Santos: How Neymar and Co. Can Return to the Top in 2013
In July 2011, Santos were crowned Copa Libertadores champions with a convincing victory over Peñarol, marking the rise of a team believed to be capable of dominating football on the continent.
Among that victorious squad were three of the most revered young players in the South American game, all of whom were pledging their immediate future to the club.
The future looked bright and, admittedly, they could well have defended their title in 2012 but for a semi-final clash with a brilliantly organised Corinthians side.
Following failure on the Libertadores stage, Santos knew they would have to finish in the league's top four sides to qualify for the tournament once more in 2013.
They failed miserably in their task, eventually finishing eighth.
It won't be easy, but what can the Peixe do to ensure they return to the top of the Brazilian game next season?
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Santos' first team was able to compete with any side in the league last season. However, their rivals are strengthening once more and Santos simply cannot compete on depth—a crucial factor over the course of a league campaign.
For the moment, much of the club's focus has been in attacking areas. PSG attacking midfielder Nenê, out of contract this summer, is currently looking the most likely signing—although the club face stiff competition from Flamengo for his signature (Lancenet, h/t sambafoot.com).
Besides Nenê, the club have also made offers for former star Robinho (goal.com) and Cruzeiro's Argentine playmaker Walter Montillo (Lancenet, h/t sambafoot.com), both of whom would require a significant financial investment. It is believed that the club would have to decide between the two should negotiations progress.
Santos are clearly looking for attacking options—ideally both a central playmaker and an inside forward. With Neymar frequently called to international duty, they have looked short in these departments in 2012, and they intend to look to big names to solve the problem.
The club will know that their defence, too, is in need of strengthening both at first-team level and in terms of squad depth. The priority, though, is a big-name star to help ease the pain of losing Ganso last season.
Increased Availability of Neymar
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Over the last two seasons, Santos have found their league campaigns heavily disrupted by Neymar's frequent unavailability.
The 20-year-old is essential to the Brazilian national team and was limited to just 17 league appearances this campaign—largely due to those international call-ups.
The good news for Santos is that the Brasileirão will pause for a month in 2013 to accommodate the Confederations Cup. This should allow the club to get increased use of their young star compared to previous years when he played both the Copa America and the Olympic Games.
Of course, the arrival of any of the big-name players mentioned as possible signings would take much of the pressure off of Neymar's shoulders. However, there is no one else who can quite match the youngster for influence within this side.
If Neymar had been available for all 38 games of the league in 2012, Santos would have been strong contenders for at least a Libertadores qualification.
Let's see what impact he can have on their hopefully improved side next season.
No Copa Libertadores Distractions
It's strange to look at the failure to qualify for a competition as prestigious as the Copa Libertadores as a positive.
Without doubt, it's a massive disappointment. However. In terms of Santos' ability to challenge for domestic honours, it's also a blessing.
The Copa Libertadores sees clubs travel far and wide across South America, to various countries with an array of climatic conditions.
The intense heat, humidity and altitude of various locations often force sides to travel early in order to acclimatise, while three-day turnarounds before league games mean that second-string sides are often used in domestic competition.
As the only one of the four big São Paulo state sides not in the competition, Santos will be favourites to clinch the Paulista state championship title for a record fourth consecutive year in May.
It is the positive impact that the lack of Libertadores games could have on their Brasileirão season, though, that is important. They will have an early opportunity to gain points on their under-strength rivals throughout the opening weeks of the league season.
Santos have been famed in recent years for their excellent development of youth talent. From Robinho and Diego to Neymar and Ganso, the club have produced some truly wonderful players over the past decade.
The club's reputation does, of course, lead to an over-hyping of those coming through. However, below 20-year-old Neymar there are undoubtedly more very impressive talents emerging.
One of the positives of the 2012 season was the development of attacking midfielder Felipe Anderson.
While his place as the side's No. 10 will likely be under threat if any of the rumoured signings eventually arrive, his contribution over the course of the season could prove important. Santos will hope that he can continue his development and learn to assert his authority on games.
Besides Felipe Anderson, Santos also possess two of Brazil's most hyped teenagers—Victor Andrade and Gabriel Barbosa.
Striker Victor Andrade, 17, has been given opportunities at first-team level, scoring three times in 19 appearances last campaign. Fans shouldn't expect too much from the very raw youngster, but if he can build on his strong start at senior level, he could make a useful contribution.
Gabriel Barbosa, 16, is another player generating high hopes for 2013. However, for the moment, it would be best for all concerned if the attacking midfielder was left to progress with reduced expectation.
Santos may not be able to look to the three to carry the side to glory, as Neymar did at an early stage of his career. However, if well-managed, all three could make a valuable contribution to success in 2013 and beyond.