The 7-1 semi-final humiliation to eventual winners Germany four years ago at Estadio Mineirao was meant to create scars that would last a generation.
A ‘Mineirazo’ to match 1950’s devastating ‘Maracanazo’ (The Maracano Blow) when Uruguay claimed final victory in Rio de Janeiro.
History appeared to be repeating itself when the record five-time winners found themselves down in sixth during CONMEBOL qualifying, with a third of the campaign gone. Out went Dunga – for a second time – during June 2016 and in came the inspirational Tite. They haven’t looked back since.
A ceaseless run of 10 wins and two draws followed to seal their flight to Russia with four games remaining. When this form is allied with recent friendly victories against the likes of the Germans, plus the ascension of the magical Neymar, it is clear to see why the Canarinha are expected to take flight this summer.
A dazzling array of talent will take to the field against Switzerland on June 17 when Group E kicks off in
Tite’s midfield general from Corinthians, Paulinho, is reborn alongside the latter at Camp Nou. Vitally, such
players now operate in a 4-3-3 formation that has been honed to perfection by the new boss. He’s also instilled the swagger of old, but with a healthy dose of pragmatism to get the job done through the likes of Real Madrid midfield battler Casemiro and outstanding Internazionale centre-back Miranda.
Paris Saint-Germain’s €222m forward Neymar is unquestionably the first among equals – his form is intrinsic to genuine hopes of success. But whereas injury during the previous tournament sent Brazil into a tailspin, a sublime support cast is in place to prevent national panic despite his recent recovery from a fractured metatarsal.
Live up to his exalted billing and he will join 2002 champion Ronaldo on the rung just below the ineffable Pele in the nation’s passionate affections. But Neymar’s petulance taps into concerns about the side’s temperament.
It is up to the intelligent Tite to make sure a wonderfully gifted group does not implode against the competition’s finest.
Defensive doubts about rampaging Marcelo and whomever replaces the injured Dani Alves – potentially Corinthians’ Fagner – must also be assuaged.
After the Swiss test, Brazil wind up against Costa Rica in Saint Petersburg on June 22 and Serbia in Moscow on June 27.
A gentle start that could be a springboard to cathartic success after the horrors of World Cup 2014.
A nation took a collective breath in February when the PSG forward suffered serious injury. Yet, Neymar should be rested and raring to go in Russia. His array of skills are unmatched in world football, while more than 50 international goals aged 26 points to his fearsome ability.
Tite was happy to bide his time for this job. After domestic, continental and world titles were claimed at Corinthians, he took time off to carry out an in-depth study of elite European football. Brazil are benefiting now from a cerebral and popular figure.
Tite’s revolving policy with the captain’s armband makes prediction difficult. But if it goes to 33-year-old Miranda, it’ll be worn by one of the game’s best centre-backs. Miranda is a pure defender, his skills honed by Diego Simeone at Atletico Madrid.
In 2014, head coach Luiz Felipe Scolari could only turn to journeymen such as Fred and Jo. No wonder Brazil floundered. For this edition, a 21-year-old to potentially follow in the hallowed footsteps of Pele, Bebeto and Ronaldo is in place.
KEY FACTS AND STATS
– 7, goals scored by Gabriel Jesus in qualifying – one more than Neymar.
– 20, games played by Cafu at World Cups – a Brazilian record.
– 67.3, win percentage for Brazil during 104 matches at the World Cup.
86 DEF 85 MID 87 ATT
World Cups competed at
21 (First in 1930)
World Cup record
P104, W70, D17, L17
Champions (1958, 1962, 1970, 1994 & 2002)
P18, W12, D5, L1
Alisson (Roma), Ederson (Manchester City), Cassio (Corinthians).
Miranda (Inter Milan), Marquinhos (Paris St Germain), Thiago Silva (Paris St Germain), Pedro Geromel (Gremio), Marcelo (Real Madrid), Fagner (Corinthians), Danilo (Manchester City), Filipe Luis (Atletico Madrid)
Casemiro (Real Madrid), Fernandinho (Manchester City), Paulinho (Barcelona), Renato Augusto (Beijing
Guoan), Philippe Coutinho (Barcelona), Willian (Chelsea) Fred (Shakhtar Donetsk)
Neymar (Paris Saint-Germain), Gabriel Jesus (Manchester City), Roberto Firmino (Liverpool), Taison (Shakhtar Donetsk),
Douglas Costa (Juventus).
The combination of Tite and Neymar looks to be a winning ticket. Easy group means they can grow into the tournament – a fearsome prospect
The very best teams at the World Cup may make their opponents weak at the knees but, dig beneath the surface, and you’ll find that even the big boys are facing big questions.
Here we probe the elite’s frailties and potential solutions starting with the top contenders from Groups A through D: Spain, Portugal, France and Argentina.
Problem: Choosing the most effective striker
The era of Fernando Torres and David Villa this is decidedly not. Such is the murkiness around Spain’s best forward options that it was judged more than a mild shock that a misfiring Alvaro Morata was deemed surplus to requirements.
Diego Costa, Iago Aspas and Rodrigo have all had their moments in a Spain shirt but none of them fit like a glove around La Roja’s sleight of hand. Costa started the friendly draw with Switzerland and though he dwarfs his midfield minions in physicality, too often he scuppers attacks with a sub-par first touch.
Aspas – once a figure of fun at Liverpool, now a 20-plus goal-a-season marksman for Celta Vigo – and Valencia’s Rodrigo are both in their element when playing off the last man as opposed to playing pinball in the final third.
Solution: Start with a false No.9
Spain coach Julen Lopetegui could just adapt his favoured 4-2-3-1 formation with a striker who isn’t truly there – the false No.9.
If any side are set up to do just that, it’s Spain. David Silva, Marco Asensio and Isco, with one of Thiago or Koke alongside Andres Iniesta, will be able to suck defenders into the abyss.
A free-roaming Isco can open up pockets of space – he’s Lionel Messi-lite for Spain – and then La Roja, so often accused of being one-dimensional, have a Plan B (Costa) and Plan C (Rodrigo/Aspas) off the bench.
Problem: Severe lack of pace in defence
The combined age of Pepe, Bruno Alves and Jose Fonte is 105. That’s enough to make us all feel young again.
Experience only makes up for so much of this. Pepe now plays for Besiktas, not Real Madrid, Fonte’s first game for Chinese club Dalian Yifang ended in an 8-0 defeat while Alves played just 20 league games for Rangers last season.
Protecting the centre-back pairing in midfield is William Carvalho, a brute of a man who is quietly skillful yet has not been blessed with pace.
This means the back-line has to sit deep with or without the ball – such is the risk they will be beaten over the top or slow to react to a sudden loss of possession.
Solution: Play Ruben Dias
On one hand the World Cup isn’t the ideal time to introduce the next generation. On the other hand four years is a long time to wonder what could have been.
Benfica centre-back Ruben Dias, who is just 21, earned his first cap last month and has been linked with a big-money move to Arsenal.
Tender in years he may be but he has swiftly been nicknamed ‘the Bodyguard’ given his manhandling of more experienced opponents.
Dias can make up for in athleticism what the wily Pepe lacks if played alongside him. Youth worked in Portugal’s favour with Renato Sanches two years ago – fingers crossed against a similar regression.
Problem: How to get the best out of Paul Pogba
While Paul Pogba gets a new haircut each week, many of his well-wishers simply tear their follicles out in frustration.
The player who threatened to be great at Juventus has not shown a single shred of consistency for Manchester United, and crucially for Didier Deschamps, France.
Too often apologists have claimed Pogba need only play in his favoured position on the left of a midfield three but he does so for Les Bleus on a regular basis and is just as likely to gallop around aimlessly as he is to make jaws drop in the right way.
Solution: Drop Pogba
If Deschamps needs reminding, he has a coterie of talent at his disposal. While it could be argued that Pogba is the most naturally gifted of the lot there are numerous players in the squad who have enjoyed far more productive seasons.
With N’Golo Kante the forager and Blaise Matuidi yo-yoing from box to box, France need someone who can consistently make the right decisions and speed play up for Antoine Griezmann et al.
Step forward Liverpool-bound Nabil Fekir, who arrives in Russia after an incredible season for Lyon that saw him score 18 goals and set up countless more.
It’s time to put ‘reputations’ to one side.
Problem: Fixing a disjointed attack
As foolish as it sounds to criticise an attacking line-up that boasts Messi, Argentina were simply hideous on the goals front during their qualification campaign.
Jorge Sampaoli’s side mustered 19 goals in 18 games. The situation was so dire that he was forced to drop serial Serie A goal-getters Paulo Dybala, Gonzalo Higuain and Mauro Icardi due to their ineffectiveness.
Only Icardi failed to make the cut but there are still concerns. Sampaoli has admitted Dybala occupies too many of the same spaces as Messi – while Higuain is now arguably past his peak as the spearhead.
To make matters worse Manuel Lanzini, a viable option as an inside forward or just behind, succumbed to a summer-ending knee injury on Friday.
Solution: Create width
Argentina have had a ramshackle build-up, playing just one warm-up game, but extra time on the training pitch should do them good (apart from the unfortunate Lanzini).
Let Messi do whatever he wants. He know better than you, me and Sampaoli. But the Chilean coach should hammer into his players the importance of width.
With Sampaoli veering towards a 4-4-2 formation, and Lanzini out, Di Maria and Dybala are now seemingly their best options on the wings.
They will naturally drift inside on occasion, of course, but not to the extent that they cross wires with Messi. And a few crosses out wide should help extract the best out of Higuain. It’ll be difficult on the right for either left-footed player. They should be talented enough to adapt.
How could a talent judged PFA Young Player of the Year for his searing exploits with the runaway Premier League champions be so swiftly judged expendable by Germany? Even for holders possessed of such depth of outstanding performers, the call appeared mystifying to dump the 22-year-old in favour of Bayer Leverkusen’s Julian Brandt.
“Leroy is a huge talent,” explained head coach Joachim Low. “He will be back again from September.
“He had not arrived in international matches yet. It was a very close decision.
“If it was a 100-metre race, it would have been a photo finish.”
These words, taken in isolation, do not prove why the £37 million (Dh179.4m) signing from Schalke 04 in August 2016 will be sitting out this summer’s major event. This is how Low came to his decision.
SANE’S STRONG CASE
It’s only fair to outline at this point just how exceptional Sane’s 2017/18 was.
His 15 assists from 32 run-outs put him just one behind colleague Kevin De Bruyne as the top creator in the English top flight. Indeed, the Belgium attacking midfielder was the only performer in Europe’s top-five leagues to tee up more.
Spain wizard and club-mate David Silva has long been considered the division’s leading creative force – he registered four fewer.
The addition of an impressive tally of 10 strikes means there will be no surprise to learn this was by far the most productive league campaign of his fledgling career.
To detail the startling jump in output from his debut season at Etihad Stadium in 2016/17, his goal count doubled (from five) and he set-up five-times more (from three) via only six fewer appearances.
On numbers alone, there is only one winner when contrasted with Brandt.
Sane’s fellow 22-year-old played 34 times in the Bundesliga for his fifth-placed employers.
From two more games than Sane, but 86 fewer minutes, he produced one less goal (nine) and 12 less assists (three).
Sane’s minutes per goal or assist in the Premier League was 96.9. For Brandt, this more than doubles to 194.8.
Why then did the former Wolfsburg youth product get the nod from Low?
CENTRE OF THE ISSUE
Sane has wreaked havoc at Man City by hugging the left touchline, getting 15 assists and six goals from that position in 29 2017/18 Champions League or Premier League appearances.
Enlightened club head coach Pep Guardiola decided his unrelenting pace and dribbling skills at speed would be best utilised away from the middle ground in his usual 4-3-3 formation.
At international level, no such individual accommodation exists.
In the 4-2-3-1 utilised by Low, pure wingers do not exist. They transform into forwards, tasked with cutting inside and providing link-up options with a central striker – most probably RB Leipzig’s Timo Werner.
Brandt, Borussia Dortmund’s resurgent Marco Reus, Bayern Munich’s Thomas Muller and Paris Saint-Germain’s Julian Draxler regularly play this way at club level and will be expected to do the same for their country.
But when the space gets constricted, so does Sane’s output. His touch becomes uncertain under pressure, especially with his back to goal.
A final cameo for a World Cup spot came in Saturday’s 2-1 friendly defeat at Austria. He was hooked after 67 ineffective minutes for Reus, an attacker perfectly familiar with the demands of Low’s deployment.
All of Sane’s senior international caps have been won during the current regime. He is currently scoreless in 12 matches, getting just one assist for Bayern-bound Leon Goretzska during October’s 5-1 competitive routing of Azerbaijan.
Only 114 minutes were handed to Sane during Die Mannschaft’s charge to a perfect 30-point haul from qualifying.
Germany are now experiencing an unexpected five-match winless run in preparatory matches.
Sane started three of these (England 0-0 Germany, Germany 0-1 Brazil, Austria 2-1 Germany), came on as a substitute in another (Germany 1-1 Spain) and remained on the bench for one more (Germany 2-2 France). He featured for 237 of the available 450 minutes in this frustrating period, not even contributing an assist.
GERMANY’S SHOW OF STRENGTH
In fairness to Sane, only Muller – deployed on the right flank – managed to score during this fallow period.
His equaliser in March’s warm-up against Spain makes him stand alone among the other wide forwards who will make the trip to Russia. Reus, Brandt and Draxler contributed neither a goal or an assist.
But Low holds the belief that his way of playing is alien to Sane, and familiar to the others. The City man has been handed ample recent opportunity to show he can fit these parameters – and failed.
Germany’s talent pool is so deep that a player can be adjudged superfluous who would be in the top-three performers for most other nations.
Regardless of their current travails, this is an ominous message for all other contenders in Russia.