A very Brazilian affair
There are many reasons to believe Sao Paulo will win this year's Copa Libertadores.
First and foremost, their opponents Atletico Paranaense lie bottom of the Brazilian league with no wins in 10 games. Second, Sao Paulo's free scoring keeper Rogerio Ceni and new Brazil revelation Cicinho are both in top form. Third, the team that demolished River Plate home and away without four internationals will be back at full strength for the first leg of the final.
Fourth, Atletico cannot even enjoy home advantage for Wednesday's first leg; the Curitiba side must play their home leg 450 miles away in Porto Alegre because their own stadium, the most modern in Brazil, does not have the minimum 40,000 seats required by the South American Football Confederation. And last but not least, they have a wily coach who has been there and done that.
Sao Paulo manager Paulo Autuori guided Cruzeiro to South America's version of the Champions League in 1997. He has also been in charge of Benfica, Santos, Flamengo and Botafogo and he is far too experienced to believe those factors will make the slightest bit of difference when the first leg of the final kicks off on Wednesday.
'Atletico got to the final so they must be a good side,' Autuori told a reporter who suggested Sao Paulo would stroll past Atletico and become the first Brazilian team to win the Libertadores three times.
'They beat Santos with 10 men in the Curitiba. They came to the Vila Belmiro and beat Santos there. They overcame (Mexican side) Chivas. They've built themselves up over the years to the point where they are now one of Brazil's biggest clubs. This is the final. There are no easy teams in the final.'
|“||If you take a team from Europe and put them in the Libertadores they would struggle to win it. If you took a team from here and put them in the Champions League they would be good enough to win it. ”|
|— Paulo Autuori|
Ever since the quarter-final stage, Autuori has put out second-string teams in the weekend league matches and rested his best players for the cup. At least eight first choice players sat out Saturday's match against league leaders Ponte Preta - a game Sao Paulo lost 1-0 to leave them languishing in 15th place in the league table.
It is a different story in the Libertadores, however, and Sao Paulo have been the most consistent team in the competition, losing only once in 12 games and scoring a tournament high 29 goals. They coasted through a group containing Universidad de Chile, Quilmes and The Strongest, and in the first knock-out round beat city rivals Palmeiras home and away. They dispatched Tigres UANL in the quarter-finals and then cemented their credentials as one of the best teams on the continent with home and away wins against River Plate in the semis.
Those victories over their Argentine rivals were all the more impressive given the absence of several key players out with injury and on international duty. Exciting full-back Cicinho was in Germany making his debut for Brazil in the Confederations Cup; striker Grafite is out until August with a knee injury; and Edcarlos, Fabio Santos and Diego Tardelli were all playing for Brazil in the Under-20 World Cup in Holland.
All bar Grafite will be in the squad for the final - as will Amoroso, the former Parma striker who signed a six-month deal last month - but it is the return of Cicinho that has Sao Paulo fans believing this is their year. His swashbuckling performances on the right flank brought him much attention in Germany and rumours about a big money move to Europe were swirling around the training ground on his first day back.
Cicinho denied reports he would be leaving Brazil and pointed out he has just signed a new contract tying him to the club until 2008. The former Atletico Mineiro defender does not want to incur the wrath of Sao Paulo fans by suggesting he may move on and he claims to be oblivious to the inevitable transfer talk linking him to Portugal and Spain.
'I am happy here, the structure and the club is great,' said the level-headed 25-year old. 'As [former Sao Paulo forward] Kaka said, you have to take your hat off to Sao Paulo, the club does not suffer when compared to clubs over there.'
Another one keen to favourably compare South American teams with their European counterparts was Autuori. The former Peru manager believes South America's premier club competition is in no way inferior to the Champions League.
Although Sao Paulo have lost players like Kaka, Luis Fabiano, Julio Batista, Franca and Belletti to top European clubs over the last few years, Autuori said the legions of talented youngsters coming through the ranks in Brazil, Argentina and elsewhere make the Libertadores every bit as competitive.
'If you take a team from Europe and put them in the Libertadores they would struggle to win it,' Autuori said. 'And if you took a team from here and put them in the Champions League they would be good enough to win it.'
Sao Paulo are clearly good enough to do just that and Autuori's task over the next few days is to make sure his team do not believe the hype and fall into the trap of believing the trophy is already theirs.
'They've got experienced and talented players and there is 180 minutes to go,' he said with obvious concern. 'We have no reason to get excited. We've won nothing yet.'
Not quite. But everything suggests that will soon change.