Palmeiras seek return to continental glory without manager Cuca
After protracted negotiations, Palmeiras of Brazil have announced the signing of Venezuelan attacking midfielder Alejandro Guerra, one of the most effective players in South American club football this year. Guerra now leaves Copa Libertadores champions Atletico Nacional of Colombia to head south and join the newly crowned champions of Brazil. But he will not be working with Cuca, the coach who took Palmeiras to the league title.
One of the most interesting of the current crop of Brazilian coaches, the 53-year-old Cuca opted to resign. There was talk of a big-money offer to return to China, where he worked in 2014-15. So far, however, this has not happened. At the present time it looks more likely that he will take some time off. Family reasons have been cited, and Cuca has even been quoted as saying that if he does not miss the game he may not think of returning.
He will surely be back -- and he clearly has his own reasons for stepping aside. Nevertheless, from a purely footballing point of view, there is something disappointing in his decision to resign. Palmeiras may have just won the league, but in reality the job is half done, as Cuca himself should be well aware.
Winning the domestic title is all very well. But the recent record of Brazilian clubs outside the borders of their own giant country is very poor indeed -- especially given the financial advantage they currently enjoy over rivals from elsewhere in South America. The Brazilian league now contains many high-profile, current international players from around the continent. There is not a single high-profile Brazilian operating in another South American league -- all a consequence of the relatively high salaries that the Brazilian clubs can offer.
The recent failure of Brazilian clubs in continental competitions is nothing less than extraordinary. When the Chapecoense team were so tragically struck down by the air disaster last month, they were on their way to becoming the first Brazilian team in three years to reach a continental final. The last Brazilian winners were Atletico Mineiro, who won the 2013 Libertadores and their coach was Cuca. There were some warning signs along the way. Only a last-gasp penalty save prevented Atletico from being eliminated by Tijuana of Mexico in the quarterfinals. And both the semifinal and the final that year -- against Argentina's Newell's Old Boys and Olimpia of Paraguay, respectively -- ended in penalty shootouts. Ronaldinho himself earned more than the entire Olimpia squad. But when the teams did battle over two legs, there was no marked difference in quality.
It should not have come as much of a surprise then that the walls fell in at the Club World Cup. Atletico were beaten in the semifinal by Raja Casablanca of Morocco. Despite spending months preparing for the tournament, they looked horribly off the pace and strung out all over the pitch, their defence torn apart by the speed of the opposing strikers.
Had he stayed with Palmeiras, Cuca might have had a chance at redemption in the coming year. He took over in March with the club struggling badly in the group stage of the 2016 Libertadores. Results picked up, he made a successful switch of young striker Gabriel Jesus, moving him to centre forward -- but it was not enough to avoid early elimination. There will be no Gabriel Jesus in the 2017 campaign -- he has already moved on to Manchester City. But Palmeiras can go into the competition with confidence. The club is well structured, they are enjoying their new stadium, which is widely rated as the best of all of Brazil's newly built arenas. And they have been placed in what looks like a relatively straightforward group in the 2017 Libertadores.
The seeded side is Penarol of Uruguay, giants in the history of the competition but a team who have been going through hard times. In the recently completed Uruguayan championship, they managed to finish only 14th out of 16. Also in the group are Jorge Wilstermann of Bolivia, hardly opponents to be feared. And the group will be completed by either Carabobo of Venezuela, Junior of Colombia, Argentina's Atletico Tucuman or El Nacional of Ecuador. The Brazilian champions will surely back themselves to overcome any of these rivals.
When the draw was made last week, is it possible that Cuca felt a twinge of regret at his decision to stand down? As these names were drawn to face the team that he helped build, part of him could be forgiven for wanting to stay on and complete the job by winning the Libertadores with Palmeiras, going back to the Club World Cup, and this time, getting it right.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.