The countdown to the start of the World Cup is beginning to tick ever louder and, for the 16 doubtless nervous head coaches set to attend the tournament, crunch time is now just a handful of months away.
Their reputations depend upon the results of, in some cases, just three matches and for no one is that more the case than 2002 World Cup winning manager Luiz Felipe Scolari, who has the unenviable task of ensuring Brazil come away from the tournament with a sixth success to their name.
The Selecao have only entered the tournaments as host nation on one previous occasion, in 1950, when a shock defeat to Uruguay in the final ensured they would have to wait a further eight years for their first global crown. It was a defeat, the “Maracanazo”, which would live long in the country’s memory and, in the case of unfortunate goalkeeper Batista, define careers.
Scolari, then, has little margin for error and his side’s success at the Confederations Cup last summer has only added to the expectation that a Brazil win at the tournament will likely be forthcoming. Early defeat would once more provoke much soul-searching and repercussions.
Forming the Squad
The 23 spaces in Brazil’s squad, then, must not be wasted. Three goalkeepers will be named, as per FIFA requirements, and then 20 players will provide options for the remaining 10 starting roles. While it may seem a simple case of two players for each position, that is not always the best use of available resources.
Eight of those spots will likely be occupied by defenders, with cover for both full-backs a necessity. One space could be gained, if there were suitable candidates to cover two roles, but Brazil has no standout option to fulfil such a role at present.
Two specialist defensive midfielders in Luiz Gustavo and Lucas Leiva will likely follow, along with Paulinho, Ramires and Hernanes as options for the second place in midfield meaning that 13 of the 20 outfield squad places are occupied before attacking players are even considered.
If fit, Fred, Jo, Oscar, Neymar and Hulk would appear to be certainties to make Scolari’s final squad at present, leaving two berths likely to be filled by attacking midfielders. The thinking will be that Neymar and Hulk, if required, could operate as central strikers.
In-form Chelsea star Willian is almost certain to be one of those chosen, having forced his way into the setup of late, leaving Robinho, Bernard, Lucas Moura and, my personal preference Philippe Coutinho to fight for one berth. There is the potential for one more inclusion if a defensive space can be saved or if either Hernanes or Ramires were to find themselves sacrificed.
It would appear as though Bernard has been the most prominent in the thinking of Scolari over recent months, while Robinho made a somewhat surprising return to the team for the most recent set of friendly fixtures in December. Lucas, meanwhile, has seen too many mediocre showings for Brazil impact upon his chances.
Coutinho, uncapped since making his debut in 2011, is undoubtedly the outside bet of the pack. However, could the Anfield-based playmaker be the wild card Felipao needs to see his side to success?
Why Coutinho Must be Included
The final attacking selection is, in theory, the most unlikely to be used and, therefore, it is worth considering somebody a bit different to fill the berth.
Admittedly, Bernard, Willian and Hulk are very different players stylistically, yet the trio would likely find themselves used in a very similar manner by Scolari within his preferred 4-2-3-1 system. The same applies for Robinho, while the potential of Lucas to play a more orthodox right-wing role makes him the only player of the group with something a bit different to his game.
Assuming, as discussed, Willian and Hulk are chosen for inclusion, they will be Scolari’s preferred choice of impact substitutes, providing pace and directness in very different manners from wide attacking midfield roles.
The question, then, is whether to turn to Lucas or Coutinho for the je ne sais quoi that none of the others provide. Lucas offers blistering pace and the ability to get to the byline. Coutinho, meanwhile, would be the only natural No. 10 alternative should any misfortune occur to Oscar. It is that argument that should swing the debate in his favour.
The former Vasco and Inter Milan star has been excellent since arriving in Liverpool last January and would surely have been included by now had it not been for an unfortunate injury suffered earlier this campaign at the hands of Swansea defender Ashley Williams.
While there are parts of his game that are still not up to the level of the likes of Oscar or Neymar, he possesses an innate ability to produce a game-changing contribution that not all those mentioned can boast.
His finishing, in particular, has been called into question of late after some notable misses in recent outings for Liverpool. Having tracked his career from early on, though, it is not a part of his game that is a long-standing weakness and, instead, will likely be rectified with the increased confidence that a goal would bring.
His lack of goals, though, has not affected his overall contribution, with Coutinho among the best in the Premier League for creating chances and dribbling past opponents per WhoScored.
He is a raw talent, but one who has enough ability to influence games at the highest level—as shown by his success in the often physical world of English football.
He has a history of playing alongside both Neymar and Oscar, the latter of whom he won the Under-20 World Cup with in 2011, which would help him settle quickly into the attacking unit and would benefit immensely just from the experience of having attended the event.
The time has come for Scolari to be bold and consider which players have the innate ability to help the Selecao turn a game when their backs are against the ropes. It is better to use the final couple of places on such a player than on somebody who is simply there to make up the numbers.
He must opt for a talent with the ability to conjure up an opportunity when the pressure is on and it is for that reason that he should turn to a player of Coutinho's ilk.
While he may lack experience internationally, he is a player who is never more than a moment from creating an opportunity—as his statistics show—and, just maybe, it is that lack of past scars that will enable him to play without the inhibition of fear when the time comes.
The 23rd squad place has often been used by Brazil to offer experience to youth, as happened with Ronaldo in 1994 and Kaka in 2002.
Coutinho is further on in his development than either of that duo and ready to contribute with immediate effect.
Rather than someone like Robinho sit on the bench for the entire tournament, having done nothing for the national side since the era of Dunga, Coutinho is the correct choice for both the long and short term.
A strong end to the season in England and it will be a choice made easy for Scolari and his management team.