Whilst Europe's major leagues are just returning after the summer hiatus, Brazil's national championship, the Campeonato Brasileiro, is about to arrive at the business end of the season as the tournament enters its second half.
And tomorrow night promises one of the most intriguing contests remaining on the domestic calendar.
Cruzeiro v Botafogo is already being touted as a “final” between the clubs that have become the two favourites for the title. The teams lie in first and second place respectively in the Brazilian league table after 21 rounds; Cruzeiro are currently four points ahead of their Rio rivals and are in magnificent form.
They have won seven matches in a row, have scored more goals than anyone else and have a side studded with experience and youthful exuberance. Before the national season started Cruzeiro signed arguably the best centre-back plying his trade in Brazil, Dede, from Vasco da Gama.
Vasco's financial woes forced them to sell their greatest asset and the man known as Mito, “Myth” has become part of the bedrock of a Cruzeiro defence that has conceded just 19 goals in 21 games.
Cruzeiro are a big, strong and physically intimidating side who pose a worrying danger at set pieces. The likes of Dede, Bruno Rodrigo and holding midfielder Nilton are major assets in the air. The latter scored the game's only goal on Saturday as they defeated fourth placed Atletico-PR to maintain their unbeaten start to life at the Mineirao, Belo Horizonte's biggest stadium renovated in preparation for next year's World Cup.
But in forward players Willian and Ricardo Goulart they have the type of small and tricky forwards who are the perfect contrast to the burly Borges or former Real Madrid player Julio Baptista. Cruzeiro have played 19 home matches this calendar year, and 18 have ended in victory with a solitary draw. They have done what any champion must—turned their home into a fortress.
But Botafogo are right behind them and are in good nick too. Unbeaten in five, they have won their last four, including a gutsy 2-1 win away to Libertadores-chasing Santos on Sunday evening.
Coach Oswaldo de Oliveira has done an excellent job over the last year and a half building a side not over reliant on any particular sector. The Champions League's most successful player, Clarence Seedorf, is the team's number 10 and it would have been easy to allow his presence to skew formation and tactics.
Instead, de Oliveira has moulded Seedorf into the team rather than vice versa. Whilst Cruzeiro are probably Brazil's most powerful side, Botafogo are without doubt the country's most balanced team, and especially threatening on the counter attack thanks to the passing accuracy of their midfield.
Goalkeeper Jefferson is the second choice national goalkeeper, and with Julio Cesar opting to stay with QPR in the Championship, could make the No. 1 jersey his before June.
In Doria, Botafogo have the best young central defender in the country by a long shot. Strong, quick and not afraid to have the ball at his feet, the 18-year-old has a massive future in the game.
During the European summer transfer window the teenager was linked with moves to Juventus, Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur. If he gets his hands on a trophy with Botafogo this year he may well decide the time is right for a move, despite his young years.
But the team's principal strength lays in attacking midfield. The veteran Seedorf is paired with Uruguayan playmaker Nicolas Lodeiro and the pair are the main source of the side's goalscoring prowess, alongside Hyuri, who with three goals in two games is the latest promising youngster to win promotion from the Botafogo academy.
The team's sole weakness is in attack. Rafael Marques has eight goals in the Brasileiro campaign, and despite some fantastic finishes he can be culpable of missing gilt-edged chances.
Tomorrow cannot be an off day for Marques; another win for Cruzeiro would take them seven points clear at the top and deflate the clubs directly below them in the table.
The country is expected to come to a standstill at 9:50PM local time tomorrow night when the league's top two lock horns. It would be foolish to describe a game in the competition's 22nd round as “season defining.” It could, however, go an awfully long way in deciding the fate of this year's trophy.
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