Predictions are hard, especially when it comes to football.
You know what makes them harder? Trying to pick what will happen in a league in which 38 matches are crammed into the span of six and a half months all while some of the best teams will spend up to a quarter of those matches fielding reserve sides with an eye on continental competition.
But we’ve reached that point of the year again where I attempt to make sense of what will happen in this year’s Brasileirão.
This will be my third year trying to peg down this league, and I’ll be looking to use the lessons learned over the past two years to make these predictions better than ever.
With the state leagues now behind us, let’s get into who I think will go down, who will be playing Copa Libertadores football next year, and, most importantly, who will raise the trophy as champions this December.
In reverse order of predicted finish, here are my predictions for the 2017 Brasileirão:
It’s great to see Atlético-GO back in the top flight for the first time since 2012 after winning Série B last year, but it’s tough to see them making their stay a long one.
For the most part, this is a side made up of players who couldn’t stick at other clubs.
It’s tough to stay up with a team like that, and it doesn’t look like more help will be coming. 19-year-old João Pedro put up some impressive numbers (4 goals in 9 matches) during his debut state league campaign, but it’ll be difficult for him to repeat that in the national league.
Negueba is a player who intrigued me during his time with Coritiba, but struggled to stick with Grêmio last year.
27-year-old Júnior Viçosa paced the team with 10 goals in 2016, and will have to repeat that number to keep this side in matches.
At the back, journeyman centre back Roger Carvalho will look to anchor a defense that will have to be rock solid if Dragão are to stay up.
All in all, it’s hard to see all of that happening. I don’t think Atlético-GO will be América bad, but I don’t think they’ll be good enough to stay up either.
Avaí did well to bounce back up from Série B after their 2015 relegation, but it’s difficult to see this club doing anything but yo-yoing straight back down.
If Avaí do stay up, it’ll be because Claudinei Oliveira gets the most out of his defence, anchored by Betão and the wonderfully named Alemão.
Up front, 21-year-old Denílson, who spent last season in Azerbaijan, is an intriguing prospect, as is Romulo, one of the longest tenured players in the squad.
A lot will be asked of the 35-year old midfielder Marquinhos. He can place a free-kick or a set piece with the best of them, but he’s struggled to stay healthy.
If Avaí defend well, get a lot out of their young attackers, and keep Marquinhos healthier than in years past, they could stay up. If not, it looks like Avaí will be heading straight back down.
What Ponte Preta did in the São Paulo state league was impressive.
Ponte eliminated both Santos and Palmeiras en route to the final where they were decidedly handled by Corinthians, falling just short of what would have been the first Paulistão title in their 116 year history.
That said, I’ve been burned before by teams making a state league run only to fall flat in the national competition.
Ponte will lose their best goalscorer, William Pottker, who is off to Internacional, and it doesn’t look as though they’ll have a replacement goal-scorer handy.
Ponte will look to play off the counter, but that will only get them so far. I don’t buy into Yago and Fábio Ferreira as top-level centre backs, and without Pottker up top I think that this team will rely too much on Lucca to score goals unless someone like Lins or Clayson, who may be off to Corinthians, step up.
Add it all up, and despite an impressive performance in the state leagues, I think Ponte’s going down.
Vasco da Gama:
If relegation was decided on squad talent alone, Vasco would almost certainly be safe. But as Internacional showed last year, talent alone can’t save a team from relegation.
Vasco have yo-yoed between the first and second division since 2013, and I think that’s a trend that will continue in 2017.
Vasco have a stable of talented players, but unfortunately for them all of their key contributors are over the age of 30.
36-year-old Luís Fabiano, who’s spent the majority of his last tenure in Brazil in an offside position, is the most dangerous goalscoring threat.
Nenê, now 35, almost singlehandedly saved Vasco from relegation in 2015 but at some point age will surely catch up to the talented midfielder.
Rodrigo, Rafael Marques, Dos Santos, Martín Silva, Andrezinho: the names of contributors over the age of 30 goes on and on.
It’s not out of the question for Vasco to struggle to find consistency, and for that ultimately to send them down.
Every year, one of the big names finds themselves in the relegation discussion, and while the amount of time spent in the Série B by Vasco over the past years likely disqualifies them from being called a “big name”, I think 2018 will be yet another even-numbered year with Vasco in the second division.
Nothing about Coritiba inspires confidence, other than the fact that they’ve managed to stay in the first division for six consecutive years now, despite finishing in the top half of the table just once over that time period.
In a league known for volatility, that is a remarkable run of consistency.
By now, the blueprint is drawn up for how Coritiba will manage to stay afloat: they’ll defend well, Coxa allowed just a tick over a goal per match the last four years in the top division, take points at any chance they can, and do just enough to stay up by the end of the year.
The goals will mostly come via their 33-year old striker Kléber, who scored 23 goals across all competitions last year.
Again, Coritiba won’t ever impress you, but they’ll do enough this year to run this story back again next year.
If Coritiba plan to stay up by defending their way into as many points as possible, Vitória plan to stay up by scoring as many goals as they can.
Vitória scored goals at a good clip last year and their 51 goals left them fifth among Brasileirão teams in goals scored.
However, their defending was woeful, with their 53 goals conceded fifth worst among teams in goals against.
Up top, Kieza and André Lima are both players with proven goal scoring records in Brazil.
In the midfield, Vitória possess a number of intriguing playmakers: Colombian Sherman Cárdenas, and Cleiton Xavier chief among them.
How Vitória’s 2017 campaign goes could very well depend on if this side is able to stay fit. When healthy, Vitória’s attack could ask questions of even the best back line in Brazil. That said, Vitória’s defense will be under a lot of pressure if the midfield fails to stay free from injury and the goals fail to come.
They will find themselves in the relegation conversation, and might go through some dry spells, but they’ll stay healthy enough and score enough to stay up.
Everyone is aware of the challenges that Chapecoense will face this season.
Early returns suggest that this squad will be able to put up a good fight in the Brasileirão this campaign.
Chape have elected to fill their squad with players that are experienced, if not flashy. Though they’ll probably fall short of qualification in their Copa Libertadores group, they’ve had their moments in that competition, and were able to take home the title in the Santa Catarina state league.
From a purely footballing standpoint, Chapecoense won’t impress but they’re disciplined, will defend well, and should be able to do enough to stay in the first division.
33-year-old Wellington Paulista is the best goalscoring threat. In defence, Nathan and João Pedro, two players on loan from defending champions Palmeiras, are two younger players worth keeping an eye on.
Again, it won’t be flashy, but it will be enough for Chapecoense, and that’s worth celebrating.
Atlético Paranaense managed to sneak into the final Libertadores spot in 2016 thanks in large part to their defence, which conceded just 32 goals — tied for best in the competition.
So far in 2017, despite advancing into the Libertadores group stage, Furacão have yet to really impress, and it doesn’t seem like that will be changing soon.
What Atlético-PR lack is the type of game-changing playmaker that many of the best teams in South America have.
Once upon a time, Lúcho González was that, but at 36, the Argentine is resigned to sit and provide from a deeper position.
That’s an unfortunate theme for Furacão. With a few exceptions, 24-year old Felipe Gedoz chief among them, nearly every key contributor seems to be up there in age.
Gonález is joined by the 34-year-old Eduardo da Silva, and 38-year-old Grafite up front, while Jonathan and Paulo André, both over 30, anchor the defence.
It’s hard to see this Paranaense side defending as well as they did last year, and based on the evidence presented so far in the Libertadores, it wouldn’t be wise to expect them to score at a great rate either.
I wouldn’t be surprised to see them flirting around the relegation zone at points in 2017.
In the end they’ll do enough to avoid that unfortunate fate, but I don’t expect 2017 to bring the same successes that 2016 brought.
For someone looking for a Brazilian club to support and wants to stay away from any of the bigger sides, I would wholeheartedly suggest getting behind Sport.
Sport are the northernmost team in the Brasileirão and represent the football-mad region of Brazil known as the nordeste.
Their red and gold kits are sharp, and they play in an ageing stadium known as the Ilha do Retiro. Built in 1937, when full, the Ilha is one of the toughest places to play in Brazil.
Midfielder Diego Souza, who has been with the team for the better part of four years now (his brief stint at Fluminense last year notwithstanding) is a fan favourite, and always provides entertainment.
Better yet, he wears the number 87 in honour of Sport’s claim to the 1987 Brasilerião title, a source of constant contention between Sport and Flamengo.
André and Leandro Pereira are both interesting players in attack, and Sport are generally a safe bet for goals.
At the back end of things, 40-year-old goalkeeper Magrão has been with the club since 2005, and I’m intrigued to see how the Chilean Eugenio Mena gets along in defence after struggles at both Cruzeiro and São Paulo in recent years.
Sport may not make a run for the title, or even the Libertadores, but this is an entertaining side that will pick up a few scalps as the year goes on, and are nearly always a good bet for entertainment.
São Paulo made a number of intriguing changes this offseason, primarily the naming of club legend Rogério Ceni as manager.
The early returns on Ceni as a manager are mixed, with his side bowing out of the São Paulo state league in the semi-final stage to bitter rivals Corinthians, while also dropping out of the Copa do Brasil to Cruzeiro.
But it seems that Ceni will get time to work with this side, and as long as they don’t dip dangerously close to relegation, he should be able to see this year out before making a real go of things next year.
Peruvian midfielder Christian Cueva and Argentine striker Lucas Pratto will be tasked with making the goals. Cueva, who came over from Mexican side Toluca midway through 2016, has been particularly impressive this year.
Centre back Rodrigo Caio should be off to Europe sooner rather than later, but may stick around ahead of the 2018 World Cup in an attempt to play himself into the Brazil squad.
Perhaps the biggest question mark for Ceni will be who starts in his old stomping ground between the sticks.
34-year old Sidão did well with Botafogo last year, but suffered an injury during the Paulistão that could make the decision between him, Denis, and Renan Ribeiro in goal an interesting one for Rogério.
São Paulo will have their impressive moments, but it’s hard to see them really asserting themselves on the Libertadores discussion.
After a two year stint in the second division, Bahia, in all of their red and blue striped glory, are back in the first division.
Bahia have the best kits in Brazil for my money, and the football should be good this year as well.
24-year old Régis, with six goals in this year’s Copa do Nordeste, is the player to keep an eye on. He’ll pull the strings in the midfield, but can also go forward and score when called upon.
Hernane Brocador, whose 11 goals paced Bahia in the second division last year, will be the main threat from the No 9 role.
Bahia have invested with the intention of making their stay in the top division a long one.
Colombian international Pablo Armero headlined the offseason signings, and though he is no stranger to controversy, he’s still a solid footballer that should fit right in to what’s expected of a fullback in Brazil.
The Argentine Augustín Allione, on loan from Palmeiras, is another player I rate, and think will contribute well this campaign.
I may be a bit higher on this side than others, but I think Régis will impress, Hernane will score, and Armero and Allione will prove to be good additions.
Much like Atlético-PR, Botafogo slipped into the Libertadores at the end of last year then proceeded to exceed expectations by advancing to the group stage.
Fogão are managed by one of the up and coming managerial talents in Brazil in Jair Ventura.
Jair has done well in his time with the club, but his squad is quite clearly at a level below that of the main contenders in the Brasileirão.
Camilo and Montillo are nice pieces in the midfield, but both have struggled to stay healthy and, even when they are fit, aren’t surrounded by good enough players for their skills to really shine through.
Roger and Rodrigo Pimpão aren’t exactly bad players in attack, but neither has the confidence or ability to finish with 10 or more goals in a year.
At the back, Botafogo again have decent pieces, especially Paraguayan goalkeeper Gatito Fernández, but nothing that is overly impressive.
Botafogo will get good results this year, and will probably generally avoid poor ones, but there will always be this feeling that this is a squad one or two pieces short to really have a good campaign.
Just missing out on Libertadores qualification:
Following the departure of Tite to manage the national team last year, Corinthians took part in Brazil’s managerial merry-go-round with both Cristovão Borges and Oswaldo de Oliveira getting a chance at the helm of Timão.
Neither were particularly successful, and rather than jump back onto the merry-go-round Corinthians appointed Fábio Carille as manager last December.
Carille has been successful in the first part of 2017, winning the São Paulo state league ahead of more talented favourites Palmeiras and Santos.
Aside from Jadson, who has returned after a year in China, Corinthians won’t wow you with their talent but they are a disciplined side that will defend well and force other teams to break them down.
Jô (yes, the same one that once plied his trade for Manchester City) has had a knack for scoring big goals this year for Timão, and should continue at a respectable goal-scoring pace.
Corinthians lack the one or two players that can get them over the hump and into the Libertadores, but this will be a strong, disciplined side that no favourite will want to face.
Santos might just be the toughest team to peg in this year’s Brasileirão.
Lucas Lima was inconsistent last year but has been on good form so far in 2017, pulling strings in the midfield as a real number 10 should.
Ricardo Oliveira, now 37, missed some time during the Paulistão and has only recorded 3 goals this year.
Peixe have a stable of talented wingers: Bruno Henrique, Copete, and Vitor Bueno are all quite dangerous when on form, but have the tendency to disappear at points too.
There are other talented players as well, especially Thiago Maia and Zeca, who have both attracted interest from European sides.
The argument can be made that Santos should be considered among the favourites this year, but it just feels like something is missing.
Maybe it’s a better striker, maybe it’s a stronger defence, maybe it’s a bit of both. Whatever it is, and it’s probably more than a gut feeling than anything,
I think Santos will fall short of expectations and miss out on the Libertadores places.
There will be a few too many draws that should have been wins, and a few too many losses that could have been draws, and for me, that will leave Santos short of the top six.
Every year it seems that one team finds itself in the final Libertadores spot despite not really being in the title chase.
That will only increase now that the direct Libertadores spots have expanded from four to six.
This year, I think Fluminense will be more consistent than a more talented Santos team and will sneak into the final Libertadores spot.
That’s not to say that Flu aren’t talented. Gustavo Scarpa is the best player in Brazil you’ve not heard of, and I really like the addition of Ecuadorian pair Jefferson Orejuela and Junior Sornoza.
19-year-old Richarlison scored 8 goals in the Rio de Janeiro state league, and could be one of the next big Brazilian attacking prospects.
I don’t think Fluminense will play themselves into the title chase, but I do think that this is a squad that is good enough to snatch a Libertadores spot, and that should be considered a success for this team.
The attacking talent is there for Galo to make a run at the title, but what might not be there is the consistency.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a group of attackers stronger than those Roger Machado can throw out on the pitch for any given match.
It all starts with Fred, who has a legitimate claim to the title of best finisher in Brazil right now.
But Fred would be nothing without those around him, and in the attack Galo surround him brilliantly with Robinho, Elias, Juan Cazares, and that’s before even discussing Rômulo Otero and his wonderful free-kicks, or the still promising Marlone.
The question marks with this team will always be in the back line. As it stands, 37-year old Leonardo Silva appears to be one of the anchors at the back for the Atlético, with some combination of the Ecuadorian Frickson Erazo, Gabriel, and Felipe Santana set to play alongside him.
Whoever it ends up being — and all signs point to it being a rotation — will be tasked with trying to plug a defence that has consistently struggled over the past few years.
I think that, once again, Galo will be right in the Libertadores conversation, but fall short of a title due to a combination of inconsistency and a few too many struggles at the back.
Let me preface this by saying that I would not be surprised in the slightest if Grêmio go on and win the 2017 title.
Kannemann and Pedro Geromel might be the strongest central defence pairing in the country, while Luan, Pedro Rocha, and Miller Bolaños are all very talented attackers.
Lucas Barrios, who joined this season, has found his form after a slow start and is now scoring goals at a high rate.
Douglas, one of the better playmakers in Brazil, is currently out injured but should be able to return by July or August.
The talent is all there for this side to make a real run at the title.
Despite all of that talent, Grêmio have been inconsistent so far in 2017.
One night, they’re putting four goals past a defensive Guaraní side and throwing their hat into the ring of Libertadores contenders, the next they’re scoring first against Iquique but then getting pegged back and suffering a 2-1 defeat.
For whatever reason, Grêmio just aren’t consistent enough to really challenge for the title, and that’s a shame because this is a fun, talented side that when firing on all cylinders are among the best in South America.
The title contenders:
The defending champions enter 2017 having suffered only one notable departure — Brazil international Gabriel Jesus, now at Manchester City — while adding two of the top players in South America last year in the shape of Venezuelan international Alejandro Guerra, and Colombian Miguel Borja, both from 2016 Copa Libertadores champions Atlético Nacional.
Title-winning manager Cuca is back in charge after a five month period away from football.
Dudu has developed into one of the best players in Brazil, while Colombian centre back Yerry Mina has caught the eye of Barcelona and will only continue to get better.
Felipe Melo, in all of his glory, has made his way back to Brazil to shore up the defensive midfield.
Clearly, Palmeiras are one of the favourites to win the league, and I would not be shocked to see them win back to back titles as the talent is there.
For me, it will all come down to what Palmeiras are able to do in the Copa Libertadores.
This year, the Libertadores was extended to run the length of the full year rather than only through July.
What this means is that should a team advance in the Libertadores, it will more likely than not have an adverse effect on their ability to perform in the league.
I think Palmeiras are among the Libertadores favourites, especially with Cuca back in charge.
This is a squad good enough to take the title, but I think the crowded calendar of South America will force them to make sacrifices domestically in their quest for an international title, and that will keep them from repeating as champions.
The biggest side in Brazil might be the biggest wild card in this year’s Brasileirão. And they might just have the biggest individual wild card to play.
At the young age of 16, Vinícius Junior has begun to turn heads, first domestically and now internationally, as Real Madrid have reportedly agreed to pay €45 million to purchase the youngster when he turns 18 next July.
Vinícius has yet to make his professional debut, but has wowed scouts and fans at both the under-17 and under-20 level.
He’ll be included in Flamengo training starting this week, and should debut professionally this Brasileirão.
Vinícius is not yet at the level where he can singlehandedly win a title for a team but he is good enough that, if used properly, he could play an important role in both the Brasileirão and Copa Libertadores.
The reason Vinícius could be so critical to Flamengo is that this Mengão side is really quite talented.
Diego has sparkled in his return to Brazil proving unqualified hacks like myself wrong, and should return from injury soon, while Paolo Guerrero continues to be one of the best pure goal-scorers in the league.
Peruvian Miguel Trauco has been a welcome addition, bombing forward from the fullback position and providing terrific service to his fellow Peruvian Guerrero.
Márcio Araújo has been no stranger to criticism in the red and black shirt but has grown into his defensive midfield role.
Add in the addition of Argentine Darío Conca, who should be available in the coming weeks, and Flamengo have built a talented squad.
If there is an issue (outside of the overarching theme of Libertadores football affecting Brasileirão performance) it is the defence, which could be improved in the next window.
In the end, Vinícius Junior or not, I think Flamengo will fall victim to a fixture list that is just the slightest bit too crowded, and will ultimately miss out on a title, if only just.
The 2017 Brasileirão champions will be…
It’s no secret that the Brazilian championship might just be the fastest run marathon in football.
The matches come fast and furious with most sides spending the year playing, on average, a match every three days or so.
Unlike the other title contenders, Cruzeiro won’t get caught up in the fight for the Libertadores which will now stretch throughout the entire campaign rather than just July.
The Brasileirão will be Mano Menezes’ primary goal in 2017.
Cruzeiro are strong enough in the attack and midfield to break down the strongest of defences, and are deep enough to survive the injuries and suspensions that come during a 38-game season compressed into six and a half short months.
Ramon Ábila was one of the best goal scorers in Brazil last year and, after a slow start with the club, Rafael Sobis has hit his goalscoring stride.
In midfield Thiago Neves and Húdson join a group that already featured Uruguayan international Giorgian de Arrascaeta, and is deep enough to withstand an absence or two.
In defence, Ecuadorian Luís “Kunty” Caicedo has come over from last year’s Libertadores runners-up Independiente del Valle, and while Dedé and Manoel have dealt with injuries in the past, both appear to be healthy and ready to contribute.
When Cruzeiro are on form, they are one of the most talented teams in Brazil.
When they’re not, they have the ability to grind out a result, and attackers who can poach a goal from nearly nothing.
They might not always impress in 2017, and I’m understanding that this is a bit of a wildcard pick, but I think Cruzeiro will be deep enough and, perhaps most importantly, focused enough to take home the title.