Reliance in Russia: Neymar/Group E

Group E: Brazil no longer a one-man force

The sight of a healthy Neymar is a boost for Brazil. But the five-time world champions have lost none of their attacking verve even without their talisman.
The sight of a healthy Neymar is a boost for Brazil. But the five-time world champions have lost none of their attacking verve even without their talisman.PHOTO: REUTERS

A fit Neymar is key but Tite's side are solid in defence and fluid in attack even without him

It was a canary-gold jersey that David Luiz and Julio Cesar held up together as the Brazil national anthem was sung with fiery passion in Belo Horizonte, but that shirt turned out to be a symbol of the Selecao's weakness - a white flag.

It was the 2014 World Cup semi-final against Germany and, in tribute to their injured talisman, the pair held up Neymar's No. 10 shirt.

That day, their over-reliance on Neymar was all too obvious. In his absence, they were unimaginative, placid and ended the night in tears.

They were humiliated 7-1 in a defeat that slashed into the Brazilian psyche and, while it will be a different Brazil in Russia, it is a wound that remains open but healing.

Tite, 57, took over a struggling side midway through qualifying, and breathed new life into them.

Brazil were the first team to secure their spot, with performances that scream of new-found tactical balance.

 

Fluidity in attack was - and remains - a Brazilian trademark, but where the team were once disorganised, silly and even soft in defence, they are now solid.

With Barcelona's Paulinho, Real Madrid's Casemiro and Manchester City's Fernandinho, the midfield has an abundance of defensive ability. The trio have enjoyed good club seasons and will provide steady cover for a defensive unit featuring Miranda, Thiago Silva - whowas suspended during the German semi-final - and Marquinhos.

 

At the other end, Brazil have not lost any of their attacking verve.

City's Gabriel Jesus and Juventus wide man Douglas Costa are both in good form, and they are supported by a stellar cast that includes the wily Willian (Chelsea) and the silky Philippe Coutinho (Barcelona).

Where once Brazil depended on the mercurial Neymar, they can now look elsewhere for game changers. Jesus bagged seven goals during the qualifiers - one more than Neymar, with Paulinho (six), Coutinho and Willian (both four) also scoring.

Roberto Firmino is one big reason the new Brazil do not have to rely on Neymar any more.

  • Brazil

    KEY MAN: NEYMAR
    The fantastic and sometimes frustrating talisman's surgery on a broken metatarsal in March means that his fitness, and effectiveness, could be suspect against Switzerland in their opener. He can make the Russia World Cup his own, but the question is, will he be 100 per cent ready?

    MANAGER: Tite

    WORLD CUP FINALS: 21

    BEST RESULT: Winners (1958, 1962, 1970, 1994, 2002)

    2014 WORLD CUP: Fourth



    Switzerland

    KEY MAN: XHERDAN SHAQIRI

    He has been dubbed "The Alpine Messi", but the 26-year-old winger's eight goals and seven assists failed to save Stoke City from relegation from the English Premier League last season. But his ability to conjure moments of magic on his day could prove to be the difference between progress or an exit at the group stage.

    MANAGER: Vladimir Petkovic

    WORLD CUP FINALS: 11

    BEST RESULT: Quarter-finals (1934, 1938, 1954)

    2014 WORLD CUP: Last 16



    Costa Rica

    KEY MAN: KEYLOR NAVAS

    The goalkeeper came under scrutiny last season for a series of errors, leading the Spanish media to speculate on his Real Madrid future. But, since taking over Real legend Iker Casillas in goal, the 31-year-old has shown he is an excellent shot-stopper on his day, and Costa Rica will be counting on him to repel the likes of Neymar.

    MANAGER: Oscar Ramirez

    WORLD CUP FINALS: 5

    BEST RESULT: Quarter-finals (2014)

    2014 WORLD CUP: Quarter-finals



    Serbia

    KEY MAN: NEMANJA MATIC

    Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho sees the defensive midfielder as one of his most important players, and it is not difficult to see why. The 29-year-old dictates the pace in the engine room and snuffs out attacking moves. He can also be effective going forward and that could be key.

    MANAGER: Mladen Krstajic

    WORLD CUP FINALS: 12 (10 as Yugoslavia, and Serbia and Montenegro)

    BEST RESULT: Fourth (1930, 1962)

    2014 WORLD CUP: Did not qualify


    KEY MATCH

    Brazil v Switzerland (June 18, 2am)

    DID YOU KNOW?

    Brazil are the only country to play in every edition of the World Cup, 21 including Russia. While they have won the World Cup a record five times, the samba boys also hold a more dubious record for most red cards (11), ahead of Argentina (10) and Uruguay (nine).

The Liverpool forward knows where the goal is, can create space and thread a pass, and is a willing contributor to defensive efforts.

Some believe the 26-year-old is a better fit than Neymar - a team player who epitomises Tite's balance of defensive discipline and incisive attacking play.

There is also the big question mark hanging over Neymar's involvement in Russia.

A broken metatarsal has sidelined the 26-year-old since Feb 26, but it is impossible to predict what kind of condition he will be in come their Group E opener against Switzerland on June 17.

The Swiss are among three teams who could all surprise. They are an organised side who managed, for more than 90 minutes, to stifle Lionel Messi at the last World Cup, and now have more experience under their belts.

Costa Rica are no pushovers either, with the safe hands of Real goalkeeper Keylor Navas and Joel Campbell in attack, they will look to match their shock quarter-final appearance at the last World Cup.

Serbia, who finished top of their qualifying group ahead of Ireland, Wales and Austria, have the solid Nemanja Matic marshalling their midfield, supported by the likes of Branislav Ivanovic and Aleksandar Kolarov.

They were booted out at the group stage of the 2006 and 2010 editions and did not qualify for the last tournament in Brazil. But it would be a mistake to underestimate the Serbs.

Brazil are not putting all their eggs in the Neymar basket this time, but they will go to Russia with the spectre of the 2014 massacre in Belo Horizonte still hanging over their heads.

Judging by the results and performances under Tite since he took charge in 2016, this balanced team will go some way towards exorcising those ghosts.


Talking points

HAVE BRAZIL'S MENTAL SCARS FROM 2014 HEALED?

Brazil have looked imperious in qualifying, winning 12 of their 18 games, but it was a friendly result in March that could prove the most significant. The Selecao beat Germany 1-0 in Berlin, and it was clear how much that match meant to them. Brazil were humiliated 7-1 by the same opponents before their home fans in 2014 and, while winning the World Cup in Russia can really put that ghost to rest, the football Tite has the team playing has clearly started the healing process.

CAN COSTA RICA DEFY EXPECTATIONS AGAIN?

Few gave Costa Rica a chance in a group featuring Uruguay, Italy and England in 2014, but they shocked the world by finishing above all three en route to a quarter-final showing in Brazil. With 12 of their 23-man squad having first-hand experience from 2014, and goalkeeper Keylor Navas providing a safe pair of hands in goal, La Tricolor will again prove a tough nut to crack.

ARE SWITZERLAND REACHING THEIR PEAK?

Switzerland pushed Argentina into extra time before yielding 1-0 to Lionel Messi and Co in the last 16 in 2014. Eleven men who pulled on a shirt that day could start in Russia, and that experience should serve Vladimir Petkovic's men well. With a core group, including Xherdan Shaqiri, Granit Xhaka and Fabian Schar, in their mid-20s and reaching the peak of their careers, this Swiss side may do better than they did in Brazil.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 03, 2018, with the headline 'Brazil no longer a one-man force'. Print Edition | Subscribe