Neymar-less Brazil intend to lay down Moscow marker

Paris Saint-Germain's Brazilian forward Neymar Jr looks on during the French Ligue 1 football match between Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) and Strasbourg at The Stade de France in Saint-Denis, north of Paris on Feb 17, 2018.
Paris Saint-Germain's Brazilian forward Neymar Jr looks on during the French Ligue 1 football match between Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) and Strasbourg at The Stade de France in Saint-Denis, north of Paris on Feb 17, 2018.PHOTO: AFP

MOSCOW • Training between mounds of snow without the injured Neymar, Brazil may be forgiven for feeling out of their element as they prepare to face hosts Russia in their World Cup warm-up friendly today.

The most expensive footballer in the world is back home, celebrating his sister's birthday with his right foot in a protective boot following surgery. A win today at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow will give the Selecao a boost in their bid to reach the final and lift a record sixth World Cup trophy at the same venue on July 15.

Coach Tite has been rebuilding the team after the unmitigated disaster of their 7-1 drubbing on home soil back in 2014 by eventual champions Germany, whom Brazil play on Tuesday.

That fateful World Cup semi-final four years ago was similarly played without an injured Neymar and now, as then, Brazil look vulnerable without their 26-year-old talisman.

But Tite is putting up a brave front. "Neymar is a different player. He is one of the top three in the world," he said. "But a strong team should not depend on specific names."

Without the Paris Saint-Germain forward, Tite is entrusting the left wing to the in-form Douglas Costa.

The 27-year-old Juventus winger is in the prime of his career after spending much of it tucked away in Ukraine playing for Shakhtar Donetsk.

Costa has found the net only three times in 22 appearances for Brazil but he is determined to grab the opportunity with both hands.

"Replacing Neymar is an enormous challenge but we have a lot of class acts on the team who have big potential," said Costa. "Neymar's absence gives the other players a chance to show themselves, to show their best sides."

Costa will be paired up front with Chelsea forward Willian and Gabriel Jesus, who has scored 11 times in all competitions for Manchester City this season.

Tite has a dizzying array of options at his disposal and Real Madrid midfielder Casemiro may have put it most succinctly when contemplating the effect of such strong internal competition.

"I do not want to lose my place to anyone," said Casemiro. "I want to play for my country, play in all the matches and I am ready to show my best in training to do it."

Despite the Neymar-sized hole in attack, and the temperature hovering around -9 deg C, Brazil are hoping to lay down a marker ahead of the June 14-July 15 Finals.

"We will be playing in the stadium that will host the final, and we want to leave a wish," added Casemiro.

"We want to come back here in the summer and try to win the title."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 23, 2018, with the headline 'Neymar-less Brazil intend to lay down Moscow marker'. Print Edition | Subscribe