Cruzeiro's swift slide from Brazilian Championship favorites to relegation candidates

Going into the last week of the Brazilian Championship, there is no doubt about the destiny of the title. Flamengo of Rio de Janeiro have been utterly dominant and lead by 16 points with two rounds remaining.

But if there is no longer any drama at the top of the table, there is plenty at the bottom. Four of the 20 teams will be relegated at the end of the season, and it looks as if a genuine giant will be among them.

Three of the relegation places have already been defined. Avai and Chapecoense will be in the second division next year -- to no one's surprise. Avai have been something of a yo-yo club in recent times, and Chapecoense's brave fight against the odds could not be sustained indefinitely. Barring a mathematical miracle, CSA of Alagoas will be joining them -- again, scarcely a surprise.

No one could have foreseen, though, that the final relegation place would go to Cruzeiro. But unless there is a dramatic, late turn of events, that is exactly what is going to happen.

Cruzeiro of Belo Horizonte are one of Brazil's most successful clubs. They were league champions in 2013 and '14 and won the domestic cup -- taken very seriously in Brazil -- in both 2017 and '18. At the start of this year's league campaign, they were among the favourites. They have never played in the second division, but now their relegation has gone from unthinkable to possible to probable.

True, they got off to a bad start in the league. But there was, it seemed, little cause for alarm. Not uncommonly in Brazil, the club were giving priority to cup competitions. They sailed through the group stages of the Copa Libertadores, South America's Champions League, winning their opening five matches and becoming the first team to book a place in the knockout phase. They made good progress in defence of their Brazilian Cup title. A lowly league position, then, was hardly a worry. They could turn the tap on when it suited them.

Things started going wrong after the midyear pause for the Copa America. In the Libertadores, Brazil came up against defending champions River Plate of Argentina. Both legs finished goalless, and Cruzeiro were knocked out in a penalty shootout. Then, in the semifinals of the Brazilian Cup, they lost home and away to Internacional -- again, without getting on the scoresheet.

A problem had emerged: The team looked old and sluggish. At the start of the season, midfielder Rodriguinho looked an excellent signing, bursting into the penalty area in support of centre-forward Fred, much maligned for his role in the 2014 World Cup debacle but a consistent local marksman. But Rodriguinho picked up an injury, and the goals dried up. In possession, the team appeared to be composed of old players who had lost their spark and youngsters who were running faster than they were thinking.

There were off-the-field problems, too, and denunciations of bad management. There were dressing room problems, with some of the veterans clearly wielding a dangerous influence. In desperation, they kept changing their coach. Adilson Batista, who debuted Monday against Vasco da Gama, is their fourth of the campaign.

Through it all, there was always a feeling that Cruzeiro would get away with it. They would end up safe from relegation. Two grand old Rio teams, Botafogo and Fluminense, looked to be in even worse shape -- a view that appeared to be confirmed at the end of October, when Cruzeiro traveled to Rio to beat Botafogo 2-0.

But they have not won since -- a run that now extends to seven games. Last week's defeat at home to CSA marks the moment that reality began to bite. Cruzeiro had the vast majority of the play, but an excess of desperation had descended -- big teams when they get in trouble can often seem as if they are wading in mud -- and they lacked the calm to create and finish. It was a similar story away to Vasco on Monday, when they fell behind to an early goal and, for all their huff and puff, seldom threatened an equalizer.

Now, with two games to go, their fate is no longer in their hands. They need to overtake Ceara, who were coached by Adilson Batista until he was sacked last week. Ceara lead by two points and have 10 wins in the championship against Cruzeiro's paltry total of seven. The number of victories -- not goal difference -- is the first criteria used to separate teams that are level on points. The upshot is that Cruzeiro must overtake Ceara, a task that is not possible if their rivals take four points from their remaining two games.

Cruzeiro, then, face the difficult trip to face Gremio in midweek and then end their campaign at home to Palmeiras on Sunday. They will attempt to dig themselves out of a hole against two opponents of similar size and prestige. Unless there is a dramatic late turn, Cruzeiro will have to wait a while before they next play league games against rivals of this calibre again.