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Tim Vickery Column: Santos v Barca rounds off quite a year

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Brazilian football correspondent Tim Vickery takes a look at the aftermath of Santos' humbling at the hands of Barcelona. What has this year told us about the state of Brazilian football?

That thrashing that Barcelona dished out to Santos rounded off quite a year for Brazilian football - strange, fascinating and contradictory.

Neymar has been retained, big name players have come back. Corinthians even made an ambitious transfer bid for Carlos Tevez. As outgoing club president Andres Sanchez puts it, “Manchester City regret not taking that one.” Sanchez ads to his repertoire the view that within three years Corinthians will be the club with the best financial position in the world.

There is an element of playing to the gallery in this, but one of his fundamental points is clearly true - the big Brazilian clubs are starting to wake up to the value of having so many supporters.

In financial terms, then, there is progress to report. It is just a shame about what is happening on the pitch.

No one can possibly be surprised by the fact that Santos lost to Barcelona. But I don’t know anyone in Brazil who was expecting the South American champions to be torn apart with such ease. The first half - while there was still some pretence of a contest - was as one sided as Barcelona’s semi final win over Al Sadd of Qatar.

Coach Muricy Ramalho had been preparing for months for this game - was this really all his side were capable of? There can be no doubt about it - and it is no longer just a question of financial imbalance - the gap between the best in Europe and Brazil continues to be a chasm.

On reflection, too much was clearly expected of Santos. In all the talk of the undoubted individual quality of Neymar and the potential of Paulo Henrique Ganso, one clear fact was obviously overlooked - Santos had been forced to battle through every round in order to win the Copa Libertadores. They never beat anyone with ease, never tore apart any rival in the joyful and clinical way that Barcelona undress their opponents.

In fact, this year’s Libertadores was not a good one at all for Brazil’s clubs. Corinthians went out in the qualifying round. All the other clubs bar Santos fell in the second round - and Santos rode their luck to scrape past America of Mexico. We could have had no Brazilian clubs in the last eight.

A similar pattern was revealed in the Copa Sul-Americana - admittedly a competition which the calendar can render an inconvenience for the Brazilians. Only Vasco da Gama emerge from the action with reputation intact. Given the relative financial situations of clubs across South America, the Brazilians should be taking their dominance in their continent up to new heights. The reverse seems to be happening.

This is a year that stands out for two defining defeats. One, of course, is the Santos-Barcelona game. The other is the destruction wrought by Universidad de Chile on Flamengo, Ronaldinho and all, on an October night in Rio. Just as the 4-0 scoreline from Japan on Sunday was flattering to Santos, Flamengo could consider themselves fortunate to lose to the Chileans by only 4-0.

Of course, the fluidity and unpredictability of football makes it hard to impose a pattern on events on the field. And given the size of the country and the importance of the game in the national culture, Brazilian football will always be a heavyweight. But looking back at 2011 it is hard to escape the conclusion that the Brazilian game is lagging behind.

Trends such as the use of strikers in wide spaces and the importance given to possession of the ball are making timid advances in Brazil. But, inspired by Barcelona they have been adopted quicker and better elsewhere, especially the former. Not everyone - in fact almost no one - can move the ball around the field with the fluidity of Barcelona. But it does not take such technical quality throughout the team to play with wide strikers - something which again and again causes problems for Brazilian clubs.

Over time it seems that the Brazilian reliance on attacking full backs has become counter-productive. Not that there is anything wrong with these players - they are superb, so much so that Barcelona have assimilated the Brazilian full back into their model of play.
But the governing philosophy - that the full backs advance and so to provide cover the central midfielders only defend, that the game is all about counter-attacks and set pieces - is looking very old and tired.

Some of the dogmas - that because of the physical evolution of the game the central midfielders need to be 1 metre 80 tall and that there is no point in moves with over seven passes - are being emphatically debunked every week by Barcelona - or by Universidad de Chile.

The European Champions are clearly at the moment operating on another planet. The example of ‘la U,’ then, is more pertinent. There is not a team in Brazil which plays with the same commitment to attack, the same passing and movement throughout the team. If they can do it, then why can’t the representatives of Brazilian football?

Defeat, of course, is always an opportunity for reflection. The massacre of a Muricy Ramalho team should be a wake up call for an entire football culture. With four domestic titles in the last six years, Ramalho is the poster boy for modern day Brazilian pragmatism, for grinding out victories with counter attacks and set pieces, for the view that ‘if you want to see a spectacle then go to the theatre.’

Barcelona produced quite a spectacle taking his side to pieces. It will be fascinating indeed to see how Brazilian football chews over Sunday’s game, and what responses it comes up with in 2012.


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