Football: Brazil next for United

Tim Vickery in Rio de Janeiro finds a new threat to the champions
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The Independent Online
AFTER SEEING off Internazionale and Juventus on the way to their European crown, Manchester United will face another "Italian" challenge when they take on the South American champions in the World Club Championship in Tokyo on 30 November.

On Wednesday Palmeiras of Brazil won the Copa Libertadores, the continent's equivalent of the Champions' League, with a penalty shoot-out victory over Deportivo Cali of Colombia. Formed in 1914 by some of the Italian immigrants who flooded into Sao Paulo at the start of the century, Palmeiras were originally called Palestra Italia. The name was changed during the Second World War, but ties with the old country are still strong - they are sponsored by the Italian dairy products giant Parmalat.

The new Brazil coach Wanderley Luxemburgo established his credentials by twice winning the national championship with Palmeiras, when he employed the type of flowing football traditionally associated with the club, known as "The Academy" of Brazilian football. The current coach Luis Felipe Scolari has different ideas, stressing the importance of traditional British virtues such as team spirit, will to win, tight marking and a potent aerial threat.

Just a few days before Manchester United's day of glory in Barcelona, Palmeiras won a Brazilian cup tie in similar circumstances. With three minutes to go they needed two goals - and got them both from corners. Such resilience has served them well in their passage through Brazil's insane calendar. In just four and a half months they have clocked up 50 games.

Last Friday they missed out on making the final of the Brazilian Cup, losing a penalty shoot-out. Two days later they finally wilted in the first leg of the final of the Sao Paulo championship. They lost 3-0, and have a huge task facing them in today's second leg. It was all worth it, though, for Wednesday's victory which brought them the Copa Libertadores for the first time in their history.

The game provided an eloquent summary of the two sides of South American football. The first half was a delight; holding a 1-0 lead from the first leg, Deportivo Cali defended deep, but occasionally struck out with richly inventive counter-attacks. Meanwhile, Palmeiras showed the variety of their game, threatening both with crosses and well-constructed passing moves.

But a potentially great second half descended into farce. Weak refereeing left unchecked an abundance of time-wasting, a sequence of fouls and an excess of ill-will. Palmeiras took advantage of what little football there was to win 2-1, and with no away-goals rule, the tie went straight to penalties. Palmeiras were worthy winners and, providing they can keep their team together, will provide a stiff test for Alex Ferguson's side.

They have an outstanding young keeper in Marcos, a Roy Keane lookalike who defends his goal with all the zeal of the Irishman. World Cup centre- back Junior Baiano commands the defence with his combination of elegance and mad lapses. The midfield features the solidity of Cesar Sampaio and Zinho, a World Cup winner five years ago, no longer as fast as he was but with a shrewd brain and a lovely left foot.

Up front is the little-and-large pairing of the quicksilver Paulo Nunes and the rumbustious Oseas. And the star of the show operates just behind them - the 21-year-old attacking midfielder Alex, who is one of the brightest young hopes of the Brazilian game. Stopping his namesake from running riot could be a headache for Ferguson on 30 November.