The hosts of this summer’s world cup; Brazil, always go into any tournament with the belief they can win it. Next month’s competition signals an even greater opportunity for the samba stars, but with this comes an almost incalculable pressure. Brazil lost the World Cup final to Uruguay on home soil in 1950 and this is quite possibly the lowest point of their illustrious history. So how successful will they be this summer, and can they even win the overall prize last lifted by the South American giants in 2002?
Being the host nation, Brazil of course were not required to qualify for the finals and instead have played a series of friendly internationals over the past few years in addition to taking part in the Confederations Cup. This tournament too was hosted in the South American nation and despite being wrought by violent protests and demonstrations targeted at the political sphere, Brazil were able to successfully defend their title from 2009. Other than this smaller scale tournament last summer, there is a concern within Brazil that a lack of competitive action could harm their chances in a few weeks’ time. There have been a few notable defeats during this series of games such as a 2-1 loss at Wembley and coming unstuck against Switzerland 1-0. However, form has improved of late and if the wave of expectation can be managed, then overall victory could well be on the horizon.
Brazil’s 23-man squad:
Goalkeepers: Julio César (Toronto), Jefferson (Botafego), Victor (Atlético Mineiro).
Defenders: Dani Alves (Barcelona), Maicon (Roma), Thiago Silva, Maxwell (both P.S.G.), David Luiz (Chelsea), Marcelo (Real Madrid), Dante (Bayern Munich), Henrique (Napoli).
Midfielders: Ramires, Oscar, Willian (all Chelsea), Paulinho (Tottenham Hotspur), Hernanes (Inter Milan), Luiz Gustavo (Wolfsburg), Bernard (Shakhtar Donetsk), Fernandinho (Manchester City).
Forwards: Neymar (Barcelona), Hulk (Zenit St. Petersburg), Fred (Fluminense), Jo (Atlético Mineiro)
As can be seen above, Brazilian coach Felipe Scolari chose to name a 23-man squad earlier than required, rather than a preliminary one made up of 30 names. One of the first things I noted was the age of the squad as a whole, and yet not correlating to significant experience on the international stage. For example, neither of their preferred central defensive pair have over 50 caps, and they have a couple of players in and around 30 years old with appearances in the single figures. This may be a concern come the tournament itself, but with so many of their contingent having the knowledge of title-winning sides in Europe’s toughest leagues, their skills should be transferrable.
There are a wide array of clubs and leagues represented in the Brazilian squad, which may well bring in different elements to the well-known flair and only enhance it. Dependent on formation, there could prove to be a lack of width in the players available. Both Bernard and Oscar prefer to operate more centrally, and the wide men that are present have a tendency to cut inside towards the box. Should opposition defences play a compact game and restrict space in the inside channels, the overlapping runs of full-backs on both sides will be crucial to unlocking the back door. Probable starters Dani Alves and Marcelo will have to get through a great deal of work, especially against sides who possess the capability to hit with pace on the counter attack.
They are fantastically strong in central midfield, both physically and in terms of numbers. With Paulinho, Ramires, and Fernandinho providing the legs, more room should be made available for the talented Oscar and Bernard to cause havoc. In terms of out and out front men, Brazil do lack in this area somewhat. Both Fred and Jo have returned from a period away from the squad simply due to a lack of other options available. Fred very much acts as a point man to bring his more naturally gifted team mates into the game, and these are hardly in short supply. We saw in the Confederations Cup however, that when presented with even a half chance, don’t be surprised to see the Fluminense man take it.
You cannot mention Brazil these days without Neymar coming into the discussion. Chief of all the talented players behind the front man, he really announced himself on the global stage when firing in a world class volley in the opening minutes of the Confederations Cup. Several match winning performances have followed in the yellow and green of Brazil to retain his place in the hearts of the locals as their great hope. Following his huge; and recently controversial, transfer to Barcelona last summer, he did not steal the stage as many would have hoped. It could be classed overall as a disappointing campaign for the little man, but his displays for the national team have not followed this trend. For Brazil to go the whole distance, you feel that Neymar simply has to come to the party.
Probable starting line-up:
Neymar: The man for Brazil, in an attacking sense that is for sure. Dazzlingly quick feet and an electric turn of pace, he can make any defender look like a fool with their legs tangled in knots. Recently he has been criticised for a lack of work rate tracking back towards goal, and while he maybe should do slightly more for the team as a whole, it cannot be denied that he is a special talent with the ball at his feet. Sides need a maverick and a talismanic figure to look towards when in trouble, and Neymar can be this player. Should he step up to the plate in the assist and goal-scoring charts, then the host nation will truly be a force to be feared.
Thiago Silva: Captain and rock at the back, Thiago Silva needs to marshal his defensive unit very well this summer to keep out some highly dangerous front lines. So much emphasis in Brazil is about attacking at pace and committing men forward, meaning his presence and level of security in defence will be vital to success. Even his fellow defenders are not averse to taking the ball into forward areas and leaving the team exposed. Managing that situation cannot be underestimated and if Brazil start to concede goals at frequent intervals, it seems risky to be totally reliant on their front line to get them out of trouble on each occasion.
Oscar: Chelsea’s attacking midfielder is able to be the key link between midfield and attack. Brazil’s style of play is almost entirely focused around passing the ball in tight spaces at quite a pace and Oscar’s speed of thought is vital for the success of this. Whoever the 3 forwards may be, they cannot take on an entire defence by themselves, requiring quality service to put them into space. Furthermore, we have seen in the earlier part of this Premier League season that Oscar has a keen eye for goal from midfield; not only able to finish a chance neatly but also take successful shots from distance and strike a mean free-kick. All in all, he is a very well balanced player who does a lot of tasks very well and still very much a youthful member of the squad, he may flourish in a World Cup on home soil.
Predictions: After being handed a relatively simple group, I strongly expect Brazil to progress into the knockout stages as group winners, and possibly with all 9 points secured. If at this early stage, they do not allow the pressure to affect them too badly, then none of Mexico, Croatia or Cameroon should pose too much of a threat to them. Their expansive style may well be rewarded with early breakthrough goals in matches, allowing them the all-important first foot-hold.
Assuming group progression in first place for both Brazil and Spain, the South Americans should face The Netherlands. This would undoubtedly be their toughest test so far, but one that they should come through unscathed. The Dutch always seem to fall apart in big tournaments and it would not be a surprise to see this again. Once they have reached the quarter final stage, the wave of support behind them will be overwhelming and you can only imagine the atmosphere inside the stadia and the surrounding city. I can see them reaching the final after a serious scare in the semi-final, and certainly don’t think it is an impossibility that they go on to be victorious.