Brazil Selecao Take One More Step to World Cup Glory Against Korea and Zambia
Brazil are finding their rhythm as coach Luiz Felipe Scolari defines his squad for the World Cup next year.
Following resounding victories last month against Australia and Portugal, the Selecao Brasileira traveled to Asia for friendlies against South Korea and Zambia. They head home having recorded two straightforward victories, scoring four goals and conceding none.
Neymar is increasingly becoming the focal point of Scolari's balanced Brazilian side. Just as Portugal had done in Boston, he was the target of repeated fouls and a distinct lack of fair play from both sets of opposition defences.
Against Korea, the Barcelona frontman was fouled on 12 occasions but refused to let the intimidation get to him. Instead, he responded the way he knows best.
On the stroke of half-time, he curled a free-kick into the top corner of the net, and Brazil were on their way. Oscar's goal early in the second half ended the match as a contest, and Scolari could breathe easy as he continued to test players who have approached these games with complete dedication.
With so few FIFA dates until final squads must be named, every player is treating each game as an audition. Against South Korea, Scolari went with the strongest side he had at his disposal.
In Beijing three days later, a far more mixed line-up took to the field.
In came Diego Cavalieri, Dede, Maxwell, Lucas Leiva, Lucas Moura and Alexandre Pato. In a 4-3-3 formation, it was the ever-improving Neymar who again provided the most threat, whilst Pato was a distinct disappointment.
At times the ball seemed to be consciously avoiding him as the former AC Milan striker continues to struggle for form. When fit, he offers Brazil far more varied options than the more static Fred or Jo, but until he finds form, Brazil are better equipped with a more reliable goal source.
Zambia "parked the bus" to borrow a phrase from a well-known Premier League manager and the defence was left with very little to do. With Ramires paired with Paulinho in the centre of midfield, the Selecao poked and probed but found their opposition stubborn to break down.
Brazil huffed and puffed and finally broke the Zambia house down on 59 minutes when Oscar's long-range shot took a wicked deflection to loop beyond Mweene. But it was only with the entrance of a trio of Scolari regulars that they managed to go ahead.
At the interval, Pato, Lucas Moura and Ramires had made way for Jo, Oscar and Hulk, and the deadlock was broken.
With limited time together, it would have been more prudent to allow fringe players more minutes together. Scolari chased a result and got it.
But there are no prizes for beating Zambia. Those will only come next year when seven games in 30 days will require the efforts of a squad rather than a first team.
Big Phil is now in a position where the starters are virtually confirmed. Should he have everyone fit for the World Cup's opening match, his selection is likely to run as follows: Julio Cesar; Daniel Alves, Thiago Silva, David Luiz, Marcelo; Luiz Gustavo, Paulinho, Oscar; Hulk, Neymar, Fred.
The remaining positions to fill are squad players who could nevertheless play pivotal roles next year.
There are some doubts as to his third goalkeeper. Jefferson, who played against South Korea, will be the No. 2. But it was tough to assess Cavalieri as he had so little to do.
Three central defenders—Dede, Rever and Henrique—look to be competing for one spot, and Dede getting the nod today would indicate he is ahead in the race.
Likewise Lucas Leiva, Fernando of Shakhtar Donetsk and Tottenham's Sandro are all battling to be Brazil's second-choice holding midfielder, and if Sandro can forge a partnership at club level with Paulinho, he could make it his.
Further forward, Scolari has his biggest headache. At centre-forward, Jo is a like-for-like replacement for Fred and has earned high praise for his performances in the yellow of Brazil.
Today was Pato's chance, and while it would be premature to conclude he blew it definitively, he did little to convince he can recapture his early promise of 2008 and 2009.
Scolari's decision to ignore Atletico Madrid's Diego Costa could turn into a huge blow if he does indeed opt to direct his loyalty towards his adopted Spain.
Two more victories from two more friendlies have given another confidence boost to Brazil. The first team is in excellent shape and can rule the world in July.
Scolari must hope there is no sting in the tail of his attacking forces.
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