A SETTLED SIDE
Luiz Felipe Scolari has known his starting XI for Thursday’s World Cup opener for over a year. Barring injuries, the eleven names were always going to be Julio Cesar, Daniel Alves, David Luiz, Thiago Silva, Marcelo, Paulinho, Luiz Gustavo, Hulk, Oscar, Neymar and Fred. It’s the side he played while winning the Confederations Cup last year, and he hasn’t budged from it.
For Scolari, familiarity is the most important thing, and he’s overlooked a couple of dodgy club seasons – Julio Cesar and Paulinho, in particular – because he trusts the relationships between the players from last year. It’s amazing that Brazil have such a settled side considering the lack of competitive matches under Scolari, and he must be given immense credit for creating such a cohesive, well-drilled unit.
The World Cup hosts always overachieve, and the home support for Brazil is likely to be outstanding. Although protests dominated the headlines at the Confederations Cup a year ago, inside the stadiums there was nothing but huge support for the national side. The singing of the Brazilian national anthem will be spectacular – the way the music stops midway through, and the crowd take over acapella, is sensational.
But unlike some other World Cups, there’s a clear advantage from a climatic point of view, too. Some sides will struggle with the heat and humidity of Brazil, but those playing on home soil should be completely unaffected.
It’s also worth pointing out that, by playing the opening game as hosts, Brazil have the best schedule of any other side. They actually play their second match before two other teams, Russia and South Korea, have played their first. Should Brazil meet Russia in the final, they’ll have played seven matches in 32 days, Russia seven matches in just 27 days.
Recent World Cup winners have always boasted excellent full-backs: Lillian Thuram and Bixente Lizarazu, Cafu and Roberto Carlos, Fabio Grosso and Gianluca Zambrotta, Sergio Ramos and Joan Capdevila.
This time around, lots of teams are struggling in the full-back positions, with left-back a particular worry. Italy don’t really have a left-back, Argentina’s Marcos Rojo is a weak link, Germany have a problem on both sides, and Belgium are simply playing two centre-backs shoved into wide areas.
But Brazil possess two very fine attacking players in those positions, with Daniel Alves still flying forward and making late, unseen runs when the ball is on the left flank. Marcelo, too, performs better for the national side than for Real Madrid, and is capable of good possession play and well-timed runs. The spirit of Carlos Alberto is alive and well.
There aren’t many world-class centre-backs in world football at the moment. It’s difficult to say precisely why, but a combination of stricter laws on tackling, and more protection from defensive midfielders, mean centre-backs simply shine less often. They’re less spectacular, and less noticeable.
But Thiago Silva is the best in the world. Although he had a relatively underwhelming campaign at PSG by his standards, he’s a brilliant all-rounder – a calm tackler, dominant in the air, quick across the ground and capable of bringing the ball out from the back too.
There are still some concerns about David Luiz, although he’s more reserved for Brazil than for Chelsea. But Silva is a brilliant footballer, will keep the defence tight – and don’t rule out a headed winner from a corner in the latter stages.
Brazil are famed for playing beautiful football, but watch any Brazilian club game, and you’ll be shocked at the physicality, the aggression, the fouling and the dirtiness. Brazilians don’t grow up playing nutmegs on the Copacabana, they grow up being kicked by nasty defenders, who often aren’t punished properly by the referee.
Almost every player in the Brazil side is extremely physical. There are obvious hardmen, like Thiago Silva and Fred, but even the smaller players are capable of scrapping. Neymar isn’t a showpony that hates defending, he tracks back and tackles his man. Oscar is a great playmaker, but is a tough marker too. Hulk is a wide forward, but astonishingly powerful figure. The midfielders aren’t playmakers, they’re scrappers and workers.
Brazil know how to play great football, but they know how to win ugly too – and that might be what is required.
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