This World Cup has been one of intense emotion for Brazil, and the photograph that chronicled Neymar’s exit from the party was more arresting than most of injured players taking their leave. There was no apologetically hobbling across on an indistinct car park on crutches for him.
Instead, the 22-year-old was shown leaving the Selecao’s Teresopolis training camp in a helicopter, like Charlie Sheen at the end of Platoon. Immobilised on a stretcher, Neymar managed a half-hearted wave (see photo below). Like Sheen’s exit from the battlefield in Oliver Stone’s 1986 film, the image carried with it a sense of denouement.
Nobody is in any doubt what a grave blow this is for Brazil’s World Cup chances, even taking into account the character and nerve they have shown to overcome their myriad shortcomings to date. For this not to be the end of the dream, a replacement of some substance is required.
Step forward, Willian Borges da Silva. The 25-year-old will never have the profile or affection that Neymar enjoys in his home nation, but he has the resolve as well as the talent to fill the gap short term, as he has shown in the last year.
As Ben Rumsby wrote for The Telegraph at the time, many suspected that Jose Mourinho was merely signing Willian from Anzhi Makhachkala just to spike the plans of Andre Villas-Boas and Tottenham last summer. The player’s fine form at Stamford Bridge means that theory is now rarely repeated, even if there is little doubt that Mourinho enjoyed the inconvenience the saga caused his former sidekick.
If his subsequent form for Chelsea changed perceptions of the transfer, it also affected the way we looked at the player himself. Willian had shone for an increasingly impressive Shakhtar Donetsk side before his move to Dagestan (none more so than in his fabulous performance in Shakhtar’s Champions League recital at Stamford Bridge in December of 2012), but only sporadically.
When Willian chose to join Anzhi, Shakhtar coach Mircea Lucescu made his disappointment clear, but it was not as if his team had their heart ripped out. He was a good player but no essential element. He was not Fernandinho, nor Darijo Srna.
So his emergence as a workaholic team man, and the diametric opposite of a luxury player, at Stamford Bridge has been a revelation to many. The shift he put in during the Champions League semi-final first leg (while overshadowed by Chelsea’s eventual defeat in the return), almost as an auxiliary left-back at Atletico Madrid, personified his industry.
As well as maximising Willian’s potential, this workrate leaves him very much on message within this current Brazil team. The frenzied first-half display against Colombia showed just how keenly Brazil will contest every ball from now until the tournament’s end. Willian fits right into that.
We shouldn’t forget about the main reason Willian is the man to step in for Neymar, though—his craft. In 2013/14, only Eden Hazard made key passes for Chelsea as frequently as him. They both averaged 2.6 per Premier League game (as shown here by WhoScored).
Bernard is another potential candidate to fill the void, but he had a tentative first season in Europe with Shakhtar, and he lacks Willian’s power. There is only one real choice, and Willian is the man for the occasion.
Luiz Felipe Scolari and Mourinho are more alike than many would admit; experts at stirring the emotions and dedicated to getting results over any aesthetic concerns. The former will hope Willian can do for him what he managed for the latter.