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Palmeiras lead the way as Cuca's recipe comes to the boil


Palmeiras lead the way as Cuca's recipe comes to the boil


It was the morning after World Emoji Day, so the headline was rather more oblique than usual. 


Beneath a photo of a jubilant Erik, sports daily Lance! had printed a number of symbols that told the story of Sunday's Internacional vs Palmeiras match. Some – a Brazilian flag, a thumbs-up, a smiley face – did not require Columbo-level acts of decryption: even those not versed in the local football scene would have been able to work out that the away side had picked up a useful victory.


It was the remaining pictures that really spelt out the significance of the result, however. There was the number 32, representing Palmeiras' points tally after 15 games of the Brasileirão season. That is three more than anyone else in the division; they have now been at the summit at the end of the last seven rounds. Early days these may be, but the trophy emoji could be getting a few more outings in these circles over the next few months.


Then there was the number 19 with a cross through it, which – investigative journalism alert – isn't actually an existing emoji. But we should probably allow some artistic licence here to mark the end of one of Brazilian football's most dogged hoodoos: this was the first time the São Paulo giants had beaten Inter at the Beira-Rio since 1997. No wonder the little pig emoji (an allusion to a once-pejorative nickname that Palmeiras fans have made their own) looked especially pleased with itself.


The Verdão have certainly lived a charmed existence in recent months. Their hopes of Paulistão and Copa Libertadores glory may have come to nought early in the year, but chinks of light have widened into broad beams since the start of the national championship, the side growing in confidence with each passing week. There have been heartening victories over Fluminense, Grêmio, Flamengo and perennial rivals Corinthians, contributing to a growing sense that the team is going places.


That is certainly the view of coach Cuca, who is already doing title maths. "We're earning over 70% of points available, which is a lot," he said after the win in Porto Alegre. "Every day, I analyse the 114 points on offer and compare past seasons. The average is 72 to 74 points and I think the champion [this year] will be in that ballpark. We're above average."


The same is undoubtedly true of Cuca's coaching acumen. The 53-year-old's arrival has been the chief catalyst for a marked upturn in form this term, helping Palmeiras to put a turbulent couple of years in the rear-view mirror. 


They may have won the Copa do Brasil in 2015, but even that could not cover up clear issues, many of them caused by the overzealous transfer dealings of president Paulo Nobre and sporting director Alexandre Mattos. At one stage there seemed to be a new face arriving every other day, leaving Marcelo Oliveira (appointed after two consecutive league wins alongside Mattos at Cruzeiro) with a bloated squad that he never managed to whip into shape.


Since March, though, things have been different. Cuca has trimmed the playing staff and ended the pattern of rotation for rotation's sake. He has also found a system that suits the players at his disposal, adopting a flexible, modern 4-2-1-3 that often morphs in shape during matches.


Long balls were a common feature last season, but there is now more of a focus on keeping the ball on the floor. Yet despite boasting the fourth-highest average possession in the division (52.9%), this is certainly no tiki-taka taskforce. Indeed, Palmeiras' best moments often come from quick transitions from back to front, which take opposition defences by surprise and allow the speedy attackers (Roger Guedes, Dudu, Gabriel Jésus and Erik would be a decent sprint relay team) space into which to run. 


Erik's goal against Inter was a lesson in minimalism, constructed from just six touches, highlighting the kind of precision that complements their directness. The skilful probing of Cleiton Xavier (5 assists in 8 starts) and the more explosive Dudu (3.3 key passes per game) creates plenty of chances in good areas: while Palmeiras only rank joint sixth in shots per game (13.5), they top the pile in terms of shots on target (5.8 per match). 


Interestingly, the blitz often comes early in games: Palmeiras have scored inside ten minutes in 8 of their 15 outings. The hunger for success is palpable.


Palmeiras lead the way as Cuca's recipe comes to the boil


The centre of attention for much of the campaign so far has been Gabriel Jésus, the teenage sensation being tracked by all of Europe's big clubs. But while he is fully deserving of the hype, contributions have come from far and wide.


Roger Guedes has been quietly impressive on the right flank, chipping in with three goals and embarking on more dribbles than any team-mate (1.6 per game). Vitor Hugo has come of age at the back, defending with skill and spraying passes round in some style. Fernando Prass and Jean have been calming influences, as has Zé Roberto, still going strong at 42.


From Cuca's perspective, though, the key man has probably been Tchê Tchê, the only outfield player to start every game. Unknown at the start of the year, he impressed for a pioneering Audax side in the São Paulo state championship and has been the versatile joker in the Palmeiras pack since making the switch to Allianz Parque in April.


The 23-year-old usually appears on pre-match tactics diagrams on Brazilian television as a right-back, but spends most matches making a mockery of that definition, helping out in midfield (no starter has a better pass completion rate than his 85.9%) and frequently popping up on the left wing. He is an all-rounder in the most positive sense and it is testament to Cuca's work that he is allowed to play with such freedom.


That, of course, is a recurring theme for the league leaders, who have outscored and outplayed all of their rivals so far. Trickier times may lie ahead (not least during the Olympics, which will deprive Palmeiras of Gabriel Jésus and goalkeeper Fernando Prass for up to a month) but there is a positivity in the camp that suggests they will not be burning out any time soon.


No wonder the green portion of São Paulo is so full of smiley happy people.


How will Palmeiras cope with key absences during the Olympics? Let us know in the comments below

Palmeiras lead the way as Cuca's recipe comes to the boil

Comments (1)

  • Palmeiras will not suffer too much due to their absences, because they don't have rivals as good as they are. Even if they had a fall, other teams have not great power to grow up in this moment. Corinthians is making a miracle with that team, Gremio oscillates a lot, Santos also gonna lost key pieces and Flamengo is still an incognito.

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