a decider. But in a century of derbies between Corinthians and Palmeiras, Sunday's promises to be one of the most intense.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.