Spearheaded by veteran strikers Hulk and Diego Costa, Atletico Mineiro strolled to their first Brazilian league title in 50 years, finishing a whopping 13 points ahead of their nearest rival. Now they are favourites to complete the domestic double by also claiming the Brazilian Cup in a two-legged final against Athletico Paranaense, on Dec . 12 and Dec . 15.
The league and cup double has only been achieved once before: by Cruzeiro, Atletico Mineiro’s local rivals from Belo Horizonte, back in 2003. That might seem surprising, but the domestic cup is a relatively new competition and was only started in 1989. In the early years it had relatively low prestige. That is certainly no longer the case and it now brings in huge prize money. Where in many European leagues the cup competition has lost some of its shine, in Brazil the opposite has taken place and winning the cup has become every bit as important as winning the league. Indeed, for some clubs — such as Athletico Paranaense — it is actually more important.
With its gruelling format, it is now generally accepted that only three clubs have a good chance of landing the league title: Atletico Mineiro, plus the previous two champions Flamengo and Palmeiras. One or two other clubs, Corinthians for example, might potentially be able to join this select group, but being a league title challenger is a select group. The cup, a shorter competition, leaves more scope for surprises.
In the case of Athletico Paranaense, they go into the season with their hopes of glory based on cup competitions. They have already won this year’s Copa Sudamericana — the continent’s Europa League equivalent and a competition they had previously claimed in 2018 — and in 2019 they won the domestic cup. They are built for the sprint of the knockout competition, rather than the marathon of the league.
While Atletico Mineiro were cruising to the league title, Athletico Paranaense flirted dangerously close to the relegation zone. This year’s cup final is not a contest of equals.
The club from Curitiba said as much three years ago when they added the ‘h’ to their name — or rather, put it back, since they were founded as Athletico in 1924. Club president Mario Celso Petraglia admitted that in a Brazilian context ‘Atletico’ without the ‘h’ referred to the team from Belo Horizonte.
Curitiba is not a small city — at 1.7 million its population is not far behind Belo Horizonte — but being the underdogs, coming from outside the four traditional centres of the Brazilian game, is fundamental to the identity of Athletico Paranaense.
Their semifinal triumph over Rio de Janeiro giants Flamengo is ripped right out of the club’s dreams. After a tight draw at home, they went to the Maracana stadium with a gameplan based around deep defence mixed in with the occasional counter attack. It worked to perfection, and they booked their place in the final with a famous 3-0 victory.
This, then, will surely be the model for Sunday’s first leg, in Belo Horizonte’s Mineirao stadium. Athletico Paranaense will sit deep, with veteran captain Thiago Heleno in the middle of the back three. They will seek to soak up the pressure and open up space in which to spring wingers Nikao and David Terans, and they will hope to give themselves a chance at home in Wednesday’s second leg by taking advantage of an absence in the heart of the Atletico Mineiro defence.
Centre-back Nathan Silva, in fine form during the second half of the year, is not eligible for this competition and will have to be replaced. This places extra responsibility on holding midfielder Allan, once on the books of Liverpool, who has done an excellent job all season protecting the defence and playing the first pass forward. If he can help snuff out the threat of Athletico Paranaense on the counter, then it will be up to his attacking teammates to break down the visiting defence.
Argentine playmaker Nacho Fernandez has been one of the stars of the season and his partnership with Hulk has probably been the standout feature of the year in Brazil. But Fernandez is clearly feeling the effects of the gruelling Brazilian calendar. Does he have enough gas in the tank to tip the balance in the final? His compatriot, versatile midfielder Matias Zaracho still looks full of running, and further forward there are options such as Keno, Chile’s Eduardo Vargas and the Venezuelan Jeferson Savarino.
This depth of talent proved too much for Athletico Paranaense in the two league meetings between the sides this year. In early August. Atletico Mineiro won 2-0 at home, and in mid-November they won 1-0 away. But that second win came against a reserve side, with Athletico Paranaense resting the first team in preparation for the Sudamericana final.
They will hope that, at full strength, things will be closer this time, while Atletico Mineiro are busy dreaming of the double.