Picking a Brazilian Paulista Best XI

Christopher AtkinsContributor IMarch 14, 2013

Picking a Brazilian Paulista Best XI

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    The Paulista (Sao Paulo state) championship is without doubt the strongest of all Brazil's famous state championships (Estaduais).

    While long and drawn out, adding to the intense criticism that is handed to the Estaduais, the Paulista could hold its own among the national leagues of South America.

    The state contributed six clubs in Brazil's top flight last season, although Palmeiras were ultimately relegated, while Sao Caetano narrowly missed out on replacing them at the top.

    Beyond that, there were three other Paulista sides in the second tier, meaning that 10 of the state's teams were plying their trade in the top two tiers of Brazilian football last year. It is an impressive show of strength.

    When it comes then to picking a Bext XI that the Paulista can throw together, it will not be easy.

    With this year's championship barely half complete I should add that this team will be based on who I consider to be the best 11 players in the state, rather than being based on performances in 2013.

    Let's then take a look at who makes the grade.

The Formation: An Explanation

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    When it comes to picking a Best XI, while it is not necessary to consider whether the side would have the right balance to play in a real match, it is important to ensure that you are not just shoe-horning 11 strikers into a side.

    My initial intention was to pick the traditional Brazil 4-2-2-2 formation that still dominates the country's tactics. Unfortunately, while Sao Paulo's Cortez was a decent option at left-back, the player chosen in the other full-back position would have been a level below the rest of the side.

    Thus, my team will operate with three centre-backs, a four man midfield and three forwards. It is the Fantasy Football staple of 3-4-3, using players of the Paulista championship.

    Now that is cleared up and the reasons behind the choice stated, let's take a look at the side.

Goalkeeper: Rafael Cabral (Santos)

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    The unfortunate Rafael Cabral would have been Brazil's goalkeeper at the Olympics had he not sustained injury during training ahead of the event. (ESPNfc)

    Just 22 years old, he already seems to have been around far longer than he has. In fact, Rafael made his debut in 2010 and has gone on to hold the Santos No. 1 shirt ever since.

    A major player in the club's Copa Libertadores success the following year, the young keeper was talked about as a possible Brazil international regular even ahead of the 2014 World Cup. That, though, was perhaps never realistic.

    Much has gone quiet surrounding Rafael over the past 12 months with Santos' form dropping and the likes of Fluminense's Diego Cavalieri and Corinthians' Cassio coming to the fore.

    Rafael, in my own personal opinion, remains Brazil's best long-term option for the No. 1 position.

    With great technique supplemented by a mental fortitude that saw him succeed at such an early age, he will surely emerge as the most reliable of Brazil's younger 'keepers given time.

Centre-Back: Gil (Corinthians)

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    Former Valenciennes defender Gil was one of the outstanding performers in the French Ligue 1 this campaign, only to sign for Corinthians in January in what was a major coup for the Club World Cup winners.

    The tall, rangy centre-back reads the game wonderfully and, once fully re-adapted to the Brazilian game, should be one of the best performers the league has to offer.

    Gil endured a slow start to life back in Brazil, with supporters commenting that he appeared to be slow in the club's opening Copa Libertadores fixtures.

    However, a masterful display of defensive work to negate Neymar as Corinthians took on Santos has quickly seen a change of heart from the club's supporters. He was widely lauded for his work in the encounter.

    If he can adapt to life at Corinthians, he will star. He was excellent for both Cruzeiro and Valenciennes and will no doubt recapture that form with his new club in the near future.

Centre-Back: Lucio (Sao Paulo)

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    Another player still finding his feet upon his return to Brazil is Sao Paulo centre-back Lucio who returned to his homeland from Italian giants Juventus in December.

    The 2002 World Cup winner has a CV that few can rival and brings a wealth of experience to his new side. It is now a question of whether his ageing legs can still cope with the rigours of the game.

    In Brazil he will have to cope without the protection that full-backs in Europe would afford, but he will be allowed to play much deeper and with a holding midfielder ready to fill in if necessary.

    Early signs suggest Lucio is fit and still capable of big performances, he will just require some time to adapt to the different pattern of the game before we see his best ability.

    If able to perform to that level, though, there will be few strikers who can trouble him.

Centre-Back: Henrique (Palmeiras)

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    Former Coritiba youngster Henrique actually spent nearly four years at Barcelona, not that many people would have noticed his spell there. Alongside striker Keirrison, he is one of the forgotten big-money flops of the Pep Guardiola era.

    Now returned to Palmeiras, the centre-back actually enjoyed a fairly productive season in 2012 despite the club's relegation. He was, under Luiz Felipe Scolari, a major player in the side's Copa do Brasil success of the early season.

    Able to play as a centre-back or in a defensive midfield role, it is a real shame that a player of his quality will spend the season in the Brazilian second tier. However, Palmeiras should bounce back to the top flight with little cause for concern.

    Despite his side's demoted status, Henrique still makes our side and is the only Verdao player to do so.

Defensive Midfield: Wellington (Sao Paulo)

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    Sao Paulo's season turned around midway through 2012 with the team going on to achieve a memorable Copa Sudamericana title in December. Alongside the appointment of Ney Franco and return to form of Lucas Moura, Wellington's recovery from injury was a major factor.

    An all-action midfielder, Wellington injects huge energy into the side whenever he plays and, in this respect, is not dissimilar to Chelsea midfielder Ramires.

    Like Ramires, he is incredibly disciplined defensively and has a burst of pace that can help him in recovery. However, it is in Wellington's wonderful ability to dispossess opponents that he separates himself from the crowd.

    The midfielder has an innate understanding of when to tackle, to the point that he rarely seems to touch his opponent in doing so. At times it is mystifying.

    A former Brazil Under-20 captain, the 22-year-old's career has suffered with two major injuries over the past three seasons. If he can stay fit for long, he is a certainty for future international recognition.

Defensive Midfield: Paulinho (Corinthians)

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    Corinthians midfielder Paulinho has enjoyed more than his fair share of column inches over the past 12 months, to the point where I'm sure he needs little introduction.

    The Copa Libertadores and Club World Cup winning box-to-box midfielder is now a fixture in the Brazil national team and will surely make his entrance into the European football scene before long.

    As well as being an integral member of Corinthians' formidable defensive unit, Paulinho also has a penchant for arriving late in the area to score crucial goals. If Wellington is the Ramires to our team, then Paulinho could easily be related to Frank Lampard.

    Strong in all areas of the pitch and a composed player with the ball at his feet, Paulinho has the potential to play for a top team in any league worldwide. 

    He has already had opportunities to leave, with Inter Milan and Chelsea reported to have already made approaches. (Express) For now, though, he is content to continue his development as part of the all-conquering Corinthians side.

Attacking Midfield: Renato Augusto (Corinthians)

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    When Renato Augusto returned to Brazilian football with Corinthians in January, it looked to be the biggest signing of the transfer window. It was, though, ultimately eclipsed by that of new teammate Alexandre Pato.

    The former Bayer Leverkusen midfielder, though, is a huge coup for the league and has helped change Corinthians from a force in South America to a potential global force. Chelsea will attest to their pre-January strength, but they already look a much-improved outfit.

    As has been said of several of the new signings on this list, Renato will need time to adapt to his new surroundings. However, like the returning Deco and Jadson before him, he will surely make a significant impact once fully bedded in.

    With wonderful on the ball ability and a sweet left-foot, the attacking midfielder would surely have many more international appearances to his name had it not been for an injury-hit final two years in Germany.

    He is, though, a potentially important player for Brazil if he can recapture his pre-2010 form now fit and healthy once more.

Attacking Midfield: Jadson (Sao Paulo)

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    This time last year, Sao Paulo midfielder Jadson was being slated by his club's support. After returning to Brazil from Shakhtar Donetsk his initial performances were poor and his signing was being questioned.

    Twelve months on and the outlook couldn't be more different.

    One of Sao Paulo's best performers since the middle of last year, Jadson would appear to be close to a possible Brazil recall and will be dreaming of success in this year's Copa Libertadores.

    A wonderful player to watch when on form, the diminutive creative midfielder has thus far held off the claims of Ganso for a starting position.

    In fact, since Ganso's arrival, he has strengthened his role within the team on an increasingly regular basis.

    Sao Paulo want and expect to win trophies this season. If they are to do so, it will be Jadson who must orchestrate the team's success.

Forward: Osvaldo (Sao Paulo)

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    Having spoken about Wellington and Jadson, it is only right to acknowledge the third of the club's most influential trio of players. No, not Luis Fabiano, but rather newest call up to the Brazil national side Osvaldo. (Xinhua)

    While many would have liked to have seen rising star Bernard replace Lucas Moura in the squad for the fixtures with Italy and Russia, no one could argue that Osvaldo's inclusion is not deserved.

    The former Ceara centre-forward was struggling for regular games at Sao Paulo until the arrival of new coach Ney Franco midway through the 2012 season. However, Ney opted to use Osvaldo on the left of a three man attacking unit and he has never looked back since.

    With five goals and four assists to his name already this season, his contribution to the team is clearly visible in numerical terms.

    Cutting in from the left, he has become Sao Paulo's most potent outlet and a major reason for the success of their formational switch.

Forward: Neymar (Santos)

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    Santos forward Neymar is simply the best footballer that Brazil currently has to offer. Dani Alves, Lucas Moura, Oscar et al. are all exceptional players, but none is on Neymar's level.

    While still far from the standards of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, he is the one obvious contender that Brazil offers to eventually join or challenge the standing of football's two demi-Gods.

    His Santos side rely on his presence. In winning the 2011 Copa Libertadores title that much was clear, but the importance of the young star to the club has only increased with the passing of time.

    He could have moved to Europe long ago but has opted to remain in Brazil thus far. It is a decision that has prompted major debate on both sides of the Atlantic as people await his next move.

    The most likely next step is that Neymar will end up at Spanish side Barcelona. They are the club most heavily linked with his services, and he has previously expressed admiration for their play and structure.

    If and when that move will eventually happen, though, nobody is quite sure.

Forward: Pato (Corinthians)

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    Choosing the central striker of out eleven is not as easy a decision as it may seem. Indeed, in Paolo Guerrero and Luis Fabiano, there are two viable contenders for Pato's position.

    The former AC Milan forward is, though, the player who comes with the biggest reputation of the three. Already proven to be a match-winner in Italy and the Champions League, now it is the Libertadores that awaits his impact.

    Thus far, Pato has been solid if unspectacular. Still returning to some sort of form and fitness, the Brazil international will hope that he will be back to somewhere near his best by the latter stages of the Libertadores.

    If Pato can do so then Corinthians will be heavy favourites to retain their continental crown.

    No other side in South America could possibly compete with them if it came down to a simple battle of firepower. It is never that straightforward, though.

    A place in Brazil's squads for the Confederations and World Cups will be his likely reward for success.

    The prize couldn't be greater and Pato has a point to prove regarding the long-term impact of his injury problems. Expect him to shine if his body can take the strain.