Man Utd provide acid test for Leonardo
As a general rule, I prefer to make my predictions after the event - I find it does wonders for their accuracy. But if you're going to put yourself on the line and make a forecast, there's one situation where getting it wrong is a pleasure - when someone turns out to be better than you expected.
For me, Leonardo's performance as Milan coach is in that category. He might be under pressure and it could be that losing to Manchester United in the Champions League might cost him his job, but the Brazilian has made a better, and certainly a bolder, fist of it than I imagined.
Leonardo was never a great player. He was a good one, but was probably more impressive as a man than as a footballer. In the dressing room, he was seen as the wise head who could find the right thing to say.
He came from a relatively wealthy background, but whereas some in Brazil use privilege as a safety net, for him it served as a springboard to self-improvement. Always concerned with those less fortunate then himself, he set up the Gol de Letra institution to aid the educational formation of poor kids in Rio and Sao Paulo, in collaboration with former team-mate Rai.
But could he call the shots at a big club like Milan? I had my doubts.
Leonardo was promoted to head coach by AC Milan when Carlo Ancelotti left last June
I recall an upmarket radio show in Brazil a few years ago with Leonardo as the guest, talking for an hour about the challenges facing Brazilian football. I was sure this would be fascinating as, with all his European experience, Leonardo would have plenty of pertinent things to say.
I sat by the radio with pen and paper, but by the end of the hour I hadn't written anything. He'd talked without content - "we need new paradigms" was the phrase of the night, repeated several times with no concrete elaboration of what had to change.
The problem, I felt, was that although he had proposals to make, he seemed afraid to do so, perhaps scared of upsetting the power structure. So when nice, well-brought-up Leonardo took over at Milan, I didn't think he would be tough enough to take the hard decisions.
He did have one thing going for him. After Luiz Felipe Scolari was sacked by Chelsea, I commented that the breakthrough by Brazilian coaches in Europe would probably be made by those with some history of playing in the continent.
They would have benefited from time away from the paternalistic relationship between coach and players in their native land, and the cosmopolitan dressing room of a European squad would not come as a shock. They would be cured of the unfortunate habit of dividing the world into Brazilians and 'gringos'.
Leonardo certainly fits into this category. He is a thoroughly international figure. One of his players, Alexandre Pato, recently praised the ability of his coach to communicate with his squad in so many different languages.
But communication is only ever as good as its content, and the pleasant surprise was that Leonardo did not intend to play safe - as perhaps might have been understandable with a squad that had just lost its star player, Kaka, whisked away to Real Madrid.
Leonardo needs Ronaldinho (left) to be at his brilliant best aginst Manchester United
Instead, he bravely opted for a 4-3-3 formation, clearly influenced by Barcelona and obviously intended to get as much as possible out of Ronaldinho, who was so effective in the wide left role in his mid-decade heyday with the Catalan club.
This was a daring step in Italian football, especially early season, when Ronaldinho was still waddling around like a former player who has turned up for a charity match. But after a dodgy start, the team started to put some wins together.
It is perhaps no surprise that a recent indifferent spell has coincided with the absence through injury of Pato, whose pace from the right flank makes him such a good target for Ronaldinho's diagonal passes.
Leonardo will be relieved that Pato is available once more. And if the stakes are high for the coach against Manchester United, they are probably higher still for Ronaldinho, who was left out of Brazil's squad for the forthcoming friendly against the Republic of Ireland.
It does not necessarily mean that Ronaldinho will not be going to the World Cup - it is undeniable that he has responded better to the stick than the carrot.
Being carried in the national squad for almost three years did not seem to do him much good, but, since he was left out, his form and fitness have improved. Maybe coach Dunga has come to the conclusion that keeping him out of the squad is the best way to maintain his motivation.
A recall would create problems as Brazil have played better, and found their identity, in Ronaldinho's absence. They don't use the 4-3-3 system which seems to suit him so well, and bringing him back would mean no place for one of Dunga's trusty foot soldiers.
Ronaldinho has never really clicked alongside Kaka, the undisputed king of the Brazilian attack, but, even so, most World Cup coaches would be drooling at the prospect of taking him to the World Cup in South Africa - even as a one-man Plan B, to be unleashed from the bench in times of trouble.
Making a decisive contribution in the big games, such as the two legs against United, would make calls for his return impossible to ignore.
If Ronaldinho can repay the faith Leonardo has shown in him, he can take a giant step towards regaining the faith of Dunga.
Comments on the piece in the space provided - questions on South American football to firstname.lastname@example.org, and I'll pick out a couple for next week.
From last week's postbag:
Q) As you have pointed out in the past, the left full-back position is the biggest question mark in Dunga's Brazil team. He seems to have tried countless players there and not one has made the position his own. I was wondering where Marcelo of Real Madrid fits in. He only has six caps and appeared to be the natural successor to Roberto Carlos. He looks like he's getting a decent run of games and form at Real at left-back, after playing for a period of time further forward. With the tradition of Brazilian full backs pushing forward, I think Marcelo and Maicon would be a frightening prospect to play against.
A) He was briefly in the squad, but he clearly didn't leave a good impression. The line last year was that he was out because he was featuring for Real Madrid on the left of midfield, not at full-back. But there must be something else - look at the two called up for the Ireland game - Michel Bastos hasn't played left-back for years, and Gilberto, who didn't come off at Tottenham, has been playing in midfield since returning to Brazil to join Cruzeiro. If either one of the does well against Ireland, you would have to think they're halfway to a World Cup place. If not, then it's open again, and perhaps Marcelo will have a chance to launch a late bid.