It’s time. After three long (sometimes boring) months of state league football, the Brasileirão is set to return this Saturday when Cruzeiro and Grêmio battle in Belo Horizonte.
As I have for the past 3 years, I will once again attempt the fruitless task of previewing this topsy-turvy, unpredictable league.
Not that there was ever any doubt, but I am 0-3 in successfully picking the champion.
In case you doubt the Brasileirão’s unpredictability, last year’s undisputed champions, Corinthians, were on no one’s radar to open the season.
Then after rattling off 34 matches unbeaten in all competitions, a large portion of which came to open the Brasileirão, Timão were finally beaten in August. At home. By a Vitória side that barely stayed up at the end of the year.
Two matches later they were beaten again at home. By Atlético-GO, who were unquestionably the worst team in Brazil’s top division last year.
In short, try as you might, neither you nor I know what’s going to happen in the Brasilerião, and that’s the fun of it.
Take these predictions less as predictions and more as team guides thinly veiled in the concept of predictions. Let’s get to it:
20 – América-MG:
It’s an even numbered year which means it’s time for yo-yo club América Mineiro to (temporarily) grace us with their presence in Brazil’s top division. The last time Coelho were in the top tier they had one stretch of 600+ minutes without a goal and were doomed to relegation by September.
This year’s edition might not be that bad, but staying up would be a surprise. América won the Série B last year, but did so only scoring 46 goals in 38 matches. Yawn.
Rafael Moura is the type of goalscorer that bottom-half Brasilerião teams look for, the midfield is serviceable, headlined by former Palmeiras and São Paulo man Wesley, and the defense is experienced and showed well last year, but there’s not a whole lot to inspire in this squad.
If 20-year old Matheusinho can return to full fitness after suffering a ligament injury last year, and Rafael Moura and company up top score like a mid-tier Série A attack, then maybe América can pull a few surprises and stay up, but I wouldn’t bet on it.
19 – Chapecoense:
Following the tragic disaster at the end of 2016, Chapecoense were the feel-good story of 2017 in Brazilian football.
Chape were an administrative error away from advancing out of their Libertadores group, and finished 8th in the Brasileirão, qualifying for the Libertadores again, but were eliminated by Nacional of Uruguay in the qualifying round.
The hope once again is that the squad is better than the sum of its parts, because the squad is not particularly strong. Wellington Paulista continues to lead the line, a role he performed admirably in 2017, scoring 9 crucial league goals.
Hector Canteros and Márcio Araújo, both former Flamengo players, and Amaral are all decent midfield pieces, and Alan Ruschel, a survivor of the 2016 disaster, is an inspiration at full back.
But this is a Chapecoense side desperately lacking in quality, and coming off of an incredibly emotional time.
If their form drops off, no one will blame them, and that’s unfortunately what I think happens in 2018. Wins become draws, draws become losses, and at the end of the year Chapecoense find themselves on the wrong side of the cut line.
18 – Paraná:
After 10 years languishing in the middle of the Série B table, Paraná are back among Brazil’s elite for the first time since 2007.
Rogério Micale, the man who led Brazil to Olympic gold in 2016, takes charge as he looks to keep this side in Brazil’s top flight.
Last year, Paraná finished 4th in the Série B, claiming the last promotion spot, and allowed only 28 goals, the third best mark in Brazil’s second division.
If Micale is to keep them up, the defense will have to replicate that performance, and Paraná will need to find a consistent goalscorer.
Unfortunately for them, it doesn’t appear as though that goalscorer is currently in the squad, and it’s hard to stay up when you’re constantly searching for goals. I mean seriously, look at the squad. Who is going to score goals for this team?
Caio Henrique, signed on loan from Atlético Madrid at Micale’s request should be able to create chances, but with no one to finish them, Paraná could be dropping straight back down to the Série B.
17 – Fluminense:
Since spending 1999 in Brazil’s third tier, Fluminense have not only been mainstays in the Brasileirão, but even picked up a pair of titles in 2010 and 2012.
This Fluminense side have struggled since those two conquests though, finishing 13th or worse 4 out of the last 5 years. Worse, Flu have found themselves full of financial issues, even being forced to cancel a number of contracts earlier this year because of unpaid wages.
All told, this feels like a Fluminense ship that is slowly sinking, and 2018 might be the year they go down after flirting with disaster each of the last two years. Abel Braga is a great man, but might not be the best manager for this situation.
There’s talent on this team, Ibañez has turned heads at fullback, and I still believe in the Ecuadorian Junior Sornoza in the midfield. Up top, Marcos Júnior and Pedro have both been scoring well so far this year, and with Henrique Dourado now gone to cross-town rival Flamengo, it’s critical that those two continue to score if this team is to avoid relegation.
If this young Fluminense side find themselves in a relegation scrap, will they have veteran presences to pull the side together and keep themselves up? I’m not sure those players are in the squad, and as such, have them somewhat surprisingly going down in 2018.
16 – Vitória:
With Coritiba finally taking the plunge down to Série B, I was at a loss for what to do with the 16th spot in my predictions. Thankfully, Vitória are here to (un)inspire.
It was Coritiba’s capitulation against Chapecoense on the final day last year that kept Vitória up, and this year Vitória should be right around the drop line again.
The issue in 2017 was (again) defense, and it seems as though they’ve done little to correct that during the off-season. Ramon and Kanu are once again the starting centre backs, and they will once again find themselves split easily by opposing attackers.
There is talent in the midfield, I’m a fan of Ullian Correia, 19-year old Luan (not that one) is worth keeping an eye on, and André Lima should provide consistent goals for the attack, but this is not a very good Vitória team. They should once again score just enough to stay up, but only barely.
15 – São Paulo:
Perhaps no team encapsulates Brazilian football quite like São Paulo. Ever since they shockingly made the Libertadores in 2016, this side has languished in a cycle of buying players, struggling, firing managers, buying more players, struggling, and firing more managers.
Dorival Júnior, who with the assistance of the now-departed Hernanes in the midfield, kept São Paulo above the relegation scrap in 2017, is now gone, replaced by the Uruguayan Diego Aguirre. Nenê and Diego Souza, two big money signings this transfer window, are already under pressure at São Paulo, and both are in and out of the starting XI.
Christian Cueva is a fantastic midfielder, but his consistency has been in question with São Paulo as well. The Ecuadorian Robert Arboleda in defense has been a smart signing, but he’s largely been the exception to the rule. No matter how you look at them, this is a São Paulo’s side whose talent suggests they should be fighting for the Libertadores, but their performances suggest they’ll be closer to the relegation scrap than not.
São Paulo will probably avoid relegation again, even if only just, but this team is caught up in a dangerous cycle of abject mediocrity and it doesn’t look like they’ll be leaving it any time soon.
14 – Ceará:
Much of this projection depends Ceará hanging on to Arthur, the 19-year old striker who has been in torrid form to open 2018.
Arthur has scored 16 goals in the first 3 months of the season, and if he stays around and keeps scoring, Ceará could be looking at qualification for the Copa Sul-Americana.
If he doesn’t, and he’s already drawn interest from plenty of top-tier Brazilian squads, this Ceará side looks like any other team back in the first division after a period away: a group of cast-offs and has-beens, cobbled together with the goal of staying in the first division.
Ricardinho has been a fixture in the midfield for quite some time, as has Valdo in defense and Everson in goal. What could set Ceará apart from the other promoted teams is the massive support for the club in their home city of Fortaleza.
In 2017, Ceará’s average crowd of 20,555 ranked 6th best in Brazil. If that number holds, and it should, the home support at the Castelão could prove the difference between relegation and survival.
Bahia returned to the first division in 2017 and finished 12th in the Brasileirão, comfortably ahead of the relegation battle below them.
2018 should look a lot like 2017 for Bahia: a solid season, comfortably away from relegation, but never really a factor in the top half of the table.
If Bahia begin to pick up momentum in either the Copa Sul-Americana or Copa do Brasil, they could make a run in either of those competitions, particularly with the great crowd in Salvador behind them.
Goalkeeper Douglas, who nearly single handedly kept Avaí up last year, is one of the best unheralded shot stoppers in Brazil.
The rest of the squad is full of intriguing players, including Zé Rafael, Vinicius and Allione in the midfield. All three of those when on their day are dangerous.
If they find a collective consistency, Bahia could turn some heads in 2018. Keep an eye on the 19-year old Júnior Brumado in attack, he’s scored three times off the bench so far this year.
12 – Sport Recife:
Sport spent last year a lot closer to the relegation zone than they would’ve liked.
That result, which kept them from continental competition, coupled with an early exit from the 2018 Copa do Brasil, means that Sport will be solely focused on the Brasileirão, one of just three teams (Ceará and Paraná being the other two) in that scenario.
Unlike those other two, Sport have enough talent that they can take advantage when facing teams caught between two minds.
Surely there will be occasions this year where Sport face off against opponents resting players with eyes on other competitions, and they can take advantage of those rotated squads to pick up points, and put themselves squarely in the middle of the table.
Magrão, now 41, remains the starting goalkeeper, defying age in Recife. Marlone is back in the midfield after a fruitless spell at Corinthians, and will be the key playmaker following another departure by Diego Souza, this time to São Paulo, and this one apparently more permanent.
Sport are still in search of a consistent goal scorer, but the expectation is that one of Leandro Pereira, Gabriel, or Rogério will step up. If they don’t, the relegation zone could threaten again, but Sport should be have enough to be comfortably mid-table.
11 – Atlético-PR:
Atlético Paranaense approach the state leagues unlike any other team in Brazil’s top tier.
Instead of trotting out their regulars for 15+ matches against semi-pro teams in the Campeonato Paranaense, CAP choose to play an under-23 side in their state league, choosing to play the regulars only in Copa do Brasil and continental competition during the first few months of the year.
That means that unlike most teams in Brazil, we’ve seen very little from Furação in 2018. Ahead of Thursday’s Copa Sul-Americana opener against Newell’s Old Boys, the regulars have played just 5 Copa do Brasil matches, a far cry from 20+ matches played by other top division sides.
From what we’ve seen of them in 2018, this is a solid side, one that should avoid relegation without much fuss, but it’s a struggle to see them pushing for the Libertadores either.
Paulo André and Jonathan, both over 30 years old, are keys in defense, 37-year old Lucho González can still pick out a pass, and Felipe Gedoz remains intriguing in attack.
CAP’s artificial pitch in the Arena da Baixada should again give them a good leg up at home, and this side could play spoilers.
10 – Vasco da Gama:
After earning the reputation of a “yo-yo club” following a few trips up and down Brazil’s top two divisions, Vasco stabilized themselves last year with a 7th place finish in the Brasileirão, which came despite finishing with a -7 in goal differential.
That finish earned them a spot in the Copa Libertadores, and though their stay in that competition may end up being rather short, it was a good step forward for the club.
Former Flamengo manager Zé Ricardo has done well so far in charge, and it looks as though Vasco should comfortably remain in the top division again in 2018.
17-year old Paulinho has turned heads in 2018, emerging as one of the most promising youngsters in Brazil, but an injury suffered in the Libertadores match away to Cruzeiro will keep him out of the start of this Brasilerião season.
When he returns, the slick-skilled winger is one to keep an eye out for. Andrés Ríos and Duvier Riascos have each scored well in their opportunities up top, and Evander, a 19-year old attacker, is another one worth watching.
Vasco won’t challenge for the title, and a return to the Libertadores seems like a stretch, but Zé Ricardo has Vasco in a good place, and that should continue in 2018.
9 – Internacional:
After shock relegation from the Brasileirão in 2016, Internacional were comfortably promoted in 2017 despite not winning the Série B.
While failure to win the league was a disappointment to many of their fans, promotion was Inter’s goal in 2017, and they achieved it with relative ease.
Now, they will look to return to the top half of the Brasileirão, or even sneak into a Libertadores spot. Club legend Andres D’Alessandro continues to boss the midfield, joined by the talented 23-year old Rodrigo Dourado.
In attack, the Uruguayan Nico López continues to flatter, even if he’s yet to really put it all together. He’s joined by Roger, a proven Brasileirão goal scorer, and Leandro Damião, who is somehow only 28. Inter are quite talented, but consistency could be an issue.
In short, this is exactly the type of team who could make a run in the Copa do Brasil (now with significantly higher prize money) and end up sacrificing league form because of it.
8 – Santos:
The story has been the same with Santos for a few years now. A fundamentally talented team whose struggles with consistency keep them from rising to greater heights.
In 2017, that meant a third place finish in the Brasileirão, less impressive than it sounds given the relative weakness at the top of the table, and a quarter final exit in the Copa Libertadores against Barcelona.
Star playmaker Lucas Lima has moved over to Palmeiras, but Gabigol is back after disappointing spells with both Inter Milan and Benfica.
Joining him in attack are the promising Rodrygo and Arthur Gomes, both of whom you’ll hear plenty more about as the year goes on. In the midfield, Renato, now 38, continues to anchor a group still lacking a true playmaking replacement for Lucas Lima.
Goalkeeper Vanderlei may just be the best in Brazil, and the defense in front of him is capable, if not overly impressive.
This is a solid team that will come up with an impressive win over a title contender away from home one night, then follow it up with a disappointing home loss to a relegation favorite the next. Consistency will once again keep Santos from the upper echelon of the Brasileirão.
It only took until March for Flamengo to have their first “crisis” of 2018.
After elimination in the Campeonato Carioca semifinals against Botafogo, Paulo César Carpegiani was relieved of his duties as manager (a job he took after Reinaldo Rueda left Flamengo for Chile in early 2018), leaving Flamengo manager-less, with plenty of talent, but, once again, little cohesion.
Flamengo have the talent to make a run at the title, a position they’ve been in for a few years now, but the consistency once again seems to be lacking. Paolo Guerrero, a remarkably consistent South American goalscorer, will return after the World Cup.
Diego Alves provides a level of talent in goal that Flamengo simply haven’t had recently, but the defense in front of him is questionably in quality and ability.
Perhaps the saving grace of Flamengo in 2018 is their amount of promising young players, matched by few in Brazil.
If Mengão manage to hire a manager who trusts the talented youngsters, Vinícius Júnior, Lucas Silva, Lincoln, and others, then Flamengo may just surprise this year.
But odds are they’ll hire a boss who will simply call for more big money signings, with inconsistent results, and Brazil’s biggest club will once again fall short of Brazil’s biggest prize.
6 – Botafogo:
Each year in Brazil, it seems as though one team rises from the middle of the table to challenge for the title and earn themselves a spot in the next season’s Libertadores.
This year, that team is Botafogo, who were unlucky to miss out on the 2018 Libertadores after fading down the stretch in 2017. Jair Ventura has left, wooed by the prestige of Santos, but in steps Alberto Valentim, one of the most talented young managers in Brazil.
Valentim took over Fogão after a disappointing exit in the Copa do Brasil in February, and the results so far have been positive, including lifting the Carioca title last Sunday.
Under Valentim, the back-line remains solid, commanded by Gatito Fernández, one of the best goalkeepers in Brazil, and Joel Carli, another of the talented Argentine centre backs plying their trade in Brazil. Igor Rabello is a talented fullback, and Chilean playmaker Leo Valencia seems to have finally found his footing in the squad.
The attack features a number of capable goal-scorers, including 24-year old Brenner, the veteran Kieza, and the enigmatic Uruguayan Rodrigo Aguirre, who joined the club on loan from Udinese after a drawn-out transfer saga.
Aguirre bagged 13 goals in 2017 while on loan with Nacional, and once he gets his feet under him, could score that number for Botafogo in 2018.
Botafogo are more than the sum of their parts, and I can see them challenging the top half of the table. They won’t win it, but a place in next year’s Libertadores will make for a nice reward.
5 – Corinthians:
A somewhat surprise champion in 2017, Corinthians certainly won’t catch the league by surprise in 2018 like they did last year.
An early run of fantastic form led Timão to their second title in three years, this time under manager Fábio Carille.
This Corinthians side is largely similar to that one, with one fundamental difference: Jô, who scored 18 goals in the 2017 Brasileirão is gone — off to Japan in an understandable big money move. In his place? Well, that’s a good question, and one that will probably be the difference between the Timão of 2018 and that of 2017.
Colin Kazim-Richards, Júnior Dutra, Clayson, and others, have all gotten their shot at starting up top, but none have been able to grab the spot and score consistently.
Carille has lately gone to playing no real out-and-out striker, which has worked, but leaves Corinthians playing defensively and hoping to counter all too often.
Behind the attackers, Timão remain solid, with the ever impressive Rodriguinho pulling the strings, assisted by Jádson. In defense, the Paraguayan Fabian Balbuena has come into his own at centre back, and though there’s a question at left back, Timão should again expect to be solid.
Goalkeeper Cássio is still only 30, and though he has a moment of madness now and then, is perfectly capable between the sticks.
This is a solid Corinthians side, and top-4 is a perfectly reasonable expectation for them in 2018, though a repeat title would come as a surprise.
4 – Atlético-MG:
2017 was nothing short of disastrous for Atlético Mineiro. Galo were dumped out of the Copa Libertadores in embarrassing fashion by a limited Jorge Wilstermann side, and ended the Brasilerião in 9th, one win short of Libertadores qualification.
But 2018 had started much better for Galo before Sunday’s meltdown against Cruzeiro in the Minas Gerais state league final. Juan Cazares and Romulo Otero, the two talented midfielders appear to have learned how to play together, and Ricardo Oliveira has ably replaced the departed Fred up top.
Manager Thiago Larghi, relatively unknown at just 37 and still only in command on an interim basis, has breathed fresh air into the side, a far cry from the managerial merry-go-round mainstays of yesteryear.
This is an ambitious projection for an Atlético Mineiro side that were admittedly quite poor in 2017. But the right adjustments and additions seem to have Galo in much better shape.
It could be thin margins in this part of the table, and Atlético should have enough to push for the title.
3 – Cruzeiro:
My pick to win last year’s title (they finished 15 points off champions Corinthians), Cruzeiro should once again be among the favorites this year.
No team in Brazil has more talent in the attack in midfield, and that’s even with Fred (yes, that one) out injured for the foreseeable future. Rafael Sóbis, Thiago Neves, Giorgian de Arrascaeta, Robinho, Henrique, Rafinha.
The list goes on longer than for any other team in Brazil. Particularly keep an eye on de Arrascaeta, just 23, who should make waves this summer for Uruguay at the World Cup.
Even players who don’t see much time, like Lucas Romero and Lucas Silva could slide into any number of sides in Brazil and contribute.
The defense is less impressive, but still solid, and Fábio remains the type of veteran goalkeeper that every team loves.
But it still feels like there’s that something missing from Cruzeiro. Maybe it’s manager Mano Menezes, maybe it’s the fact that they’ll be spread out over 3 competitions in 2018.
I don’t know, but something tells me that this won’t be Cruzeiro’s year. Which means it will probably be Cruzeiro’s year.
2 – Palmeiras:
Perhaps the most talented side in Brazil, Palmeiras’ 2017 came as a disappointment. Verdão failed to lift the Paulistão trophy, were eliminated in the Libertadores Round of 16, and settled for 2nd in the Brasileirão, a full nine points behind rival Corinthians.
Granted, considering Palmeiras played in the second division as recently as 2013, and were nearly relegated again in 2014, that year doesn’t seem all that bad. Palmeiras’ 2018 has started well, with two wins from two in the Libertadores, and though they’ll be disappointed by falling to Corinthians in the Paulistão title, new boss Roger Machado has Verdão heading in the right direction.
This side is unquestionably among the most talented in South America. Jaílson has proven to be a revelation in goal, and while the defense misses Yerry Mina, who left for Barcelona, Antônio Carlos and Thiago Martins have proven to be capable.
After a strange 2017 that saw him fighting Peñarol players and training separate from the Palmeiras squad, Felipe Melo has tightened his grip in the defensive midfield and is playing well. But it’s the attack of Palmeiras that really inspires.
Lucas Lima, signed on a free transfer from Santos in January, is playing better than he has in years. Miguel Borja, after a shaky 2017, is scoring goals at a torrid pace, and Dudu, Keno, and Willian have all played well on the wings.
And that’s without even mentioning Gustavo Scarpa, signed from Fluminense, who has yet to really make a mark as he solves legal contract issues with Flu.
This is a supremely talented Palmeiras side that can make a push to lift the title in every competition they enter this year.
That may keep them from winning them all, but don’t be surprised if this Palmeiras team lifts multiple trophies in 2018.
1 – Grêmio:
As is seemingly always the case, Grêmio’s league form suffered last year because of their extended run in the Copa Libertadores, a competition they ended up winning.
Grêmio’s reserves played a number of league games in 2017, more than they certainly expected to, and as such Grêmio finished in 4th, a full 10 points behind champions Corinthians.
Grêmio return the majority of last year’s title winning squad, and are among the most talented sides in South America.
There’s Luan on the wing, somehow still in Brazil despite repeated European interest. Arthur in the holding midfield, Barcelona bound after a stunningly successful 2017, and Pedro Geromel and Walter Kannemann in defense, the best defensive pairing in Brazil, the former still with a shout to make Brazil’s World Cup squad.
This year, Grêmio have been gifted an easy Libertadores group, which should allow them to focus on the Brasileirão early.
Though a Libertadores run could put a snag in this projection, I think the collective talent of Grêmio, particularly once André starts seeing action up top, will be enough to help them pull away from most of the league.
Last year’s Libertadores title has motivated Grêmio, this year they’ll focus on the league, and be the ones lifting the title in December.