Why Brazilian stars Elias, Paulinho failed in transition to European game

The Copa Libertadores has kicked off, and Corinthians were the big winners of Wednesday's derby match in South America's biggest city, beating Sao Paulo FC 2-0 in a high-octane Group 2 encounter.

With two minutes to go and the lead safe, Corinthians substituted midfielder Elias, who left the pitch to a standing ovation. The 29-year-old, who has featured in Dunga's Selecao lineup in the post-World Cup friendlies, had changed the complexion of the derby game with an early goal. He was involved in an exchange of passes with veteran Danilo, and then scampered into the box to meet Jadson's clever chip with a volley swept immaculately past Sao Paulo keeper Rogerio Ceni.

It was a repeat performance of a goal he scored against Once Caldas of Colombia in the qualifying round, showing a combination of lung power, technique and timing to round off a collective move with a fine finish.

Elias gave an excellent performance against Sao Paulo, working hard to good effect to win the ball with high pressure marking. He was crisp and efficient in possession in his search to break beyond the opposing defence. Observing him in this kind of form gives rise to an obvious question: How could this player not have succeeded in Europe?

Elias left Corinthians in 2011 to join Atletico Madrid, where he never came close to matching the high expectations, and soon moved on to Sporting Lisbon, where he hung around for a while without doing much. He will turn 30 in May, and would seem unlikely to make a return to Europe, at least to a top-ranked club.

Elias was in Spain and Portugal in his peak years, theoretically. He is a player whose work rate and talent would appear to make him a natural fit for a European midfield. But he was unable to make the impression on the other side of the Atlantic that he has made in Brazil, both before and after his European adventure.

There are all sorts of reasons for footballers to disappoint when they move to a new club, especially when a switch of continents is involved. Some people are simply not made for export. They may be misunderstood, as human beings or as players. It may simply be one of those things, part of the mystery that makes football so fascinating.

But in the case of Elias, perhaps there is something else. Because it is striking that his successor in the Corinthians team has also -- so far at least -- failed to live up to expectations in Europe. When Elias moved to Atletico Madrid, his replacement in the Corinthians lineup was Paulinho.

Elias was not missed. The team won the domestic title, and followed it up with the Libertadores and then the Club World Cup crown -- and Paulinho was perhaps the most important player they had. He broke up opposing attacks efficiently, and was at his most eye-catching at the other end of the field, timing his forward surges to perfection to become one of the team's leading goal scorers.

Surely Paulinho was cut out for top level European football. Certainly a judge as wise as Argentine legend Juan Roman Riquelme thought so -- describing Paulinho in 2013 as a version of Frank Lampard who was capable of scoring more goals in the air. Two years down the road, Tottenham fans are still waiting to see the best of him. It is fair to say that he has come nowhere near living up to the expectations.

This, again, could be one of those things; personal problems of adaptation, or maybe that Tottenham's centre forwards have not given him the platform to show what he can do. But it is certainly striking that two players of similar virtues, big hits back home, have been damp squibs in Europe.

If this is more than coincidence, then there is one possible explanation. During the TV transmission of the Corinthians-Sao Paulo game, the local commentators were struggling for a definition of Elias. In the end, the excellent and highly respected Paulo Vinicius Coelho settled on "midfielder."

That might seem depressingly bland, but in context it is fascinating. In recent times, Brazilian football has often been marked by a strict separation in the centre of the pitch. Midfield has been divided into volantes -- who are largely defensive -- and meias, who attack. Proficient all-rounders -- either box-to-box runners or deep-lying playmakers -- have been thin on the ground.

Indeed, the great Tostao -- centre forward in the 1970 World Cup side and one of the brightest players to represent Brazil -- has been moaning that Brazil have not produced a world-class midfielder in over 20 years.

One possible explanation, then, is that Elias and Paulinho have stood out at home because in Brazil they are members of a rare species of all-rounders. Take them to Europe, where players of this type are more common, and their shine disappears. Fans of Corinthians, though, will be more than happy to bask for a while in the brilliance of the goal that Elias scored against Sao Paulo on Wednesday night.