After almost two months of absences and disruption, normal service will finally be resumed for Santos as they welcome back their stars from international duty. A marathon trip back to Brazil from Sweden midweek did not seem to faze Neymar while he put Figueirense to the sword during a 3-1 victory, but the real test comes this Sunday when, in his first match back in the Peixe home ground of Vila Belmiro, he and Ganso will face off against bitter rivals and Copa Libertadores holders Corinthians.
It is difficult to overstate just how important this match is for the team directed by Muricy Ramalho, both symbolically and looking towards the second half of the Brazilian National Championship. Corinthians dumped Santos out of the Libertadores at the semi-final stage in 2012, ruining their chances of retaining the title and repeating the feat achieved in 1962 and 1963 when that wonderful team led by Pele won the South American title in consecutive years.
Revenge may be a dish best served cold, but for the Vila Belmiro it must come this weekend to start putting that painful reverse to bed and moving on.
More practically, three points for the hosts will be vital if Ramalho wants to continue his stint at the head of the electrifying outfit. The former Sao Paulo, Internacional and Fluminense coach has been in charge of the club for 18 months; a comparative lifetime in Brazil considering that five or six game reigns are not uncommon if a trainer loses the support of the fans and directors.
What has saved the no-nonsense personality so far has been a stellar record in cup competitions. Under his tutelage, the Peixe have won back-to-back Paulista Championships – no mean feat considering the presence of heavyweights such as Corinthians, Sao Paulo and Palmeiras in the state competition – and also ended a 38-year weight for further Libertadores success with that magical 2011 victory over Peñarol. That success, however, has not come without its price.
The trade-off for glory elsewhere has been two indifferent campaigns in Serie A, where consistency over 38 games takes precedent over the flashes of brilliance synonymous with cup runs. The same team that lifted the Libertadores just over 12 months ago slumped to a mediocre 10th place in the Brasileirao, despite the efforts of Borges up front who netted an incredible 23 goals in 29 games before moving on this year to Cruzeiro. 2012 has been even worse for the Peixe. Deprived of stars such as Neymar, Ganso and goalkeeper Rafael for the majority of the season, Santos were flirting with the relegation zone before victory over Figueirense moved them up to the comparative safety of 14th. For a club of such talent and reputation, however, not to mention their financial power, it is an extremely poor return.
Paradoxically, it is Santos’ much-publicised success over the past three years that has hurt them domestically. Although Neymar and Ganso have stayed in the face of fierce interest overseas, elsewhere there has been a steady exodus from Vila Belmiro. Danilo, Ze Eduardo, Alan Kardec, Alan Patrick, Elano, Alex Sandro, to name but a few: all talented first-teamers who have been snapped up by teams from Europe or Brazil, weakening the squad as well and prompting the need for constant change and renovation within the ranks. The presence of so many first-teamers in the Brazil squad as well, combined with the Brazilian Football Confederation (CBF’s) somewhat quixotic insistence in playing domestic fixtures on Fifa dates, has also drastically weakened the squad; while a rather more self-inflicted blow has been, as is common across South America, putting out reserve teams in the league in order to conserve the stars for the Libertadores.
One should not be so quick to write off Santos this season, especially now that their failure to retain the Copa means that a finish in at least the top-four of Serie A is vital to ensure another crack at the tournament in 2013. Admittedly, this looks wholly unlikely at present. We may be only 17 games into the season, but just four of those so far have ended in victory for the stuttering giants. A deficit of 11 points from the Libertadores qualification is daunting, but perhaps not insurmountable. And the return of the Olympic stars is not the only cause for renewed hope at Vila Belmiro.
President Luis Alvaro Ribeiro de Oliveira has been astute in the transfer market over the winter months. Argentine youngster Patricio Rodriguez provides an extra attacking threat as an attacking midfielder also adept at playing out wide or as a second striker, and will provide depth if either Neymar or Ganso need a rest.
At just US$1.5 million from Independiente, the former Manchester United target was a bargain and a debut goal against Atletico Goianiense introduced him in the best possible fashion to Peixe fans. Countryman Ezequiel Miralles also joined from Gremio, part of the deal that took Elano to Porto Alegre, and the diminutive poacher has already shown his goalscoring potential to raise fans’ hopes that he can form the partnership with Neymar that can fire Santos back up the table. Andre, who sparkled out wide back in 2010 alongside those two youngsters as well as Wesley and Robinho, is another man to watch having agreed a short-term switch following an abortive attempt to make it in European football.
Muricy’s team start as slight favourites according to Youwin to take all three points against their rivals, who despite similar problems with player turnover and continental commitments have held their own to stay in ninth place domestically, some seven points shy of Gremio in fourth. Libertadores hero Emerson Sheik has been ruled out through injury, but Paulinho returns from international duty and up front, the Timao can count on the brilliant talents of ex-Vélez man Juan Manuel Martinez and Peru hitman Paolo Guerrero as a world-class striking duo. Coach Tite is another ‘Sir Alex Ferguson’ of the Brasileirao, having been in charge almost two years; and a return of one Serie A runner-up finish, one national championship and the club’s first-ever Copa Libertadores show that the 51-year-old is no slouch when it comes to directing his men.
The stakes then could not be higher as Paulinho and co. prepare for the short journey from Sao Paulo to the fiercely independent port suburb of Santos that the Peixe call home. Rivalries in the Sao Paulo region, and indeed the whole of Brazil, do not get much bigger than Sunday’s feast of football; but for Muricy’s men at least, more than ever defeat is simply not an option if they plan to make waves in the second half of the season and recover the dream of Libertadores football come the end of the 2012 campaign.
Daniel Edwards is a freelance football writer specialising in the South American game, which he follows from his base in the Argentine capital Buenos Aires. He has written for Goal.com , The Blizzard and South American Football, and can be found on twitter at @DanEdwardsGoal.