A year ago last week, Fluminense beat Palmeiras to lift their fourth Brazilian title. If the occasion felt a little flat, it was only because the success had long had an air of inevitability about it: spurred on by the relentless goalscoring of Fred and guided by Abel Braga’s steady hand, the Tricolor simply ground down their closest rivals, Atlético Mineiro and Grêmio.
“They're a good team, an organised team,” said former Brazil striker Tostão, now a respected newspaper columnist, at the time. “Flu know how to win. They don't lose focus and they don't try to be better than they are.”
It was their second Brazilian crown in three seasons and appeared to signal the advent of a bright new era at Laranjeiras. Bankrolled by medical insurance giant Unimed, Flu had invested in proven talent (Fred, Thiago Neves, Deco) and looked well-placed to build for the future. The dilapidated training facilities that had prompted Muricy Ramalho to storm out of the club just months after tying up the 2010 title (sample quote: "There are rats in the changing rooms!") were to be scrapped and replaced by state-of-the-art new facilities, while Braga was making all the right noises about building a dynasty.
That success, as their fans will tell you, had been a long time coming. Prior to 2010, Flu had endured a galling 26-year dry spell, punctuated only by four state titles – a meagre return for a club of their stature. (By way of comparison, bitter rivals Flamengo racked up three national titles and ten Cariocas in the same period.) Finally, it appeared that the traditional club of Rio de Janeiro's moneyed classes had returned to their rightful place among the elite.
But things have gone pear-shaped this year. As the end of the season approaches Fluminense sit just one point above the relegation zone, a winless October having plunged them from midtable mediocrity into a frantic battle for survival. They have three games to avoid becoming the first club to be demoted a year after winning Série A.
Braga was dismissed in July after five consecutive defeats. His replacement was Vanderlei Luxemburgo, the self-styled big bad wolf of Brazilian football management. He huffed and he puffed and he blew it, leading the side to just seven wins in 26 games.
His cause was not helped by the absence of Fred, who picked up an injury in September and has not been sighted since. With zippy youngster Wellington Nem having departed for Shakhtar Donetsk and Deco slipping into retirement amidst accusations of doping, Flu have lacked star quality in 2013. Their once-solid defence has also wavered, despite the best efforts of former Liverpool goalkeeper Diego Cavalieri.
But all is not yet lost. The departure of Luxemburgo has led to a sharp upturn in fortunes in the last fortnight, newly-installed coach Dorival Júnior starting his reign with wins over rock-bottom Náutico and improving São Paulo. While far from pretty, those dogged performances are exactly what is required to stave off the threat of the drop.
Supporters must hope that deep down there remains something of the fighting spirit that earn Flu the nickname Time de Guerreiros (Team of Warriors). Battered and bruised they may be, but the deposed Brazilian champions are not yet out for the count.
Jack Lang writes about Brazilian football for the Guardian, ESPN FC, When Saturday Comes and WhoScored, among others.
Follow him on Twitter: @snap_kaka_pop