Traditional domestic giants caught up in Brazilian league relegation mire

Going into the home straight -- 11 of the 38 rounds remain -- and the battle for the Brazilian league title is heating up nicely. Third-placed Atletico Mineiro are not out of the picture. But the focus is on the front two; Palmeiras of Sao Paulo won on Saturday to stretch their lead at the top to four points -- duly reduced to just one, 24 hours later when Rio de Janeiro giants Flamengo staged a late rally to overcome Cruzeiro.

In all the excitement, it is easy to forget that the state of play at the other end of the table that is looking equally dramatic. Cruzeiro's defeat leaves them in the relegation zone. After a bad start, fortunes had revived following the appointment of former national team coach Mano Menezes. But their loss coincided with wins for some of the teams around them, and suddenly the club is back in the sticky stuff -- a surprise development for a club which won the league title in both 2013 and 2014.

Another giant finds itself in an even worse situation. Away to Atletico Mineiro, Internacional of Porto Alegre may have come up with their best performance in a while. But it was not enough to avoid a fifth consecutive defeat, part of a collapse in form which now marks them as serious candidates for relegation -- a humiliating state of affairs for an ambitious club which a decade ago beat Barcelona to become Club World Champions.

The previous year, that title belonged to Sao Paulo, another huge club who cannot afford to be complacent. Once seen as a model of sober, competent administration, Sao Paulo have undergone a recent decline which now puts them just four points clear of the relegation zone, anxiously working out the permutations and looking over their shoulder.

In part, this can be explained by the turbulent nature of contemporary club football in South America. After all, recent winners of the Copa Liberatadores, the continent's Champions League, include the Argentine pair of San Lorenzo and River Plate, in 2014 and 15 respectively. The former had only recently come back from a severe relegation scare, and River Plate did in fact spend the 2011-12 season in the Argentine second division.

In an environment where the best players are continually being sold, and at an increasingly young age, consistency is all but impossible. Teams can suddenly come together, and then fall apart as the star names move to Europe -- or nowadays, to China, the USA or the Middle East as well. South American club football pays a high price in terms of a loss of quality -- but gains something in that the season is rendered much less predictable than in most of the European leagues.

But, so far at least, in Brazil this inconsistency is taking place within a well defined pattern. Some big clubs rise while others take temporary falls. But all of them appear to come from the South East and the South of the giant country.

Football's two traditional strongholds in Brazil are Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo. Between them, these states provide eight of the 20 first division teams. Then come the next two important centres, Belo Horizonte (in the state of Minas Gerais) and Porto Alegre, capital of Rio Grande do Sul state. Between them they provide another five teams. Four more come from the southern states of Parana and Santa Catarina. Brazil has 27 states. Just six of them provide all but three of the country's first division teams.

The region which is clearly punching below its weight is the North East. It has big cities, and clubs with mass support. It is, though, a relatively poor region, and it is rare that the clubs make a big impact on the national stage.

It was hoped that the 2014 World Cup would help tilt the balance. The North East played host to half of the Confederations Cup and a third of the World Cup, with large investments in stadiums and the hope that the region's clubs would be able to meet their southern rivals on more even terms. So far that has yet to happen.

There are three North Eastern clubs in this year's first division. Santa Cruz of Recife seem doomed to relegation. The other two, Vitoria of Bahia and Sport of Recife, recorded wins at the weekend which lift them out of the relegation zone but still leave them with little cause for comfort. They will be fretting until the season ends in early December. And as it stands, there are no North Eastern teams at the top of the second division ready to take their place if they do go down -- though Bahia are lying sixth and in position to mount a late challenge. Bahia's stadium, the lovely Fonte Nova, deserves to see some first division action. And Brazil would benefit from a first division which better represents the geography of this vast nation.