Roy Hodgson’s jaunt to Brazil reminds us of a strong and avenging rooster
Roy Hodgson was in Belo Horizonte last week, checking out the facilities at the training centres of the city’s two big teams, Atlético Mineiro and Cruzeiro, where England may set up camp during the 2014 World Cup (assuming qualifying does not prove an insurmountable obstacle). Rumours remain unconfirmed that, seeking creative inspiration, he took in an Atlético game.
This Brasileirão season is still in its infancy, but early leaders Galo are showing signs that they might hang around at the top for a while yet. In Belo Horizonte and beyond, optimism flows unbounded.
Perhaps unwisely. Atlético are a club steeped in disappointment and rich in recent failure. In 2005 I watched from the weeping terraces when the club, Brazil’s first official national champs in 1971, were relegated to Serie B. In 2009, Atlético led the league after fourteen games, and with four weeks left of the season were in the Libertadores qualifying positions. They finally finished 7th, and their absence from South America’s biggest continental competition now stands at twelve years. Last year, after a miserable campaign, a tantalizing opportunity arose. If an already safe Atlético could beat Cruzeiro on the last day of the season, they could relegate their despised local rivals. Galo lost 6-1, and Cruzeiro stayed up.
I moved away from Belo Horizonte soon after that 2005 season, though have remained sympathetic to Atlético’s struggles ever since. So it was hard to keep my own enthusiasm in check this year as the team reeled off victory after showy victory. After ten games, I could stand it no longer, and hauled myself along to the recent fixtures against Sport and Santos to see if this Atlético was for real.
The answer would seem to be a cautious yes. On a drizzly night in Recife, Atlético struggled early on against Sport, and went a goal down midway through the first half. Watching from the away end, it struck me that this was just the type of occasion when Galo, never the hardiest of teams, would have wilted in the past.
This crew seems to be made of sterner stuff. Atlético’s game plan is built around a tough defence, led by zagueiro Réver, and quicksilver midfield interplay between Ronaldinho, thrilling youngster Bernard and Danilinho, with former Man City man Jô the reference up front, and the team held their shape admirably.
It is a vibrant, high pressure style of play, and one that requires constant vigilance from the opposition. Struggling Sport were unlikely to have the mental or physical strength to hold out for long, and after a stream of excellent deliveries into the box, Danilinho rolled in an equaliser. In the second half, Atlético swatted the tiring home side aside. Ronaldinho curled in a beauty, Jô nodded home a Bernard cross, and then the 19 year old midfielder, described only half jokingly as “the most exciting discovery in world football in 2012” by ebullient Brazilian TV presenter Milton Neves, produced another sublime moment, chipping Sport keeper Magrão from 20 yards out.
More fun was to come at a packed, rowdy Independência in Belo Horizonte the following Wednesday. Atlético were fretful in the first half, with Bernard running into blind alleys and Ronaldinho well shepherded by Santos’ Adriano and Arouca. But again Galo persisted, highlighting a neat trick – the ability to get stronger as the game grows late. It took until the 43rd minute before Danilinho broke Santos’ stout resistance, but after that Atlético never looked back. Réver, currently by some distance the best centre back playing in Brazil, added a second, and Atlético had their seventh win in a row.
A few observations from the trenches. The first is that, away from the gaudy signing of Ronaldinho, Atlético are getting remarkable value from a number of lesser lights. Left back Júnior César, unloved at Flamengo, had his name chorused boisterously by the Atlético fans before kick-off. Over on the other flank, Mr. Hodgson would doubtless disapprove of the lack of positional discipline of Marcos Rocha, but the right back provides an exciting, playground football style presence, chasing the ball all over the park. And when his wanderings prove too alarming, smartly efficient volante Pierre steps over to cover.
Then there is the underappreciated depth of Atlético´s squad. On the bench against Santos were a wealth of options, including experienced ex-Grêmio zagueiro Rafael Marques, promising volante Fillipe Soutto, attacking midfielder Guilherme, and Neymar´s former Santos strike partner André.
A caveat torcedor. All, or most, of the Atlético players are performing at or near the top of their games, something that cannot be expected to continue throughout the season. How the team reacts to inevitable dips in form will be crucial. There will be tough competition ahead too, from, among others, the redoubtable Vasco da Gama, currently in 2nd, and the impressively talented Fluminense (against whom Atlético secured a useful away point yesterday).
At least Atlético’s legions of fans seem untroubled by self-doubt. At both games I watched there was little of the nail biting anxiety that might have been expected, given the club’s recent history. Instead, there was the sense that the team had reassumed their rightful place in football’s pecking order (fitting for a team whose mascot is a rooster). Whether such confidence is misplaced remains to be seen.Tagged in: Roy Hodgson
Recent Posts on Football
- A changing of the guards in English football: From Sir Alex Ferguson to Jose Mourinho
- Nike kit deal puts England at No 2 in the world (but which country is top?)
- PSG and the French league must be more proactive in dealing with hooliganism
- The ghost at the feast: Luiz Felipe Scolari hopes that dropping Ronaldinho for the Confederations Cup won't come back to haunt Brazil
- Anthony Knockaert and other examples of sporting justice
Latest from Independent journalists on Twitter