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Three's a crowd

As steady rain comes down in buckets on the revelers, there's a question in Rio de Janeiro that is as hot as Carnaval: Does playing with three strikers make your team better at attacking?

Almost 13 years ago, there was a famous attempt by Flamengo, the city's most popular club, to fit Romário, Edmundo and Sávio in the same starting lineup.

Romário was the reigning FIFA World Player of the Year, Edmundo was a wonderful talent entering his peak years and Sávio was the up-and-coming local hero. It was the best attack in the world, trumpeted the club's frequently over-worked hype machine.

It may have been, on paper. On the pitch, it was a disaster. Everyone wanted to be the star. No one was prepared to do the unselfish running to open up space for their colleagues. Playing together ruined the friendship between Romário and Edmundo, and there were no signs of any friendship forged between either of the pair and Sávio.

Undeterred by the cautionary tale of its city rival, Fluminense has plunged in where many would fear to tread. The traditional club of the Rio elite has celebrated its qualification for the Copa Libertadores, South America's Champions League, by going shopping.

Flu has signed three former international strikers, Washington, Dodô and Leandro Amaral. Carried away with enthusiasm, it also came close to snapping up a top-class fourth forward, River Plate's young Colombian Radamel Falcao García, but negotiations fell through. So the club is left with three, and seems determined to use them all at once.

Fluminense's ambition is not hard to understand. Flamengo has won the Libertadores. So has fellow Rio rival Vasco da Gama, as well as Santos, São Paulo and Palmeiras from São Paulo state, Grêmio and Internacional from Porto Alegre, Cruzeiro from Belo Horizonte.

Fluminense has never come close. Of all the major Brazilian teams, its record in the competition is the worst, so poor as to verge on the ridiculous. It has only made two appearances, and never made it out of the group phase. In 1971, it managed to lose at home to Venezuelan opposition (Deportivo Italia, a team it had beaten 6-0 in Caracas) and in '85 Flu failed to win a single game. This time it is desperate to do better.

So eager was the club to make to the Libertadores that, in effect, it qualified twice: as winner of the Brazilian Cup and by finishing fourth in the National Championship.

The secret of its success was sound defense. Classy center back Thiago Silva marshaled a back line that, in league play, conceded fewer goals than everyone else except champion São Paulo. Fluminense, then, seemed to have half the recipe for a successful Libertadores campaign. All it had to do was add the other half -- bring in those strikers -- and the victory campaign would be complete.

But there is great wisdom in an old Brazilian saying that trying to organize a soccer team is like having a small blanket on a cold night: Cover your feet and your neck freezes, pull it over your neck and your feet get cold. The need to find a balance between attack and defense has given headaches to coaches with far more experience that Fluminense's Renato Gaúcho.

So far, there's no evidence of any ego battles between the three new strikers. Washington is king of the penalty area, Leandro Amaral seems happy to drop back and work from deeper. The highly talented but enigmatic Dodô has perhaps yet to find his most effective role in the side. Still, Fluminense has turned in a series of unconvincing performances in the Rio State Championship.

Part of the reason is merely early-season rust. And adapting to a new formation usually takes time. But there are worrying signs that welding the three strikers onto the team's defensive unit might prove a complicated process.

Perhaps the problem lies in the positioning of Thiago Silva. He is an excellent reader of the game, and he likes to stay very deep, using his anticipation to judge the right moment to step up and win possession. But with Thiago Silva almost on top of his own goalkeeper and three strikers at the other end, the pitch looks enormous. Fluminense is strung out all over the field, leaving the midfielders with acres of space to cover.

There are some European teams that operate with three strikers -- Barcelona come to mind -- but as a rule, they like to stay much more compact, with a high defensive line and an attempt to win possession in the opponent's half of the field. In Fluminense's case, even some tiny teams from Rio have been able to find the space in midfield to play the ball around until they can work the opportunity to pierce the defense.

It will be fascinating to see how Fluminense deals with these issues in its Libertadores campaign. It has little margin for error: Its first-round opponents are Libertad of Paraguay, LDU of Ecuador and, providing it can defend its 2-0 lead in the qualifying round, Arsenal of Argentina.

It's one of the most difficult groups in the competition. All four teams have realistic hopes of reaching the knockout stages, but only two will get there.

Will Fluminense, with its three strikers, be one of those two?

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