There is light at the end of the tunnel following Brazil's 2-1 victory over Venezuela. The Brazilian press, well known for hyperbolic reactions to any performance that is seen as less than dazzling by their national side, cannot doubt the open mindedness of their part-time archenemy, Dunga.
Close to a year ago, Brazil were left without Neymar for a World Cup semi-final against eventual world champions Germany. Then-coach Luiz Felipe Scolari opted for the piece that best fit his well-established puzzle—the 4-2-3-1 that had served him so well at the Confederations Cup—but was clearly failing to bear the same fruit 12 months down the line.
This time around, Dunga has been dealt the same hand. Once again, Brazil must cope without their "craque."
Unlike Felipao, however, Dunga has devised a plan to structure a side without its talisman. Robinho, the most experienced outfield player in the Copa America squad, started his first game of the tournament and dealt with the responsibility admirably.
He is a tried-and-tested weapon for Dunga, previously part of a venomous attacking partnership alongside Luis Fabiano from his first spell as Selecao boss. The pair plundered more than 40 goals during that era, but now the Santos forward’s role has altered dramatically.
There seems to be a part of Robinho that will always be the kid, the boy wonder with bags of talent whose potential was never quite realised. On Sunday there was clear evidence the boy has grown up.
He worked for the team, running, dropping back and distributing the ball with pace and precision. Furthermore, it was from his corner that Thiago Silva hit a sweet volley any centre forward would have been proud of to break the deadlock early on and settle a few Brazilian nerves.
If Robinho is now ready to step into the shoes of the leader, then Philippe Coutinho is the next big thing off the international production line. And with Neymar now set to leave Brazil’s base in Chile—the Brazilian Football Confederation having given up on their attempt to have the player’s four-game ban reduced, as reported by Globo Esporte (link in Portuguese)—the scene could be set for the Liverpool playmaker to make his grand announcement to the international stage.
Playing alongside the industrious Willian, who has the lungs of an enthusiastic Energizer bunny, Coutinho is given a secure mantle in which to dribble, probe, create and get forward.
Despite Neymar’s heroics in the Copa America opener against Peru, where he scored the equaliser and thread the ball through the eye of a needle to set up the winner for Douglas Costa, Willian and Coutinho have been the side’s best players since the squad was called together for the preparatory friendlies against Mexico and Honduras.
What became evident in the first two games of the continental competition was the lack of balance in the midfield. The decision to play Fernandinho in the purely holding role was not entirely successful, and full credit must go to Dunga for attempting to put that right.
David Luiz is an able deputy, as he demonstrated during his days at Stamford Bridge. In addition, Dani Alves also showed himself capable of performing in front of the back four, allowing the young Marquinhos to deputise at right-back.
Whatever Dunga decides to do, he at least has the luxury of time on his side. Following Sunday evening’s win over Venezuela, the Selecao are not back in action until Saturday.
That gives the boss and his training staff close to a full week to plan and scheme ahead of the tie against Paraguay, who have already demonstrated a valiant team spirit in fighting back from two goals down to snatch a draw against Argentina in their opening game.
But Dunga, not to mention the Brazilian public, should be encouraged by the strength in depth that has been exhibited by this squad. Several players have been lost during preparation and tournament play; Oscar didn’t even make the initial squad, but since then Danilo, Marcelo, Luiz Gustavo and now Neymar have all been cut, forcing the manager to adjust, shuffle and find a way to make it work with the pieces available at his disposal.
So far, it has not been pretty, but enough has been done. To be frank, at this stage in Brazilian football’s post-World Cup renaissance it is unrealistic to ask for more.
Brazil are two games away from a final and have shown there is life without Neymar. Surely, for now at the very least, that is a sufficient source of pride.