Brazil’s national championship is heading for a dramatic climax

With five rounds to go, the Brasileirao looked set for its most dramatic finish since the league format was introduced in 2003 as only goal difference separated local rivals Palmeiras and Sao Paulo on 58 points, with Atletico Mineiro two behind and Flamengo surging into fourth place with 54.

Flamengo have been spearheaded by Adriano, so imperious that he sometimes seems like an adult playing against boys. But a more surprising story than his return to form is that of his main supply line, the 37-year-old Serbian midfielder Dejan Petkovic.

“I’ve always want to play alongside ‘Pet’,” says Adriano. “Before he receives the ball he knows which movement I’m going to make.”

After not quite making the grade in Spain and Italy, Petkovic has spent much of the last 12 years in Brazil, his time split between six different clubs. He was a Flamengo idol at the start of the decade, but his return this year was initially viewed with widespread suspicion. He was seen as an ex-player, out of action since last November, and the contract Flamengo offered him was interpreted as part of a manoeuvre by the club to reduce the club’s debt to the player from his previous spell.

Instead of which, the veteran has been a growing force in the Rio club’s rise up the table. Off the bench during June and July, in the starting line-up in August and September, by October Petkovic was one of the outstanding players in the championship.

Usually cutting in from the left of midfield, but also rotating well with support striker Ze Roberto, Petkovic started running the show. His most impressive display came in the 2-0 win away to leaders Palmeiras. He scored both goals – the first with a solo dribble and superb finish, the second straight from a corner. But more than his goals, the defence-splitting passes for Adriano have been especially important. “With him on the field we gain a lot in leadership, creativity and quality,” says coach Andrade. “His vision is different class. He can spot things no one else can.”

Indian summer
Once on the books of Real Madrid, and with spells at Sevilla, Racing Santander and Venezia behind him, Petkovic’s Indian summer speaks both well and badly of the contemporary Brazilian game.

He was never the greatest athlete – for all his crabbed-shouldered quality he was perhaps too slow and one-footed to shine as a playmaker in the top European leagues – but Brazil’s physical-preparation specialists appear to have helped him get into excellent shape, with his weight down and his performance potential up.

On the other hand, as Rio journalist Fernando Calazans noted, Petkovic is not only showing how football should be played, he is also showing that many others in the country don’t know how. There is a dearth of his kind of player in Brazil today: the midfielder with the clarity and intelligence to not only stand out individually, but to improve the level of those around him.

The plaudits for improving the midfield’s defensive work go to Claudio Maldonado, who is back in Brazilian football after a spell in Turkey. Unobtrusive but classy, the Chilean screens the centre-backs effectively – and when that has not worked, keeper Bruno has saved the day. On successive weekends he saved a total of three penalties – both games were won 1-0 – to earn vital points on the way to an outside shot at the title, or more probably a top-four finish and a place in next year’s Libertadores.