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Corinthians disappoint after good start to 2013

By Andrew Downie

SAO PAULO (Reuters) - The loss of key players, injuries, fan violence - whatever the reason for their decline, Corinthians have come down to earth with a bump since winning the Copa Libertadores and the Club World Cup for the first time.

The Sao Paulo side sit 12th in Serie A and appear destined for a mid-table finish, missing out on a Libertadores spot for next year.

That would be a major disappointment for a team who won the Sao Paulo state championship in May, the South American Supercup in July and were touted as one of the favorites for the Serie A title.

"We haven't been able to get going and show what we're capable of," goalkeeper Cassio said on television recently. "There are times like now when the ball just doesn't cross the line, before it would be in the back of the net. It's not been a great spell."

Corinthians pride themselves on being one of Brazil's two best-supported clubs, alongside Flamengo of Rio de Janeiro, but although they have five league titles and three Brazilian Cups they were not well known outside Brazil until last year's Libertadores and Club World Cup wins.

Those victories, followed by a South American Supercup triumph in July, appeared to set the stage for further glories but the decline in the second half of 2013 has been swift.

They have lost important players to transfers and injury, while other teams have raised their game against the world champions. They have also been forced to play several home games outside Sao Paulo as a punishment for hooliganism and uncertainty has clouded the future of manager Tite.

Corinthians have always been a team built on guts and teamwork rather than flair or individual brilliance and the goals for and against columns this year illustrate their strengths and weaknesses.

They have conceded fewer goals than any other team in the league, 20 in 32 games, but have scored only 25, fewer than any team except Nautico, the league's whipping boys who have already been relegated with six matches of the season remaining.

Fifteen of their games have ended in draws, including five of the last seven.

INJURY ABSENCES

Losing influential midfielder Paulinho to Tottenham Hotspur was a big blow, as was the loss of utility player Jorge Henrique, moved on because of indiscipline.

Up front, record signing Alexandre Pato has failed to shine while Emerson Sheik and Romarinho have not reproduced last season's form.

Replacement Gil has been a rock in defense but Cassio, midfielder Renato Augusto and Peruvian striker Paolo Guerrero have all missed months through injury.

"Lots of players were injured and that affected them a lot," former player Neto, who is now a television pundit, said on his Bandsports show.

"The players who left weren't replaced with players of the same standard," added Ronaldo Giovaneli, who was a goalkeeper with the team when they won the title in 1990.

Problems of violence have also shaken the club. Twelve members of their biggest organized fan group were arrested in Bolivia after a Libertadores match against San Jose and accused of firing the flare that killed a teenage Bolivian fan.

The club were ordered to play a Copa Libertadores game behind closed doors as punishment. Domestic crowd trouble also meant they had to play five Serie A games outside Sao Paulo.

The players acknowledge they may simply have struggled to deal with the expectation heaped on them after an exceptional 2012.

"When you're champions other teams react and up their game and I think that happened this year," Cassio said.

Whatever happens over the last six games of the season, the club will at least have one reason to celebrate.

Their new stadium is scheduled to be ready in December, six months before it will be used for the opening match of the 2014 World Cup.

(Editing by Clare Fallon)

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