When Portuguese Bruno Lage took control of runaway Brazilian leaders Botafogo this summer, the former Benfica boss was fully aware there were some unenviable aspects to the position.
Botafogo surprised many by storming clear at the top of the Campeonato Brasileiro during the opening third of the season, but after manager Luis Casto departed for Al Nassr in July, it was his countryman Lage who was chosen to continue an unexpected title charge.
Castro had led the team to a 7-point advantage, surpassing all expectations with a side which had only achieved promotion back to the top flight in 2021. Saudi Arabian football tempted Castro away, but after a successful interim period under caretaker Claudio Caçapa, Lage arrived in Rio de Janeiro knowing his modest squad were now expected to continue their quest for glory.
Three wins and three draws from his opening six league matches represented a reasonable start for Lage in his South American adventure. However, elimination from the Copa Sudamericana at the hands of Defensa Y Justicia has recently been followed by back-to-back defeats in the Brazilian top flight, with a 2-1 home loss to Flamengo followed by Sunday evening’s 1-0 reverse at Atletico Mineiro.
The most recent setback in Belo Horizonte against Luiz Felipe Scolari’s Atletico was tough to take for Lage, who was left dismayed by a late disallowed equaliser for an offside in the build-up. Speaking after the match, Lage criticised what he felt was inconsistent officiating and even hinted at a conspiracy to keep his team from running away with the title.
“Unfortunately, once again we have to go there, it gets tiring,” said Lage, referring to the controversial decision to rule out Diego Costa’s potential equaliser. “Unfortunately, again a major error, unacceptable from the officials.
“No matter how much assistant Bruno Raphael Pires tries to explain it to us, with all politeness, we are not convinced. Flamengo had a match in which Marlon’s own goal was not disallowed even with Bruno Henrique offside. Today the criteria is different. We had a legal goal disallowed; the explanation is that the defender was worried about Diego Costa. You can look at the play several times: Diego is standing still and it falls to him. This is unacceptable. Botafogo will fight until the end in the championship.
“I arrived here two months ago and I feel that there is very different criteria in other games. It gives the feeling that they want the championship to remain lively until the end. I’ve seen absurd criteria in many instances in other games with VAR. What happened in the last two games, it hurt us.”
Scolari bites back at pitch complaints
After his ire directed at the officials, Lage also expressed his frustration with the playing conditions. “I have to talk about the pitch,” he said. “It’s not excusing anything, but there are things we have to look at. We played in a beautiful stadium, which is reminiscent of one of the best European stadiums, where the priority was to put on a show. And we played on this pitch that I don’t even know if you could call it grass. It affected the game too much, even more so when our game is about passing and moving the ball quickly, but the ball stops and bounces a lot.”
The issue of the pitch drew a humorous response from veteran opposition number Scolari, with the former Portugal manager surprised when the subject was raised during his post-match press conference.
“The pitch? The pitch is very good,” Scolari said. “Who said that? [Lage?] So I won’t get involved anymore. If this pitch is bad... then let’s play in heaven. For God’s sake.”
Luiz Felipe Scolari being told that Bruno Lage complained about the pitch after his Atletico Mineiro side beat Botafogo: “The pitch is very good. Who said that? I won’t get involved further. If this pitch is bad, let’s play in heaven. For God’s sake.”pic.twitter.com/SiHUIRMNby— Sean Gillen (@SeanGillen9) September 17, 2023
Despite successive defeats, Botafogo remain favourites to clinch a first Brazilian national championship since 1995. O Glorioso enjoy a 7-point advantage over Abel Ferreira’s champions Palmeiras in 2nd place, with 15 rounds of matches still to play.
By Sean Gillen