Gabriel Veron & two fellow starlets key to Palmeiras’ Libertadores hopes

In Depth

Palmeiras will play Santos in the final of the Copa Libertadores in the Maracana in Rio de Janeiro on Saturday. Their campaign so far has been illuminated by the emergence of an exciting crop of young players.

At the start of 2019, hopes were high among Palmeiras fans. The Verdao had just come off the back of winning Brazil’s Serie A under the guidance of Big Phil Scolari, and it felt like it might be the start of a glorious epoch.

Palmeiras had built a new stadium with the help of private investment, opened in 2014, and through sensible financial management had eliminated previously crippling debts. With gate receipts flowing and further investment from sponsors, there was plenty of money sloshing about.

In came a slew of names including Ramires, Luiz Adriano and Ricardo Goulart, as well as a number of quality players from other Brasileirao sides, to add to a squad that already had two good options in each position.

Given such gluttonous spending, Palmeiras were favourites to retain their league title and to add a long-awaited second Copa Libertadores to the cabinet.

Yet severe disappointment was just around the corner.

In April, they lost the Sao Paulo state championship semi-final to an unfancied Sao Paulo team as Felipao struggled to keep his ridiculously bloated squad happy. And despite a positive start to the national league season that followed, things soon started to tail off.

A dire run in July and August saw Palmeiras drop to fifth in the league and crash out of the Libertadores to Gremio. The hardcore element of the fanbase turned on Scolari, at one point assembling outside the training ground and singing: “Felipao, go fuck yourself, if you don’t win tomorrow, it’s you who’s going to die.”

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READ: ‘Ketchup striker’ Luiz Adriano conjured his Shakthar magic in the Libertadores

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After a 3-0 loss to Flamengo on September 1, the former Chelsea boss was finally sacked. And while Flamengo went on to win the league and Libertadores double that Palmeiras had dreamed might come their way, playing brilliant football under Jorge Jesus, Palmeiras’ season only got worse.

Mano Menezes, the despised, defensively-minded former manager of bitter rivals Corinthians, was brought in to replace Scolari and Palmeiras eventually finished 16 points off top spot.

When it came to the 2020 season, then – which will finally finish on Saturday with a Copa Libertadores final against state rivals Santos – the demands were different.

Palmeiras fans wanted to get back to being the Palmeiras that promoted from within and played on the front foot, in the tradition of the teams from their glorious past.

In came club legend Vanderlei Luxemburgo for a fifth spell as boss and, after a clear out of deadwood in the Brazilian summer transfer window, a fresh project began, one that has centred around three young men who characterise this new-look Palmeiras: Gabriel Veron, Gabriel Menino and Patrick de Paula.

Gabriel Veron, who is named after the former Argentina midfielder Juan Sebastian, is the most immediately eye-catching of the trio and, having been the best player at the Under-17 World Cup in 2019, was already drawing a lot of attention from the big boys of European football – most notably Manchester United.

He had made a two-goal senior debut for Palmeiras towards the end of 2019, and, with his explosive pace and dribbling, was the spark for some fine attacking performances alongside the more experienced Willian at the start of 2020.

In 2019, Veron told the Athletic: “I’m always looking to go at my man, to dribble past him, to make things happen. I like those individual battles.” Rarely does he step on the pitch without backing those words with his actions.

As the Sao Paulo state championship wore on, though, the less flashy but equally influential Gabriel Menino and Patrick de Paula also came to the fore. Luxemburgo had made space in midfield by moving old warhorse Felipe Melo to centre-back, and the two youngsters were ready to fill it.

Menino was the first to break through, immediately displaying the versatility that makes him such and interesting prospect and has seen him called up to the senior Selecao by Tite twice in 2020.

As a youth coach from his Guarani days told ESPN Brasil last year: “Menino came at the end of 2013 to trial as a centre-back and he was quickly approved. But I changed his position because he was good going forward and getting into the box.”

That athleticism and exceptional technical skill – ex-Brazil midfielder Cesar Sampaio said last year that Menino had the “technique of a futsal player” – means he can play as both a central midfielder and a right-back, and it is in the latter position that he has been called up to play with his country.

Brazil’s first-choice right-back is still 37-year-old Dani Alves, and in the tactical set-up manager Tite has devised he tucks in when Brazil are in possession to act as an auxiliary central midfielder. Seen as one of the few players around who could perform a similar role, Menino was called up with fewer senior appearances to his name than Ronaldo when he was first picked in 1993.

Patrick de Paula, a more classic holding player, was right behind Menino and likewise soon established himself as a useful part of the squad.

De Paula is a product of Varzea amateur football, rather than an academy, and it shows. Varzea games are played on rough dirt pitches with a take-no-prisoners approach, meaning players are forced to develop a fine first touch and must learn to deal with – and dish out – rough treatment.

The most impressive aspects of De Paula’s game, though, remain his vision and left-footed ball-striking – he can ping a sixty-yard pass like few others in Brazil and his shooting is powerful and accurate.

By the time the Sao Paulo state championship final came around, both Menino and De Paula were first-team regulars, and both put in mature performances as Palmeiras were taken to penalties by Corinthians. In the shootout, De Paula dispatched the title-winning kick into the top corner with conviction and confidence that belied his 20 years.

Unfortunately, the pandemic – and, in the case of Veron, a long-term muscle injury – disrupted the trio’s progress. Veron used the time creatively, becoming an all-singing, all-dancing Brazilian TikTok sensation. But once football returned, all three of them were back to their real work.

In Serie A, Palmeiras’ form was less good, which eventually resulted in Luxemburgo being sacked. But by then he had done the important job of bringing through the youngsters. In the Libertadores, progress had been smooth.

Luxemburgo was replaced by Portuguese manager Abel Ferreira. As well as being a breath of fresh air tactically, bringing speed and directness to the Palmeiras attack, Ferreira has picked up where Luxemburgo left off in terms of giving opportunities to youngsters, handing chances to 19-year-old midfielder Danilo as well as the aforementioned trio.

The young players’ moment in the sun came in December, when the quartet started together against Delfin in the Copa Libertadores round of 16. De Paula opened the scoring with a golazo before Veron added two, one courtesy a Menino assist. Danilo rounded off a 5-0 thumping.

In the days following the game, Ferreira said of Veron: “It’s impossible that Palmeiras sell this player for less than Santos sold Neymar.” It was typical of their Portuguese boss. Ferreira talks the youngsters up at every opportunity or, if necessary, defends them from criticism, as was the case with De Paula following a few tired-looking performances in December.

Ferreira’s positive man-management style is clearly effective. After beating Libertad in the quarter-finals, Palmeiras faced River Plate at the Monumental in the first leg of their semi-final and, with Menino, De Paula and Danilo all playing key roles, blew Marcelo Gallardo’s experienced side away.

De Paula’s defensive work-rate was exemplary, while Menino’s play down the right was vital to the first goal and Danilo played the pass for Luiz Adriano’s second, helping Ferreira’s side to a 3-0 win. After the game, former Corinthians and Brazil player turned loudmouth TV presenter Neto said De Paula “has to be first-choice for the Selecao”.

In the second leg, with De Paula and Veron missing through injury, Palmeiras clearly suffered under the pressure, holding on by the skin of their teeth for a 2-0 loss. It was enough, though, to book their place in the Libertadores final for the first time in two decades.

All four of Ferreira’s young stars are now back fit and are available to start against Santos at the Maracana. If Palmeiras do lift their second Libertadores trophy on Saturday, you can be sure that the club’s fans will hold them up as home-grown symbols of a glorious campaign.

By Joshua Law

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