In the end it wasn't close at all. The hype, the pre-match buildup, the “final.” None of it came to fruition on a night when Botafogo were outrun, outclassed and, fundamentally, outscored.
Cruzeiro's 3-0 demolition of their nearest rivals to the 2013 Brasileirao crown was frightening. The first half was a tense affair but the Minas side's deconstruction of Botafogo as the clock ticked down was telling.
This side is breaking records. Last night was their eighth successive Campeonato Brasileiro win. After 22 rounds the club have amassed 49 points, a record since the league format switched to round-robin in 2003, beating Sao Paulo's previous best of 47 set in 2007.
A brace from Julio Baptista and an excellent volley from Nilton, typically from a corner, were enough to see off a Botafogo side who, during the first half, at least attempted to make a decent fist of the contest.
Their lead over Botafogo in second place is now seven points. That advantage is by no means insurmountable with 16 matches remaining, but the psychological blow dealt by the leaders could have far-reaching consequences.
For now caution remains the official club word. “We are not champions yet. We are going to face difficulties in all the games. But we are on the right path to success,” said Baptista, sensibly diverting the euphoria of the fans at the final whistle.
Botafogo's lifeline came on 53 minutes. Rafael Marques was fouled in the area by Bruno Rodrigo, and the referee pointed to the penalty spot.
Up stepped Clarence Seedorf, the veteran, who has been there, done that and bought the proverbial t-shirt all over Europe. Botafogo fans would have bet their mortgage on him equalising.
He sent his spot-kick wide of the post after only managing to connect with his ankle, and the players visibly deflated. Walking from the pitch at the end Seedorf offered an apology.
“My penalty was an important moment in the game. I apologise. We didn't manage to turn our chances into goals and Cruzeiro did,” he said.
Botafogo were missing key defender Doria through suspension, and his replacement Andre Bahia was showing signs of nerves. Twice he left Borges and Willian with too much space and was only saved by partner Bolivar and goalkeeper Jefferson.
The visitors could barely catch their breath. Botafogo's most consistent attacking outlet during the first half was right-back Edilson. He was involved in creating the side's best chance of the half, but Cruzeiro keeper Fabio was equal to Elias' effort, tipping the ball away for a corner.
But the home side continued to enjoy the lion's share of possession. Their main threat, from set pieces and corners, was yielding next to nothing as Botafogo dealt admirably with anything launched into or around their penalty area.
Until first-half stoppage time and the final corner before the interval. Nilton managed to free himself from the attentions of Marcelo Mattos and sent a sweetly struck volley into the right-hand corner of the net.
Both sides came out unchanged for the second half and Botafogo's key moment came and went with Seedorf's penalty miss. The fight went out of the team.
Substitutions were made on both sides, but none had a more telling impact on the match than that of Julio Baptista for Borges.
After just minutes on the pitch the referee awarded Cruzeiro a non-existent penalty when Everton Ribeiro went down under a challenge from Bolivar.
Baptista took the kick and the ball squirmed its way under the body of the diving Jefferson. Oswaldo de Oliveira's three changes of Alex, Hyuri and Henrique for Elias, Renato and Rafael Marques bore no such fruit.
The fans inside the stadium were already in fine voice before Baptista's second put the icing on the cake three minutes from time. The party started. Cruzeiro couldn't be stopped.
The home fans began a chance of “Adeus, Fogo,” bidding their opponents a delirious goodbye. On this evidence, they may well have been talking about their title challenge rather than the evening's outcome.
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
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