Copa do Brasil finely balanced after Flamengo, Corinthians draw first-leg blank

The first leg of Brazil's cup final was a game of cat and mouse in which no one ended up with the cheese. Corinthians of Sao Paulo and Flamengo of Rio drew 0-0 on Wednesday, leaving everything up for grabs in next week's return match.

As fate would have it, this is the first time that these two giants, the most popular clubs in the nation, are meeting in a big final.

More than 33 years ago they did meet in an early equivalent of the Community Shield, but it was a low key occasion with limited appeal. Less than 3,000 paid to watch it.

This time, all the tickets for both legs could have been sold 10 times over. It is a huge occasion, meaning that in addition to a capacity crowd, tension and caution were also in attendance.

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Caution was inevitable from Corinthians, even though they were at home in the first leg; Flamengo are clear favourites. Two months back when the teams met in the quarterfinal of the Copa Libertadores, South America's Champions League, Flamengo won home and away.

The gap between the sides has probably closed since then, but all the same Corinthians had every reason to be wary. Given time and space, Flamengo can open up the field with sweeping diagonal passes as they charge forward with their irresistible front four. Flamengo would have most of the ball, but Corinthians would make sure that their space was cut to a minimum.

This, of course, is nothing new for Flamengo. Over the last few years their attacking brilliance has inevitably provoked a reaction, with teams looking to cover up against them. Having to break down deep defences is a weekly challenge. At their best, they can fizz quick exchanges of passes in reduced spaces around the edge of the area and play their way through.

They nearly managed it this time, slipping centre-forward Pedro through against the giant figure of Corinthians keeper Cassio. But Pedro could not make the angle, and the shot went wide of the near post. Cassio had to be quick on his feet when Pedro slipped Gabriel "Gabigol" Barbosa past the defensive line. And in the second half he had to cope with a mini bombardment, blocking a fierce Gabigol volley and plunging left to push out a cross shot from Everton Ribeiro. In between he could only watch as a long range shot from David Luiz pinged back off his crossbar.

Corinthians, though, were not passive. Their best method of defending against Flamengo was to have the ball, and enjoy their own periods of possession. At times they were able to open up space for playmaker Renato Augusto and provoke discomfort in the Flamengo ranks. But the two moments of maximum discomfort came on the counter-attack. In the first half Flamengo centre-back Leo Pereira misjudged the flight of the ball and missed a header on a routine clearance. Striker Yuri Alberto was in, bearing down on goal, cutting inside David Luiz and preparing to pull the trigger -- when defensive midfielder Thiago Maia managed to get back in time to put in a saving tackle. And right at the end of the match, after a vexing pause for partial floodlight failure, Pereira was caught out of position high up the field and Alberto was on the charge once more, this time to fire off a shot which took a slight deflection before keeper Santos dived right to make the save and ensure that the first leg finished goalless.

In front of a massive crowd in the Maracana next Wednesday Flamengo will certainly expect to get the job done. Corinthians, though, do not seem uncomfortable with the status of underdogs, and Portuguese coach Vitor Pereira will work out a strategy for the occasion. He will lament that his side has met Flamengo in three big knockout games and had chances every time but have still yet to score a goal. And he will relish the absence next week of Joao Gomes, the Flamengo midfield dynamo, who will miss the second leg through suspension. Flamengo are more vulnerable without him, and will miss his lung power when the game of cat and mouse resumes next Wednesday with the big cheese at stake.