Barcelona star Paulinho needs rest from Brazil action after astonishing marathon season

Alex Rea 26/06/2018
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Brazil’s spot in the last-16 is far from secure and they will require at least a point against Serbia if they are to advance from Group E on Wednesday.

The Spartak Stadium will host this fascinating battle and with that in mind, look at some of the key tactics which could play out for both sides.

JESUS AND FIRMINO, NOT JESUS OR FIRMINO

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It’s the great debate which surrounds the Brazil team right now but with Tite’s obvious preference for golden boy Gabriel Jesus, it’s unlikely we will see Liverpool’s Roberto Firmino displace him in the starting XI.

Jesus has, however, so far struggled to make an impact in Russia but there is a mitigating circumstance with Neymar’s indifferent form behind him cutting off the avenues into his feet.

Paulinho, too, is not providing the expected support in the box from midfield so it should be to little surprise the Manchester City forward has been quiet.

However, he’s livened up when Firmino has entered proceedings from the bench, Tite switching from a 4-3-3 to a 4-4-2 against Costa Rica to positive effect. And perhaps that’s a change Brazil can deploy from the get go against Serbia, especially considering the inevitability of Jesus being crowded out by a physically imposing outfit.

SERBIA’S CROSSING ASSAULT

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Brazil have already shown fallibility in the air at this World Cup with Switzerland’s Steven Zuber the beneficiary of poor marking from a corner to head home an equaliser in their Group E opener.

Centre-back Miranda, the culprit up against Zuber, is the tallest member in the squad at a modest 6ft2 with the Canarinho largely on the smaller side.

That could well play perfectly into the hands of Serbia who possess comparable giants in Sergej Milinkovic-Savic (6ft3), Aleksandar Mitrovic (6ft1), Nemanja Matic (6ft4), Nikola Milenkovic (6ft4), Luka Milivojevic (6ft1) and Branislav Ivanovic (6ft).

They crossed the ball 17 times against Switzerland, striker Mitrovic winning a game-high eight headers and deliveries out wide or from set-pieces could give Serbia a big advantage.

REST PAULINHO

Brazil v Costa Rica: Group E - 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia

It’s easy to forget but Paulinho’s season has been a marathon.

Due to the Chinese Super League being scheduled by calendar year, when he joined Barcelona last summer it was midway through Guangzhou Evergrande’s campaign.

That means should the midfielder take to the field on Wednesday, it will be his 94th appearance for clubs and country in 490 days.

His exhaustion was a talking point throughout the season for Barcelona and it is again an issue for Brazil.

As a box-to-box operator, energy is absolutely paramount to the role so Tite has a decision to make.

Does he bring in Renato Augusto who arrived in Russia with a knee injury when question marks still hang over his fitness or will the Brazil boss persist with running Paulinho further into the ground?

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Best fan images from World Cup 2018 in Russia

Sport360 staff 26/06/2018

While World Cup 2018 is heading into its crucial knock-out phase, the excitement is cranking up.

The tournament has been a roller-coaster ride ever since its kick-off on June 14, when hosts Russia thumped Saudi Arabia 5-0.

Since then there have been some remarkable goals, free-kicks, some really intense match-ups and of course plenty of late drama in an entertainment-filled first two weeks of the World Cup.

The fans have been at the centre of all the noise and action in and out of the stadium – and we bring you some of the best images so far.

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Alan Shearer is furious with VAR system after Portugal draw with Iran

David Cooper 26/06/2018
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Paraguayan referee Enrique Caceres used VAR to award Iran's penalty against Portugal

The Video Assistant Referee system at the World Cup is in the spotlight once again following a controversial penalty decision in Portugal‘s draw with Iran which Alan Shearer has described as “ludicrous”.

Portugal had looked set to progress to the last 16 as winners of Group B after Ricardo Quaresma’s superb first-half goal saw them leading 1-0 going into stoppage time in Saransk.

However, with time almost up, Iran were awarded a penalty after Portugal defender Cedric Soares was adjudged to have handled the ball in the area as he challenged for a cross.

The spot-kick was awarded by referee Enrique Caceres following a VAR referral and, with Karim Ansarifard successfully converting from 12 yards, Portugal were forced to settle for a 1-1 draw and second place behind group winners Spain.

Former England captain Shearer was astonished the penalty was given, saying such decisions are turning football into an “absolute farce”.

“If he thinks that’s a deliberate handball then he’s crazy,” the BBC pundit said during the post-match analysis.

“In his rule-book, every time it hits a hand it’s a penalty. It’s ridiculous. How can he do anything about that? He’s half a yard away and the defender’s eyes are closed. There’s no way on earth that’s a deliberate handball.

“That was my fear coming into this tournament, that you’re going to get decisions like this. It turns the game into an absolute farce.”

He added: “It’s nonsense, it’s utter nonsense. He had a clear view from 12 yards away and didn’t think it was a penalty. I’m trying to keep calm without swearing. I’m getting angry here because that’s just a ludicrous decision.”

Iran’s penalty is the latest in a string of VAR rulings during the World Cup that have prompted debate and criticism of the process.

There were two other incidents earlier in the same match, with Portugal star Cristiano Ronaldo awarded a 53rd-minute penalty after referee Caceres had a second look at Morteza Pouraliganji’s clumsy challenge on him.

Ronaldo, who saw his spot-kick saved by Ali Beiranvand, was also later the subject of a VAR red card review after he was caught apparently taking a swing at Pouraliganji off the ball – he was eventually shown yellow.

The VAR system also played a key role in Monday night’s other Group B match between Spain and Morocco.

Spain were on course for a shock defeat, trailing 2-1 with 90 minutes up, when substitute Iago Aspas flicked the ball into the net.

The offside flag was immediately raised but, after video analysis, the goal was subsequently given and the 2010 world champions escaped with a 2-2 draw in Kaliningrad.

Spain now play hosts Russia in the knockout stages, with Portugal facing Group A winners Uruguay.

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