It's a long race to the finish, but Corinthians are off to a fast start
One of the key selling points of the Brazilian Championship is its lack of predictability. The giant country has so many big teams that a Spain-type situation, with two clubs way ahead of the pack, is not seen as a likely outcome. There are, so the saying goes, at least 12 clubs big enough to go into the season with hopes of winning the title.
And yet this year, with little more than a third of the competition played (14 of 38 rounds), some are saying that the title race is already as good as won. Corinthians have an eight-point lead over their nearest rivals, Gremio, whom Corinthians recently beat away from home.
This in itself is an unpredictable development. True, Corinthians are a giant club, the last South American team (in 2012) to win the Club World Cup. But they are struggling to pay for their new stadium, built for the 2014 World Cup. And when Fabio Carille was promoted to the position of first-team coach at the end of last year, he was nowhere near the first option. Indeed, Corinthians went into 2017 dubbed as the fourth force in the state of Sao Paulo, behind last year's champions, Palmeiras, as well as Sao Paulo, who had just appointed Rogerio Ceni, one of the club's great idols, as their coach, and Santos. And yet Corinthians won the state title and have made a sensational start to the national league, winning 11 and drawing three of the 14 matches played so far.
Some already say they will be hard to catch -- surely a premature conclusion, with so many points still to play for. But with the championship racing toward the halfway stage, a decisive moment could be approaching.
Carille has spent years on the Corinthians coaching staff, and it is clear he learned plenty from working with current national team coach Tite, who took the team to league titles in 2011 and '15, plus the Libertadores and that world crown in 2012.
If the 2015 side was expansive and easy on the eye, the 2011-12 Corinthians stood out for their solidity. They were a team that specialised in single-goal victories. Compact and hard to play through, they conceded few goals and got full value for every piece of attacking inspiration.
Carille was clearly soaking all of this in. His 2017 side are in the same mould, compact and miserly. In 14 rounds so far, they have scored 25 goals and conceded just seven. Keeping clean sheets maintains the confidence level high and gives the front players the freedom to take risks. But how will they respond to the events of last Saturday?
It is all but inevitable that, during the course of a long league campaign, any team will go through a bad patch. The title winners are usually the side who manage to snap out of it quickest, who put a bad result behind them quickly, their confidence unshaken.
Just over a month ago, Corinthians let in two goals away to Vasco da Gama. But they scored five. A few days later, they let in two more in the local derby against Sao Paulo. But they scored three. Then they went on a run of seven consecutive games without conceding a single goal.
On Saturday, though, they were held to 2-2 at home by struggling Atletico Paranaense. It was the most disappointing result since the opening day, when they drew 1-1 at home to Chapecoense. How much will those two goals at the wrong end play on their mind? Can they retain the same air of invincibility, or might a few worries suddenly have wormed their way into their heads?
This is a stage of the season when the games come thick and fast. The championship reaches the halfway stage in less than three weeks. Before then, Corinthians travel to meet an Avai side who have improved over recent weeks, then they face the dangerous Fluminense and a Flamengo who still see themselves as title challengers. Then they travel to take on the talented Atletico Mineiro before bringing the first half of the campaign to a close against a resurgent Sport.
If, at the end of all of that lot, their big lead is still intact and their defence continues to be hard to break down, then the time will have come to acknowledge that Corinthians are overwhelming title favourites.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.