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Brazil’s title race is astonishingly tight with three games to go


With three rounds to go in the Brazilian Serie A, fans can be forgiven for having one hand on the calculator and the other on the phone number of the cardiologist.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. It all seemed sewn up for Botafogo of Rio who, at the halfway stage of the campaign had a surely insurmountable lead of 13 points.

But that in itself was surreal. At the start of proceedings nobody — certainly not the club’s fans — saw Botafogo as realistic title contenders. Now owned by U.S. businessman John Textor, they are only in their second season back in the top-flight. The team — strong in the air in both penalty areas, with quick wingers for the counter-attack and workmanlike players operating inside their limitations — came across as a pragmatic unit built for survival rather than glory by Portuguese coach Luis Castro. But they kept on putting the wins together while their rivals were stumbling, and the title was theirs for the taking.

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In July, Luis Castro was seduced away by an offer from Saudi Arabia. In came another Portuguese, former Wolverhampton Wanderers boss Bruno Lage, to replace him. Lage wanted to tweak the formula and make little changes to the line-up. This did not go down well, and he was sacked by a club that was already suffering from the expectations that came along with it’s big league lead. It was all too much. Without a league title since 1995, and with several visits to the second division since then, the prospect and the potential humiliation of losing such a huge advantage appeared to prey on the mind of a notoriously superstitious club.

Everyone was losing their mind. Former assistant Lucio Flávio took over as coach and went faithfully back to the Luis Castro formula. But, at the beginning of November, the team astonishingly let a 3-0 lead slip at home to Palmeiras and lost 4-3. A few days later they were 3-1 up against Gremio and lost that one 4-3 as well. Textor was howling about refereeing errors and calling on the president of the FA to resign. In a last-ditch attempt to save the title bid, Thiago Nunes was brought in to coach the side. He has presided over two draws — the team have not gone eight games without a win — and the latest, on Sunday, was probably the decisive stumble.

At home to Santos — Pele’s old club, who are fighting against relegation in the first campaign since the death of the great man — Botafogo took an early lead, sat on it and experienced the heartbreak of conceding an 89th-minute equaliser. Had they held on to win, Botafogo would have been top of the table and with three rounds to go their fate would have been in their own hands. Now they are relying on a slip up from their rivals, all of whom are heavyweights. In the previous five years three different clubs have won the title. One of these three is likely to emerge triumphant this time — and there is a story behind all of them.

Top of the table now on goal difference are Palmeiras of Sao Paulo, champions in 2018 and last year. This season, though, looked like being a dry one. The squad is thin — players such as midfielder Danilo, sold to Nottingham Forest, have not been adequately replaced, and the substitute bench is full of teenagers. Abel Ferreira, the team’s highly promising Portuguese coach, has won two Copa Libertadores titles as well as the league and the cup with Palmeiras.

If he clinches this title, it may well be the most impressive achievement of all. Sunday’s game showed the exceptional team spirit of the side: A man down away to Fortaleza, they came up with two equalisers to force a 2-2 draw and win a point that keeps them on top of the table on goal difference.

Their closest rivals are Rio de Janeiro giants Flamengo, champions in 2019 and 2020. After a turbulent and very disappointing year, they had all but given up thoughts of silverware and were planning for next year when they brought in a third coach of the campaign in October — Tite, who took Brazil to the last two World Cups.

After defeat to Croatia in Qatar, Tite kept a low profile, licking his wounds and accepting that the dream offer to coach a major European club was not going to come. Meanwhile, his stock began to rise. Three consecutive defeats in the current World Cup qualification campaign has reminded people that Tite’s Brazil played 29 of these matches without losing one of them. And he has quickly sifted through the options to construct a coherent Flamengo side which have won six of the nine games under his command. And, like Palmeiras, two of the last three rounds are at home.

The next one, on Wednesday, is especially enticing. Flamengo host Atletico Mineiro, champions in 2021 and the other team in the mix. On Sunday the Belo Horizonte team beat Gremio 3-0, effectively ending the chances of Luis Suárez winning a Brazilian title. Atlético are coached by another former Brazil boss, the veteran Luiz Felipe Scolari.

Now 75, “Big Phil” came out of retirement in June to take the Atletico job. Early results were poor, but quietly, based on the best defensive record in the competition, Atletico have been climbing the table. A win on Wednesday will take them above Flamengo on goal difference, and maybe hand the title to Palmeiras. Or bring Botafogo back into contention. Or give Scolari the chance to add another title.

Watch this space, because drama is guaranteed.

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