By Tom Webber
It came as shock when Atletico Mineiro announced their capture of Ronaldinho back in June of this year. The ailing superstar had caused nothing but trouble at his previous club, Flamengo, and should really have been avoided at all costs. But Galo president Alexandre Kalil ignored such suggestion and decided to add the 32-year-old to his squad, and at the halfway stage of the Brasileiro it appears he may have made the signing of the season by offering the World Cup winner a new home, away from prying eyes.
Ronaldinho had a less than impressive return to Brazilian football when he signed for Fla at the beginning of 2011. A few pleasing mid-season performances for the Rio de Janeiro giants kept the fans happy for a time, but it soon petered out to end just as it had begun: poorly. Ill discipline and a negative attitude towards training led to sub-par performances and the usually likeable character lost the affection of the fans.
They were not amused by his antics, both on and on the pitch. Training sessions were missed yet parties were attended. The final straw came as Traffic, the sports media agency who had agreed to pay 75 per cent of his wages, refused to cough up due to the lack of a formal deal with the Rubro-Negro and Ronaldinho headed for the exit door in an acrimonious manner.
It seemed like it was going to be a downward spiral for a two-time Ballon D'Or winner who had lost the love and passion for the game. The bucked-tooth smile was gone, replaced with a stern, frustrated look.
Role Model | Ronaldinho has the potential to have a positive impact on youngstersNevertheless, the chance to sign a national icon on a free transfer was too good refuse and, despite interest from Palmeiras, it was Atletico Mineiro that secured his signature, and it has been there that he has rekindled his desire for glory.
On signing for the club, Ronaldinho expressed his extreme motivation to succeed with his new side. He had something to prove once more. No longer the idolised hero, he wanted to show his time was not up. The desire to recover from his Fla failings has no doubt contributed to his rapid turnaround. He no longer saunters aimlessly around the pitch. Instead, getting involved and acting as the fulcrum of his side's attack.
"When someone receives a lot of criticism, he starts to want to answer those questions and I want to do that," Ronaldinho said upon his Galo arrival, and he is going the right way about it.
"When someone receives a lot of criticism, he starts to want to answer those questions and I want to do that"
- Ronaldinho was determined to prove his critics wrong
His resurgent form has also brought the best out of his team-mates. Although it may have originally seemed a recipe for disaster, Ronaldinho's ability to pick the ideal pass has helped Jo right the wrongs of his tumultuous spell at Internacional. The former Barcelona man supplies enough ammunition for the striker to eventually find the net at some point and provide a relatively regular source of goals.
With the solid Victor in goal and the central-defensive duo of Rever and Leonardo Silva just in front, Galo possess the league's second-tightest defence. Along with teenage sensation Bernard in midfield and array of exciting attackers, Atletico have been the best side in the Brasileiro this season.
Despite winning the Minas Gerais state championship, Galo were not considered among the favourites for the national title this year. But going into the round of fixtures that mark the halfway stage, Atletico hold a three-point advantage at the league's summit and also a game in hand over their closest rival, Fluminense. But can they continue to maintain their title charge?
Perhaps the biggest difference from the Alvinegro side that finished in 15th position last season is that they are once again playing their football in their home city. Stadium closures meant regular 80-kilometre trips to Sete Lagoas for home games in 2011. This year, with the re-opening of the Independencia, the home of America Mineiro, huge, raucous crowds have frequently backed Cuca's side by providing a fantastic and intimidating atmosphere.
Their poor showing last term also meant that the club failed to qualify for the Copa Sudamericana. While this offers another potential route into the Copa Libertadores, one which many of the chasing pack will follow, it will also provide one less distraction in the league's latter months.
To an extent this does crank up the pressure on them in the second half of the season, but a return to the Libertadores for the first time since the 2000 edition would be huge for the Belo Horizonte club.
The tremendous level of depth in Cuca's squad will also offer another advantage over their rivals in the run-in for the Brasileirao. With the team fighting on just one front they can be kept incredibly fresh if a decent rotation policy is implemented by the coach.
After narrowly escaping relegation last season, the arrival of a once-more motivated Ronaldinho has spurred the team on to unexpected heights. There is no reason to suspect that their brilliant start cannot continue, and the two-time World Player of the Year may well be back on the major continental stage, with a first Brasileirao title to his name, early next year.
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