It has most definitely been an eventful five months for Sao Paulo. They managed to reach the dizzy heights of the Copa Libertadores semifinal, knocking out one of the strongest teams, Toluca of Mexico, after a surprising 4-0 home victory before losing to eventual continental champions Atletico Nacional. Brimful with confidence, the club started strong in the Brazilian League Championship.
Since then, they’ve lost manager Edgardo Bauza to the Argentine national team, leading goal-scorer Jonathan Calleri to West Ham, and talismanic no.10 Ganso to perennial Europa League champions Sevilla. Likewise, they’ve also said goodbye to their form, and possibly their Serie A league status as well. Hovering just four points above the relegation zone with only 11 games of the season left, they find themselves a possible one of nine teams that still face the drop, and they’re feeling the pinch.
“I would not say [we’re] a candidate, but we are alert for a long time. We are close to the area, the difference is small and everyone is aware of the situation,” remarked defensive midfield anchor Hudson. Reminiscing back to their Copa Libertadores successes at the Morumbi, he added, “We need [the fans]. Having their strength leaves us more excited, gives us more confidence.”
It was the loss of Ganso that was the most damaging. Although languid and lazy at times, he’s undoubtedly a real talent, capable of turning around a game himself with a great run, little trick or slide-rule pass. His move to Sevilla may prove to be a negative one however, as he has seemed unable to settle into Jorge Sampaoli’s hard-working, Gegen-pressing system. Sao Paulo have tried to replace Ganso with Peruvian international Christian Cueva, but he drifts in and out of games, unable to make his stamp on matches the same way as the masterful Ganso could.
Goals have been a massive problem for Sao Paulo since the departure of their two leading goal-scorers, and they’ve now turned to new signing Jean Carlos, stepping up from Brasileiro Serie B after making his name at state-level Sao Bernardo FC and then Vila Nova. Asking for the amount of goals needed to rescue their season may be a big request of a player that only managed three goals in 20 games in the league below.
“I admire Ganso. Replacing [him] is complicated, but I take my responsibility to be the player that Sao Paulo is looking for. I will try to do my best always,” he told the onlooking journalists in the build-up to their big clash with title chasers Flamengo.
To use his own words, Jean Carlos is a “very dynamic player. I like running the whole field and supporting my teammates in front of the goal… I am a midfielder, and like acting more centralized in order to help the structure. Every player, even in the front, feels uncomfortable when the ball does not enter.” This is exactly the type of player they’ve so dearly missed in recent months.
Andres Chavez was brought in from Argentinian giants Boca Juniors, and although five goals in 11 games is a good return, with such poor service you can’t help but watch him and feel sorry. He’ll be hoping that Jean Carlos can open up defences more consistently than others have been able to.
Sao Paulo have only won three games in 13 attempts, yet they have been eking out results from those teams surrounding them, which should surely keep them above the drop. Wins over relegation contenders Santa Cruz, Cruzeiro and Figueirense, and draws against Coritiba and Internacional, are keeping their head above water.
Stamina and concentration are, however, proving to be a problem. If games were only 45 minutes long they’d be sitting pretty in fourth place, preparing for next season’s attack at the Copa Libertadores. They have let in six second half goals in the last five games alone and have only kept two clean sheets since mid-July, leaving them languishing in 12th.
In a league where managers rarely last longer than Sam Allardyce’s short-lived reign as England manager, Ricardo Gomes may not have long left. There aren’t calls for his head yet, but a few losses on the trot and he could be wishing he’d stayed at Botafogo, who have gone from strength to strength since he left, leapfrogging his current team and looking to firmly secure mid-table safety in their first season back in the top flight.
Jean Carlos has been with his new club since the fourth of September, but wanted to wait until he was fully fit to make his debut; he may well have wished he’d held off for one more week.
Elsewhere, other teams have a chance this weekend to stake their own claim at Serie A survival, with plenty of six pointers to look out for.
Figueirense travel to Internacional, hoping that a win away from home can help them leapfrog Sao Paulo and drag them further into the mire. The Estadio Jose Pinheiro Borda is, though, a tricky place to travel to, with Internacional having lost only five games there all season, not a bad return for a team in 18th with four points separating them from safety.
Internacional’s season has been one of extremes. Riding high in the table and topping the league for a few weeks, they’ve seen the most drastic drop in form. After winning six of the first eight games, they’ve won only one since – that’s one win in 19 games!
17th-placed Cruzeiro host Luan’s gold medal-winning Gremio, who have slipped away from the pace at the top of the league and find themselves in with only an outside chance of qualifying for the Copa Libertadores. Cruzeiro recently re-hired ex-Brazil manager Mano Menezes to turn their season around, but after some good early results, things have settled back down to how they were before. They’ll have little worry about the visit of Gremio though, who have won only once since mid-August.