quinta-feira, 18 de abril de 2013

São Paulo 2 x 0 Atlético-MG - Copa Libertadores

In a nervous game, São Paulo emerged victorious and secured a spot in the playoffs, also thanks to Arsenal de Sarandi, who beat The Strongest in Argentina. After a cagey first half in which neither goalkeeper had to make any saves, the home team got the advantage after a switch in position gave Osvaldo more space. He was the game star man, with two "assists" - one that caused the penalty, and another for goal. Ronaldinho wasn't weak, but suffered without quick players to receive his passes.


One week ago, Atlético-MG assured their places in the top seed of the playoffs. No other team could hope to achieve the same 15 points they had. But that also meant having to deal with the curse of the top seed, that usualy has a bad luck and hardly wins the Copa. São Paulo, on the other hand, incapable of winning one game against Arsenal - from wich Atletico got 6 points and a 10-4 aggregate score - and suffering with the altitude in The Strongest stadium, realized that they would need to win 100% Atletico - "Galo" - and hope that Arsenal would go on to beat The Strongest in Argentina, but to not with a high margin of goals.

The task was even harder considering they would have to play without Jadson, their best playmaker, and Luis Fabiano, their best goalscorer. Granted, they did have Paulo Henrique Ganso to replace the first. To replace the second, they used Aloisio at the front, with Douglas coming in in the wide right position. At the back, Lúcio and Tolói were the defender duo, with makeshift centreback Paulo Miranda at right back.

Atletico were already without Bernard, the young and skillful winger that perfectly complements Ronaldinho. They also lost Diego Tardelli for this game. So Cuca used Luan in the wide left position of the attack, and Marcos Rocha was used in the right wing, with Serginho coming on in the right back. Richarlyson was maintained as a starter after he got the position from Júnior César.

The key question of the game came because another series of results in the other groups defined that, if São Paulo ended up going through, they would be the worst seed of the playoffs. That would mean that these two teams could ending up facing each other in the round of 16. Suddenly, Atletico had a real reason to win this game, as it could mean eliminating a title contender and a next opponent. For Sao Paulo, it was quite simpler, first, win this game, and then, pray for the Arsenal game, otherwise they definitely out already. For that, this group game ended up having quite a playoff feeling.

São Paulo presses, but Atletico uses long passes to bypass it.

The home team started the game with only 4 points in the groups, while the away team counted 15. But nothing of that stat came into play today. São Paulo is a much more experienced team when it comes to Libertadores - having three titles - than Atletico - which is still in the quest for its first. The respect for one's history and for the other's recent form was strongly visible in the field. Nonetheless, São Paulo set off to try and win the match, as they were the ones which needed it the most.

Osvaldo starting left, with Rocha and Serginho doubling up on him. Jô and Luan running for Ronaldinho

They pressed heavily in midfield, with Denilson and Wellington coming high up the pitch, and even Ganso - known for his apparent laziness in the field - joining Aloisio to form a pressing line. To counter this strategy, Galo defenders Réver and Leo Silva resorted to long ball in the direction of Jô and Ronaldinho in order do bypass the pressing. This strategy worked to some extent, and São Paulo had to make cynical fouls in order to prevent Luan, Jô and Rocha through their high line. Consequently, Ronaldinho had the opportunity of setting up a lot of free kicks, but the home team resisted bravely.

In the first half, São Paulo attacked most frequently through their left, always searching Osvaldo, who has been their star performer this year, alongside with Jadson. Knowing this, Cuca used Serginho to mark the winger, with Rocha - a very attacking fullback - being given the freedom to start higher up the pitch and doubling up against Osvaldo. Even with this pair of markers, Osvaldo still managed to create some good chances in the first half, but was generally quiet. Ganso, on the other hand, had a poor first half, not being able to impose himself due to a strong man-marking by Pierre.

As it happened, the first half ended without a single shot on goal. São Paulo generally was the most proactive team, but Atletico had a real strategy to get a goal, and made an even battle of it.

São Paulo changes to give Osvaldo more space, and he puts it to good use.

At half-time, Cuca took Luan - a quick winger - and brought Alecsandro - a strong centreforward. Jô went up to the left side of the attack, naturally staying high up the pitch. Ney Franco changed Douglas and Osvaldo sides. In the left, the Sao Paulo star had a double marking made up of effectively two right back. On the other side of the field, the winger found space between the left back Richarlyson, and the left-wing Jô. He came deep in that space, entering the midfield zone to provide what Ganso didn't the entire first half. From that position, he got a great lob pass to Aloisio, that passe swiftly by Leonardo Silva, that ended up committing a penalty, converted by Rogério Ceni, team captain and goalkeeper.

Alecsandro in for Luan, without the same mobility. Wellington charging forward and Osvaldo in the right side, enjoying the space.
Up until the moment of the goal, in the ninth minute of the second half, it was really hard to understand Cuca's substitution. São Paulo were playing a high line, and the use of Luan, Jô and Rocha around Ronaldinho gave great flexibility to the team, as his companions were capable of running around and cover for their key player. Sometimes during the first half, Ronaldinho were effectively a false nine, being the teams most advanced played without the ball, but becoming a 10 when the team had it. All that changed with the introduction of Alecsandro. He did not have the work rate to run that much for Ronaldinho, being a more traditional striker. That meant that Ronaldinho spent more time in the middle, and that Jô became a permanent left winger. This eventually lead to Atletico being outrun in the center of the pitch with Denilson Wellington and Ganso very close, and Osvaldo having to much space with the ball down Atletico left.

São Paulo defends deep looking for a counter

Alecsandro was slightly more useful some time after the goal, when São Paulo decided to sit deep and slow the tempo, in order to use their quick players upfront to create a counter that would kill the match. At that moment, Alecsandro could finally be used where he is most comfortable, inside the opponent's penalty box. Cuca ended up bringing Neto Berola, a winger, for Serginho, with Rocha returning to right back. São Paulo continued to resort to fouls to slow the game, with Ronaldinho remaining a threat in dead ball situations, and now with Jô and Alecsandro as possible targets - not to mention Réver and Leo Silva. Ganso also played a more important role in the second half, keeping possession even under direct pressure from Pierre, and distributing the ball wisely in the midfield.

Atletico took the initiative to try and eliminate their opponents - a single goal would do the trick - and São Paulo tried to defend their lead. The away team were in a more familiar form with Rocha storming from right back, and Berola in the wing. It was interesting to see Pierre coming deep into his own defence, and Réver coming up to make long passes from the back. The centre-back is known for being quite a capable passer, and is sometimes regarded as being comfortable as a libero, with two other defenders at his side. But São Paulo defended very well with their two banks of four. Ney Franco took Aloisio for Ademilson, a younger and yet quicker striker. They were set to a counter attack.

Marcos Rocha at right back. São Paulo defending deep. Réver coming high up the pitch to launch attacks from the defence.
And then it happened, with approximately 10 minutes to go in the second half, Ganso played a precise pass -  reminiscent from his Santos-2010 époque.-  between Richarlyson and Réver to find Osvaldo through in the right wing. He dribbled inside and passed to Ademilson, who scored the second and final goal of the match. The two key players finally combined greatly to create a goal. And São Paulo secured their spot in the next round.

Atletico became even more attacking, with Guilherme coming in for Donizete, and São Paulo went the other way, bringing Fabricio in for an injured Ademilson and Rodrigo Caio replacing Paulo Miranda. The game continued in the same fashion, and São Paulo were able to defend their clean sheet all the way.

Atletico already suffers with the top seed curse and São Paulo is reborn
Last year, Fluminense were the top seed, and ended up facing Internacional - champions in 2006 and 2010 - before being eliminated by Boca Juniors. This is just one example of the top seed curse. Never in the current format did the best team of the group phase ended up with the trophy. And right now, Atletico looks to a round of 16 against the same opponents of tonight. As São Paulo are a team with Libertadores experience - 3 time winners - and have a great squad, it will be no easy task, and presents a real threat to their aspirations. The tricolor are stronger than never this year, and this victory will give them the confidence they needed. It will be a great couple of games, and will result in the elimination of a brazilian team as soon as the round of 16.

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