Big Lang Theory: In praise of Corinthians


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When Emerson Sheik stroked home the second goal of the second leg of the Copa Libertadores final on Wednesday night, a weight was lifted. The strike sealed an impressive aggregate win for Corinthians over Boca Juniors, and in so doing, shook a half century-old monkey off the back of one of the giants of Brazilian football.

For before this week, the Libertadores - South America's premier club competition - had eluded the club from São Paulo. Despite frequent successes at regional and national level, Corinthians had always fallen short on the continent, apparently forever doomed to suffer jibes from their rivals. Whilst neighbours Santos and São Paulo have enjoyed significant success since the competition began in 1960, the Timão ('Big Team') have had very little to cheer about. A single semi-final appearance (which ended in crushing defeat to bitter rivals Palmeiras in 2000) represented a dire return for an outfit that boasts well over twenty million fans in Brazil alone.

The club's failings became even more pointed in recent years. Desperate to mark their centenary year with Libertadores success in 2010, Corinthians pulled out all the stops to draft in Ronaldo and Roberto Carlos, hoping that their experience would make the difference. It didn't. Despite boasting a squad that was the envy of the continent, the Timão choked once again, losing to Flamengo in the last 16. A year on (and with the centenary still being rather tenuously evoked), things got even worse: Corinthians failed to even make the group stage after going down to minnows Deportes Tolima in a qualifier.

It is to the club's immense credit that Tite, their manager at the time, kept his job. In a country in which most football club owners can't even spell 'job security', dismissal appeared all but guaranteed, but the Corinthians board bucked expectations. That decision has been vindicated many times over; Corinthians secured their fifth domestic title in December, before Wednesday night's commanding win finally scratched their 50-year itch.

This boardroom pragmatism has been replicated on the pitch. Corinthians' success has been built around defensive solidity; staggeringly, they conceded just four goals in their fourteen matches. The partnership between veteran centre-back Chicão and Roma-bound Leandro Castán was the bedrock of their backline, whilst beanpole goalkeeper Cássio has been impeccable since joining from PSV Eindhoven. Further up the field, Tite snubbed the ageing Liédson, preferring the diligent Emerson and Jorge Henrique in attack. Despite Emerson's brace this week, that pair do much of their best work without the ball, allowing the creative talent of Alex and Danilo (whose assist for the opener vindicated his rather generous 'Zidanilo' nickname) to set the tempo.

The real stars of the campaign, however, were central midfielders Ralf and Paulinho. The former, a known favourite of Brazil coach Mano Menezes, is the team's defensive guard dog, snapping into challenges and rarely straying from in front of the back four. He was fundamental on Wednesday night, largely snaffling the threat of the mercurial Juan Román Riquelme. Paulinho, meanwhile, is the ultimate all-action midfielder. His surging late runs into the box have been the defining feature of Corinthians' attacking play this year, and have made him a transfer target for some of Europe's biggest sides.

In a month in which Spain impressed with their ability to control matches, Corinthians deserve praise for dominant nature of their Libertadores performances. The hard work and discipline that Tite's system demands may not have generated sparkling attacking play, but the safety first approach has worked perfectly. Only once - in their quarter-final tie against Vasco da Gama - did they truly look in danger of exiting the competition - an astounding achievement given the calibre of their opponents in the latter stages (Santos and Boca).

As this Bando de Loucos ('Band of Madmen' - the moniker adopted by the Corinthians faithful) celebrated into the night in São Paulo, the history books were finally being rewritten. Good things, as they say, come to those who wait.