Much like Diego and Robinho five years ago, Santos FC are blessed with an electrifying pair of attack-minded youngsters, who are surely under watch by clubs around the world and will be looking to prove themselves in the high pressure environment of the Copa Libertadores. Neymar and Paulo Henrique Ganso have become two of the most talked-about components of a Santos side that was picked by many pundits (including this one) to win this year's Copa Libertadores. However, the steady hand that guides Santos' success is not that of the two prodigious, if a bit brazen, youngsters, but rather that of Elano, the leader of a contingent of European veterans that has formed the foundation for Santos' run in both the Copa Libertadores and the São Paulo state championship.
Elano, along with a host of other players that have returned from their travels in Europe to play closer to home, have provided an extremely importing supporting class that has allowed Santos' young talents to shine even further. Now, heading into the knockout phases of the Copa Libertadores and facing a tough opponent in América, Santos' approach will be tested even further.
Despite some stutters in their Copa Libertadores campaign, including a disappointing draws with Cerro Porteño and Deportivo Táchira, along with losses at Colo Colo and Cerro, Santos has reached the semi-finals of the São Paulo state championship, largely on the back of Elano's steady midfield play. Beloved by former national team Dunga, but criticized by many Brazilian fans before the 2010 World Cup, the former Galatasaray and Manchester City playmaker shone in his first two games at the tournament, but was sorely missed by Brazil after an injury sustained against Côte d'Ivoire put him out for the rest of the tournament.
After returning to Brazil upon his recovery, Elano chose to join Santos, despite being 29 and likely having a few good European years left in him. There, he found the right environment to hone his craft. More cerebral and pragmatic than many Brazilian midfielders, Elano has earned his fair share of critics for a perceived lack of flair, but plenty of admirers as well. His calm, collected presence in midfield provides a perfect complement to electric, rambunctious talents of Neymar, while his free kicks provide a constant threat on set pieces, as demonstrated with an absolutely stunning 40 yard free kick to open the scoring in Santos' 3-2 loss at Colo Colo.
However, Elano is far from the only player with European experience to have returned to Santos. Edu Dracena, also 29 and a fellow veteran of the Turkish league, had enjoyed a successful spell with Fenerbahçe in addition to his time at Olympiakos in Greece. Much like Elano, Dracena declined offers from Europe to return to his home country, where the defensively sound and technically capable defender has quickly become a fan favorite and captain at Santos. While the Santos defense is far from perfect, with new manager Muricy Ramalho calling for reinforcements already, Dracena has helped plug some of the biggest leaks, earning the award for best central defender in the 2010 Brazilian Série A.
Fans of Manchester United may be familiar with Rodrigo Possebon, the defensive midfielder who struggled to make an impact both with the Premier League giants, and on a loan spell with Braga. While not a regular member of the first team for the big matches, Possebon, just 21, has seized the opportunities given to him in the Paulista championship to show he has a role to play nonetheless, and has made a total of 10 appearances, even netting a goal against Santo André. In Possebon, Santos has found a young, hungry player that wasn't quite ready for the European stage, but has show willingness to learn and improve in his native country.
The squad has further been shored up by the addition of two forwards that provide more than adequate backup for Neymar and Zé Eduardo up top. Barcelona-owned talent Keirrison has largely seen his European career stutter, enduring unsucessful loan spells at Benfica and Fiorentina before returning to Brazil in July 2010. In the second half of the 2010 season, he scored three goals in 11 games, hardly a boatload, but a significant contribution nonetheless. Joining Keirrison in reserve is Olympiakos-owned striker Diogo, who struggled with injuries after a bright start in Greece and has returned to Brazil for the time being, spending the latter half of 2010 with Flamengo before joining Santos.
No matter what the role they play in the team, Santos' strategy of bringing in (relatively) younger players with European experience has seemed to work a treat so far. Whether they are contributing every match to the first team or still looking to prove they deserve a shot at the big time, each player has brought and shared their own experiences from some of the best teams in the world. The club is well-poised to make an impact, both domestically and internationally, and even with the likes of Neymar, Ganso and Zé Eduardo on the move, these acquisitions have provided the team with a solid core to fall back on. On Wednesday night against América, we'll see just how solid they really are.
[Note: For a more detailed perspective on Elano himself, I would encourage you to check out this excellent piece.]