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'Ricardiola' conquers hearts & minds as Flamengo sniff title glory


'Ricardiola' conquers hearts & minds as Flamengo sniff title glory


They arrived in their droves, some from the neighbouring bairros, pleased to have a game on their doorstep, others from further afield. It was 11am on Sunday - no time for football, really - but already the sun was beating down; by the time the game kicked off, a good number of them had abandoned their shirts. For the 90 minutes that followed, the home team was roared on by almost 30,000 souls. 


That may not sound like a lot, given that the hosts were Flamengo, the best-supported team in Brazil. But context counts for a lot here. Firstly, this is Brazil, where, for all the passion and the history, the average Série A attendance this season has been just 15,000. Secondly, the match, against struggling Figueirense, took place not in Rio but 360km away in São Paulo. 30,000 was a pretty impressive turnout. 


Flamengo have had to get used to this kind of thing in recent months. The Maracanã has been out of action all year due to the Olympics and the Paralympics, meaning the Rubro-Negro's 'home' fixtures have become something of a magical mystery tour. There have been games in a range of lesser Rio stadiums, plus numerous money-spinning trips to outposts like Brasília and Natal. If the players are collecting Air Miles, their holidays are probably taken care of for the next decade or so. 


That supporters have made the best of a difficult situation is clear: two of Flamengo's three biggest three crowds in 2016 have come at São Paulo's Pacaembu - 'Flacaembu' as some have dubbed it - and you wouldn't bet against the 30,000 barrier being broken if plans to play Santa Cruz there next month come to fruition. Clearly, the passion runs deep.  


'Ricardiola' conquers hearts & minds as Flamengo sniff title glory


But the attendances are also a direct response to what has been happening on the pitch - and in the Brasileirão standings. For Flamengo, contrary all pre-season expectations - and hell, most mid-season ones until a couple of months ago - are playing the best football in the country and mounting a serious title challenge.  


Figueirense were dispatched 2-0, a result that brought Fla back to within a point of leaders Palmeiras, who had seen off Corinthians the night before. The two were worlds apart in the early stages of the campaign, the Verdão demolishing everything in their path and Flamengo looked disjointed. But slowly, the Rio giants emerged from the midtable flux to establish themselves as contenders-in-chief, clawing back a point here, two there.  


Palmeiras continue to set the pace, but Fla are somehow matching them every step of the way, waiting to pounce. They almost did so last week, when first played second at Allianz Parque, but had to settle for a point after playing for 50 minutes with 10 men. Yet that did little to dampen the hope or the sense of inevitability about the pursuit. There is, to adopt the catchphrase of the day in Brazil, the 'cheirinho de hepta' in the air - Fla's sixth national championship - they claim seventh; it's a long story - is so close that they can smell it. 


Remarkably, the improvement has come about with a top-flight neophyte in the dugout. Zé Ricardo was managing the club's under-20 side at the turn of the year and was thrust into the fray when Muricy Ramalho, one of Brazilian football's grand old dukes, was sidelined by a heart problem. Few expected the caretaker to stick around, but he did and is now masterminding what looks like the start of a bright new era. 


'Ricardiola', they call him, but in truth the comparison with Pep Guardiola doesn't stand up to any great scrutiny. Fla may enjoy plenty of possession (52.3%, the fourth highest in Série A) and pass the ball more than most (448.8 per match, the fifth highest) but there is no great tactical evangelism to his approach. Attacks tend to be swift and rely on overloads rather than intricate build-up. Energy and aggression are the watchwords. 


His early success has owed more to his open, hands-on style, which has united the squad. He has spoken of "trainability" and "bonds of respect" between him and his players, who confirm that he places great importance in personal relationships and hard work behind the scenes. "Zé comes from youth football, so has a lot of patience with us. He improves players, fills them with confidence," says attacking midfielder Gabriel. Former Brazil playmaker Diego, who has had his fair share of managers, agrees: "You don't get to be Flamengo coach by accident. He's a really intelligent guy, who expresses himself very well. He has done a sensational job." 


'Ricardiola' conquers hearts & minds as Flamengo sniff title glory


A host of previously unloved squad members have begun to prove their worth under the new boss. Rafael Vaz has kept former Brazil defender Juan out of the side with a string of strong displays at centre-back, averaging 5.6 clearances a match and coming out of his shell to the extent that his glorious 40-yard assist for Fla's opening goal on Sunday did not seem out of character. Goalkeeper Alex Muralha, with nine clean sheets and 57 saves this term, has been called up to the Brazil squad on the back of his displays and many feel all-action midfelder Willian Arão (2.8 tackles per game) won't be far behind. Gabriel has rediscovered his mojo after a poor couple of seasons, while veterans like Márcio Araújo (71 interceptions) and Pará have become key men after making the most of their chances.  


There are bigger names in the squad, but they are there to complement their colleagues rather than overshadow them. Zé Ricardo refused to fast-track Paolo Guerrero back into the starting XI after some injury issues and had no qualms about withdrawing Diego early on against Palmeiras, despite the possibility that it might annoy both the fans and the player. In the event, the former Werder Bremen and Fenerbahce star took it on the chin. "It doesn't matter who plays or who he takes off, no one gets frustrated. The group respects his decisions," insists Vaz. "He may not have managed anywhere else, but he's got the squad in the palm of his hand." 


Not everything is perfect. Without Guerrero, Flamengo have lacked an out-and-out goalscorer in attack: no player has found the net more than four times in their 26 games. Leandro Damião has made a promising enough start since belatedly making his debut in August, with an average of 2.9 shots per game, but his profligacy against Figueirense - one missed penalty, one open goal squandered - suggested that he is still some way from turning back into the hitman of a few seasons ago. It made no difference on this occasion but 11 of their 15 wins have been by a single goal and championships can turn on a single chance. 


Zé Ricardo will be pleased that his attacking midfielders are contributing so much in the final third: between them, Diego, Gabriel, Fernandinho, Alan Patrick and Everton have scored eight of the Rubro-Negro's last 10 goals. Options are plentiful. But he would surely love the floodgates to open for Damião or Guerrero - or even the flighty Marcelo Cirino - in order to ease the pressure a touch. 


For now, cheiro or no cheiro, Palmeiras remain in the driving seat as far as the title race goes. But Flamengo's status as serious challengers - InfoBola's statisticians put their chances of lifting the trophy at 39% - is undeniable and testament to the brilliant work done by Zé Ricardo. No wonder the fans are turning out in force wherever they go.


Can Flamengo secure domestic glory this season? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below

'Ricardiola' conquers hearts & minds as Flamengo sniff title glory

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