Brazil's samba alive and kicking again

5-time Cup winners will be in Finals if results go their way, but Argentina face altitude test

MONTEVIDEO • A buoyant Brazil could book their place at the 2018 World Cup Finals today, while Argentina will attempt to give their qualifying tilt more breathing space against Bolivia.

After sinking into a long depression after the trauma of their humiliating 7-1 semi-final thrashing by Germany at the 2014 World Cup, Brazil have undergone a transformation since Tite took over as manager last year.

Tite, who was appointed after the debacle of the 2016 Copa America Centenario, when Brazil failed to qualify from the group stage, has overseen a record-breaking run of seven straight wins.

The latest of those victories came last Thursday, when Brazil destroyed Uruguay 4-1 in Montevideo.

That win marked a new record for Brazil in qualifiers, surpassing the six straight victories recorded by the fabled Pele-led team who went on to win the 1970 World Cup.

Brazil lead the South American group standings with 30 points from 13 games, while Uruguay are second with 23 points.

Brazil's Diego (left) and Neymar are all smiles at a training session before their 2018 World Cup qualifier against Paraguay. The Selecao can seal their place in Russia with a win over Paraguay, and if both Ecuador and Chile lose their respective gam
Brazil’s Diego (left) and Neymar are all smiles at a training session before their 2018 World Cup qualifier against Paraguay. The Selecao can seal their place in Russia with a win over Paraguay, and if both Ecuador and Chile lose their respective games. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

It is a far cry from the state of the table last September. When he took charge of his first qualifying game, Brazil were adrift in sixth spot, with only nine points from six games.

But today, if Brazil beat Paraguay in Sao Paulo, and both Ecuador and Chile lose their games, the five-time World Cup-winners will have secured their berth in Russia.

Tite, however, has attempted to check the optimism that has accompanied Brazil's revival, insisting that he is not a miracle-worker.

"If people want a perfect coach, they should look elsewhere, because at some point I'm going to make a mistake," he said.

Arguably, Tite's most significant achievement since taking charge is to make Brazil less reliant on Barcelona superstar Neymar. While Neymar has flourished under Tite - scoring five times in qualifying - the "Selecao" are now a more rounded attacking force.

Goals have arrived from all areas, with China-based midfielder Paulinho - one of the most maligned players of Brazil's ill-fated 2014 World Cup campaign - scoring a hat-trick against Uruguay.

However, the situation is anything but straightforward for the chasing pack. Argentina hauled themselves back into the qualifying places on Thursday with a tight 1-0 win over Chile and will attempt to build on that when they travel to La Paz today.

La Paz's Estadio Hernando Siles is situated 3,600m above sea level, and was the scene of an infamous 1-6 Argentina loss in the 2010 World Cup qualifiers, while during the 2014 World Cup qualifiers, they were held to a 1-1 draw.

Failure to beat Bolivia could see Argentina fall out of the automatic qualifying spots again if Colombia beat Ecuador away and Chile down basement-side Venezuela at home.

BRAZIL V PARAGUAY

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 28, 2017, with the headline 'Brazil's samba alive and kicking again'. Print Edition | Subscribe