Predicting Brazil's Starting XI for the Opening Match of World Cup 2014
Following his appointment as head coach of the Brazilian national team last week, Luis Felipe Scolari told reporters that he hopes to have his team for the 2014 World Cup 90 percent defined by the end of 2013.
Predicting that lineup presents obvious difficulties—we don't know what direction Felipão will choose to take the squad in over the next 18 months, or which players will be in form further down the line.
However, from the experienced manager's past record and initial press conferences, it is possible to make some early predictions about which players he may give preference.
So, who could line up for Brazil come the opening game of the World Cup?
There may be no outstanding candidate in goal, but Scolari is at least in the fortunate position of having a selection of very good players to choose from.
Previous manager Mano Menezes had eventually settled upon Valencia's Diego Alves, but his place is far from secure with a host of competitors both inside and outside of Brazil.
Domestically, Fluminense's Diego Cavalieri has been one of the players of the season, while Botafogo's Jefferson has been a regular presence in Brazil squad's for some time. Both are strong candidates.
Santos' Rafael is thought to be a potential long-term No. 1, with 2014 possibly too soon, while Corinthians' Cassio, Cruzeiro's Fabio and Atlético-MG's Victor will all compete for squad places, even if they are unlikely to be granted a starting place.
In Europe, meanwhile, Diego Alves' main competition is likely to come from a rejuvenated Julio Cesar, who has started his QPR career with plenty of shot-stopping practice and shown his immense aerial presence. Scolari is known for his preference of experience, and if Cesar's form continues, 2014 is still a distinct possibility.
Prediction: Diego Alves to start, unless Julio Cesar mounts a late challenge.
Mano Menezes was deprived of his first-choice defensive lineup in the latter days of his reign as Brazil manager, with both Barcelona's Dani Alves and Real Madrid's Marcelo suffering injuries in the early stages of this season.
Both, though, are unlikely to lose their places anytime soon.
So who could compete for squad spaces? The recent form of Manchester United's Rafael suggests he will compete for the backup role on the right, with Porto's Danilo the other candidate. Dani Alves, though, is young enough to suggest he should hold off competition until the World Cup at least.
On the other side, Marcelo is the undisputed first choice, leaving Alex Sandro, Adriano and, hopefully, Atlético Madrid's excellent Filipe Luís to dispute for a place in the squad.
Filipe has been neglected thus far by Brazil managers, but his form in La Liga is deserving of a chance.
Prediction: Daniel Alves and Marcelo to continue in the hot seat.
It is unlikely that Felipão will look to tamper with what has been a settled back four since Marcelo's recall following the 2011 Copa America—meaning that captain Thiago Silva and David Luiz will continue as a pair for now.
The duo have generally been excellent together for Brazil and, for that fact, deserve the chance to further solidify their partnership regardless of Luiz's inconsistent form at Chelsea.
He will, though, face a challenge for his position should mistakes creep in at international level.
Vasco defender Dedé is hot on the duo's heels and, despite an injury hit 2012, could challenge the Chelsea man for his place should he regain form in 2013—either in Brazil or Europe.
Elsewhere, Réver was the star defender of the 2013 domestic season in Brazil, while Roma's Leandro Castán has also earned recent call-ups, meaning the duo will likely fight it out for the fourth centre-back spot.
One player unlikely to make 2014, though, is 18-year-old Roma centre-back Marquinhos, who has outshone Castán in Italy this season but will likely be considered too young.
Prediction: Thiago Silva and David Luiz, with Dedé keeping them honest.
Mano Menezes finished his reign with a midfield combination of Ramires and Paulinho, two box-to-box players, and their partnership showed signs of early success.
However, there are nagging doubts over the suitability of the pairing versus better opposition and Scolari has shown a preference for a more traditional defensive midfielder in his previous sides.
A year ago Liverpool's Lucas Leiva would have been one of the first names on the team sheet. However, due to his injury nightmare, Tottenham's Sandro was been handed his chance and may well be the leading candidate for that role, particularly following his recent impressive club form.
Paulinho has been the in-form player of the box-to-box duo and in that respect should be given preference, but Ramires' greater experience cannot be understated ahead of such an important tournament.
Shakhtar's Fernandinho, Santos' Arouca and Spartak's Rômulo are also outside bets for squad places after recent spells in the side.
Prediction: Sandro to be joined by either Paulinho or Ramires.
This is where the team becomes truly hard to predict and, until Felipão names his first squad, no one can say with any great conviction.
Instinct tells me that Oscar or Ganso will play as a No. 10, dropping back to support the two central midfielders, with Lazio's Hernanes a further option for the role. Oscar is currently well ahead in the race, but the affection toward Ganso in Brazil should also not be underestimated.
Neymar will then almost certainly start from a left-sided starting position, leaving one more space open for consideration.
PSG-bound Lucas Moura could jump to the front of the queue with a good start in Paris, but that is far from a certainty—his youth may also count against him. It remains to be seen if Hulk will still be considered, while Willian's form at Shakhtar Donetsk may also see him given an opportunity to impress.
Tip: Watch out for rising stars Bernard (Atlético Mineiro) and Wellington Nem (Fluminense) coming up on the rails.
Prediction: Oscar, with Neymar and Lucas in more advanced wide roles. Don't rule out Robinho or Kaká if they are playing consistently, but it may be too late for Ronaldinho.
If attacking midfield will cause Scolari a selection headache whilst trying to find his best combination, it will be a pleasure compared to the challenge of deciding upon who should lead the line in 18 months time.
Mano Menezes wanted Pato, but the Milan star has proven to be too brittle to rely upon with conviction. Leandro Damião then came into the side with a fine scoring record at club level, but doubts still remain about his all-around game. Is he good enough with his back to goal?
Elsewhere, Fred was the top scorer in the Brazilian championship this season and has earned a recall to the national side, but he is yet another player with a big question mark next to his name at the top level.
Luis Fabiano, by contrast, has an excellent record and has had a good season, but has been unable to string together a run of games. Besides playing Hulk up front or a call-up for Valencia's Jonas, Scolari has few other options.
The new coach has stressed his desire to play with a No. 9, rather than the "false nine" that was implemented by Menezes in recent encounters. Indeed, if Pato could stay fit, there would be little debate over the issue.
At the moment, though, it is very difficult to see which way Scolari will turn.
Prediction: A complete unknown just 18 months ahead of the tournament.