For so long it had seemed a two-horse race, with one of those horses galloping off into the distance. Despite the best efforts of Atlético Mineiro and Santos, it appeared that the 2016 Campeonato Brasileiro would end up in the hands of either Flamengo or Palmeiras, with the latter recently starting to pull away.
However, this is Brazil, where it is safer to expect the unexpected, and one must accept that few things happen without a sprinkling of drama.
The four are now set to contest the title and to add to the intrigue, will each face off against one of their title rivals in the final five matches.
At the start of October, Palmeiras had opened up a three point lead over Flamengo and the pair looked set to tussle it out for the title. The lead was doubled when Fluminense took their dubious 2-1 defeat against city rivals Flamengo to the sport’s arbitration panel, temporarily annulling the result.
However, with five matches to play, the Verdão are looking shaky and far from secure, despite a five point gap at the top of the table. Luckily for them, nearest rivals Flamengo are also wobbling, clearing the path for Santos and Atletico to make a late, and unexpected, push.
Palmeiras had looked unstoppable and were unbeaten since July, a streak that ran until a loss against Santos last weekend. Flamengo, meanwhile, somehow kept up the pace with a number of late victories, but must have thought their title challenge had fallen off at the wheels with defeat to Internacional, followed by consecutive draws.
However, Palmeiras’ loss means Flamengo remain in the running, but it is the team who downed the leaders that may find themselves in the best position to take advantage should Palmeiras choke.
Santos have now won five out of six since falling to defeat against Sport in late September, and Dorival Junior’s men are grinding out the results. Wins over Fluminense and state rivals São Paulo have been the stand out performances up until victory last weekend.
With just six points separating them from Palmeiras, a clash against fellow São Paulo state club Ponte Preta next could prove crucial. However, Santos have found goals hard to come by in recent weeks and have not scored more than a single goal in their last four matches.
Beyond that, they have only recorded two or more goals in five of their last 16 league games, and the loss of Gabigol, currently warming the bench at Italian side Inter, has been keenly felt. Will their inability to trouble the scorers be decisive?
Atlético Mineiro’s problems are at the other end of the field, with Galo conceded the second most goals in the top half of the table. Despite scoring for fun, an inability to keep their opponents at bay has seen them struggle at times this season.
The Belo Horizonte side do have the league’s top scorers in their ranks, in the shape of former Brazil forwards Fred and Robinho, and it could be enough to power them up the standings in the closing stages. The duo have formed a magnificent partnership and guarantee goals.
Atlético were moments away from a come-from-behind win against Flamengo last time out, but had to settle for a draw. Nonetheless, momentum is on their side and they have only tasted defeat four times in their last 25 outings.
Last weekend’s drama means it all boils down to the final five games, with decisive fixtures galore. Palmeiras arguably have the toughest run-in, with home ties against Internacional and an in-form Botafogo sandwiching a trip to Atlético Mineiro. Defeat there could pave the way for their opponents to claw themselves ahead.
Flamengo and Santos square off in the penultimate round, and aside from the former playing host to Botafogo next, both have relatively simple run-ins.
As for Atlético, beyond welcoming the current leaders, São Paulo look to be there only real test. However, the Minas Gerais club could face complications with their continued participation in the Copa do Brasil.
All signs point to Palmeiras ending their 22-year drought and wrapping up the title, but only the very bravest would dare put money on that, even at this late stage.