Neymar Can Lead Brazilian Selecao to World Cup Glory in 2014
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The last few months have been some of the most positive in the Brazilian national team's recent memory. In June the side lifted their third successive Confederations Cup crown, and last week saw two emphatic victories over Australia and Portugal.
The wave of euphoria follows two years of discontent; elimination at the hands of Paraguay in the 2011 Copa America and that disastrous Olympic final last year, when Brazil never managed to recover from going a goal down inside 30 seconds against Mexico, spelt the end for coach Mano Menezes.
Menezes was finally given his marching orders in November 2012 having never managed to defeat one of football's powerhouses—Argentina, France and Germany had all defeated the Selecao on his watch.
With Menezes never having been universally popular, the country was crying out for a fan favourite. In came Luiz Felipe Scolari, the last man to lead Brazil to the World Cup, with the daunting task of winning a sixth title on home soil.
The pressure on the team is enormous—anything other than lifting the trophy will be seen as failure—but one man will feel the pressure more than anyone.
21-year-old Neymar, who moved to Barcelona this summer for $50 million, is the current darling of the nation, the poster boy for the stylistic way Brazilians like to see their national side perform.
Under Scolari his role has been adapted slightly. It should be noted that Menezes laid a lot of the groundwork for Scolari's success, but where the two differed most lies in the offensive sector.
After eighteen months of experimenting the former coach finally settled on a flexible 4-2-4 formation. Not satisfied with his options at centre forward he went for a floating front four who roamed and swapped position at will, usually led by the experienced Ronaldinho or Kaka.
Scolari prefers to work with a fixed central striker in either a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3, pushing Neymar out to the left flank. Now, instead of tying to plough his way through the middle of the park against burly central defenders, Brazil's new idol can use his position on the left flank to cut in and cause damage.
He demonstrated the danger his new position allows perfectly on Tuesday night. Picking up the ball, his powerful run took him past four defenders before he found the far corner to give Brazil the lead.
Not only has he started scoring goals on a regular basis—he has nine in 15 since Scolari took over ten months ago—he has finally begun to stand up to some of the heavyweight treatment dished out to him in international football.
There's a famous story told in Brazil of Neymar's first classico for Santos against Corinthians. Neymar, then 17, was already building a reputation as the next big thing off the seemingly never ending factory line of Brazilian potential.
The Corinthians defence was merciless, intimidating the teenager and treating him like a caged lion's plaything. He was anonymous in a 1-0 defeat for his side.
Fast forward four years to Tuesday night. Bruno Alves and Pepe, at the heart of the Portuguese defence, decided to adopt similar tactics to deal with the threat posed by the Barcelona forward. The result was far from anonymous.
Thigo Silva equalised from Neymar's corner before the number 10 scored the second and started the move which ended in the third. He has grown in stature and can now deal with the bully boys.
Prior to the 2010 World Cup, Pele publicly led the calls to include Neymar, then 18, in the 23-man squad. Dunga sensibly resisted. Neymar was playing well for Santos but to perform in football's biggest tournament at such a tender age is a completely different concept.
It is arguable he would have wilted in the face of savage treatment from the opposition. Four years down the line he has the experience and maturity to deal with such a situation.
All World Cup winning Brazilian sides have had a craque, the Portuguese for ace, or what can be loosely translated as “match winner”. The 1958 and 1962 sides had Garrincha, in 1970 Pele, 1994 Romario and 2002 Ronaldo.
Next year the hopes and expectations of 170 million people will be heaped on one slim boy's shoulders. His elevation on both the domestic and international scene has shown he can be the craque.
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