Wednesday, December 14, 2011
ESPNsoccernet: December 15, 1:40 PM UK
Santos' cautious optimism
The Club World Cup will probably seem, for the favourites Barcelona, like something of a come-down after the high of their clasico win against Real Madrid on Saturday, but as ever it's about more than just the European representatives.
Santos, the champions of South America, have been focusing on it for a long time now as they prepare to reclaim a title they last won, in its Intercontinental Cup guise, back in 1963.
The spectre of the 2010 tournament, when Internacional of Porto Alegre lost to TP Mazembe in the semi-finals and became the first side from either of the competition's traditional powerhouses to fail to reach the final, was banished in style by Santos on Wednesday with Neymar, Borges and Danilo scoring cracking goals against Japanese champions Kashiwa Reysol. In truth, no-one in Brazil had thought there was any chance of an upset. Santos are a better side than last year's Internacional, and were far more switched on.
Prior to the tournament, plenty of Brazilians - and not only their own fans - were giving Santos a good chance of beating Barcelona to lift the trophy. Wednesday's performance was impressive in attack, but defensive failings were the bane of manager Muricy Ramalho's press conference afterwards. Having not won the match by ten clear goals, the Brazilian press decided Santos had "struggled towards the end", as Globo put it, and with Kashiwa Reysol hitting the post once, the fact that Santos did so twice was ignored and Muricy found himself having to insist to journalists that the defence would improve and that the victory was "not lucky".
In truth, there were reasons Santos' defence didn't look quite as assured as normal, as Muricy mentioned in his press conference. Regular left-back Leo had a falling out with the manager prior to the match (with Muricy deciding he was too old and that his stamina was going), so Durval - normally a centre-back - played at left-back, and Bruno Rodrigo, who's normally a substitute, filled in for him in the middle. If the experiment is repeated in the final, it'll be interesting to see how those two deal with Lionel Messi.
Paulo Henrique Ganso was very impressive for someone who's played precious few games in the last six months due to injury, and Neymar and Borges' cracking goals to make it 2-0 early on were reminders of the quality in Santos' attack.
Santos' form since winning the Copa Libertadores back in June is hardly going to strike fear into their opponents in the final. A 4-1 thrashing away to Sao Paulo in the last round of Brazilian Serie A matches recently meant they finished tenth in the league but, for many of their last few matches, most of their major players were rested and those in which 'Santos A' (as Globo's website refers to their first team) did feature were treated as training sessions for Japan. Tenth in the league wasn't complained about.
One thing that may very well cost them is that, against Barcelona, Santos will do a lot more running around after the ball than they've been used to this year. Santos' strong defence is not a product of a hard pressing game. Having seen them in the flesh during the Copa America in July, I can imagine Neymar, in the right mood, harrying opposing defenders for the ball, but I can't see Ganso doing the same thing. Neymar, if he pressures his markers, might be their best hope.
Moreover, Ganso fell victim to exactly the sort of pressing Barcelona use during the Copa America; he was bullied off the ball in Brazil's opening game against Venezuela, as I wrote at the time, and with the injuries he's suffered throughout 2011, I have my doubts about whether he'll cope against Barcelona's midfield.
One thing that will make Santos dangerous, though, is that they know they're going to be very much second favourites in the final. Muricy Ramalho had a point with his protests after the game - Santos weren't bad - but they did look a bit nervous at times. That, the consensus goes, was because the semi-final was the match they had to win, in the eyes of the Brazilian public. That obligation added pressure. In the final, against Barcelona, that pressure will be nowhere near as high.
They'll need to tighten up their passing, and perhaps provide cover down the left for that experimental backline, but the feeling that they're capable of springing a surprise and beating Barcelona is still there, especially because Neymar - who admits he wants Messi's shirt after the final - can actually improve. He was feted by the European press for his performance but, although no-one was criticising him, it was slightly less impressive than his typical showings in South America this year. Borges' goal, though, was a reminder that if the opposition focus too much on the star man, his partners in the Santos attack are perfectly capable of causing some damage as well.
If Barcelona decide they fancy winning the trophy having gone all the way to Japan, I think it's very much theirs to lose. Santos' last appearance in this competition - or rather its predecessor - was back in 1963 with Pele a part of the attack. They'll be going all out to add a third world championship to the two they won back then, but it's going to be a tall task. If they manage it, Neymar's running up front will have been key, and they might do worse than consider declaring Neymar 'unexportable', just as the Brazilian government once did with Pele himself.
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