2014 World Cup Previews, Group A: Brazil

By Mike Cardillo

Team: Brazil
Group: A
Schedule: June 12 vs. Croatia; June 17 vs. Mexico; June 23 vs. Cameroon
World Cup Record: 67-15-15 (Winners, 1958, 1962, 1970, 1994, 2002)
Qualifying Form: N/A

Manager: “Big Phil Scolari,” a man with a plan … and a mustache. To quote my father, a noted international soccer pundit/expert: “He looks like a coach.” Yep, dad, he can certainly do that considering he led Brazil to their fifth title in 2002.

Player to Watch: Neymar. It’s a rote pick, but he’s exciting and the new face of Brazilian soccer. The cameras are going to be pinned on him the entire tournament and there’s a serious chance he’ll proverbially undress an opponent at least once each match. The “home soil” advantage might not ring true to many players in the National Team since they’ve rarely played competitive matches on home soil over the last four years without needing to play qualifiers. Neymar is still barely a year removed from his Santos days, something to keep in mind.

One bit of caution with Neymar, via ESPN FC’s game log, he’s played in over 75 games since the start of 2013. Coming off his first season in Europe, one that included injuries, he might not be 100 percent.

Tactics/Style: You wouldn’t imagine it, but there was probably a lot tougher decisions for Scolari to make in defense as opposed to attack. The strength of the team lines in a seasoned back four of Marcelo, Thiago Silva, David Luiz and Dani Alves. That said, Alves is hardly the player he once was for Sevilla and Barcelona, while Luiz’s error-prone tendencies meant he lined up in the Chelsea midfield more often than not as the EPL season wore down. Some combination of Paulinho, Luiz Gustavo, Fernandinho and Ramires will shield the back four, leaving attacking duties to Neymar, Hulk and either Oscar or Bernard, interchanging across the final third of the field. Fred is the nominal striker and nothing more than a big, plodding finisher in the box. The genius of this Brazil lineup is the “defensive” midfielders are all quick, cover loads of ground and can spring — or finish — on the counter attack.

WAG of Note: Susana Werner was a former flame of Ronaldo and is now married to keeper Julio Cesar.

Reason to root for: Front-running is fun.

Reason to root against: Front-runners aren’t fun.

Odds of winning: 3-to-1

Miscellany: Between David Luiz, Jô and Willian, Brazil will have the biggest hair at the tournament. … Hulk’s given name is Givanildo Vieira de Souza, which might actually be better than his Marvel-inspired nickname. Maybe. … Brazil is likely going to start an MLS player — Julio Cesar (on loan at Toronto FC) — in goal. It’s a nice little nugget for MLS to trumpet, but more a product of Harry Redknapp’s laissez-faire spending at QPR than anything else. … At the 2010 World Cup, Brazil had one player from the Premier League, third-choice keeper Gomes who was on the books at Tottenham at the time. Four years later, the total is six, thanks in part to the Chelsea quartet or Luiz, Oscar, Willian and Ramires.

Memory Lane: Brazil last hosted a World Cup in 1950, when it lost in the final 2-1 to rival Uruguay at the Maracana. It’s one of the most-famous games in soccer lore. I’m going to link a clip of the game here, just to point out more than any other sport, soccer almost looks like something else entirely. This game might as well have taken place 200 years ago.

Something else to consider: The host nation have won six of the previous 19 World Cups, the last being France in 1998. Past results ultimately don’t mean squat once the ball is kicked, but perhaps we’re due a host-winner. Remember, since 1994, the United States, South Korea/Japan and South Africa hosted the tournament — all nations highly unlikely to win a title. Brazil, like Germany in 2006, has a realistic shot.

Where Have All the Brazilian Strikers Gone?: It wasn’t very long ago — 2006 — when Brazil’s biggest issue was trying to figure out how to play Ronaldo, Robinho and Adriano in the same lineup. The style of soccer worldwide has indeed changed since then, with a de-emphasis of the classic No. 9 striker toward more versatile attackers, of which Brazil has plenty. Perhaps this wouldn’t even be an issue had Diego Costa not switched his international allegiance from Brazil to Spain, but there is a glaring lack of top-level Brazilian strikers at the world’s best clubs in 2014, meaning only Fred and Jô — both playing domestically in Brazil — were tabbed by Scolari.

A case for a Brazil romp: A cynical view? Neymar gets every single call, falling over every time a mild breeze sweeps through the stadium and in turn Brazil is pretty much unstoppable, buoyed by a fevered home crowd.

A case against a Brazil romp: The draw didn’t do Brazil any favors after the group stage. Assuming it wins Group A it gets either Spain, the Netherlands or even a game Chile team familiar with them in the Round of 16. The quarterfinals could mean a game against either Germany or Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal (or the U.S. go go!) depending on which team places second in Group D. Beyond that, as we saw last summer, at the Confederations Cup not all Brazilians are overly thrilled about the World Cup coming to town. If there’s more protesting it could bog down the players with an unnecessary distraction.

Last word: Earlier this month, when Real Madrid knocked Bayern Munich to the curb in the Champions League semifinals, the European soccer press declared it the end of the “tika taka” system that had propelled the Spanish National Team and Barcelona (and Bayern under Pep Guardiola) to the top of the soccer world. In return, the latest en vogue system is a quick, athletic counter-attacking team. If that’s the case, Brazil is in good shape for the World Cup, given the team Scolari has built under his watch. While the Luiz-Thiago Silva defensive pairing might make a few mistakes, Brazil — if Neymar is at his best — have so much speed and quickness to break on the counter attack, they’ll just end up outscoring opponents. Given the state of defensive soccer in 2014, unless a team like Argentina or Portugal decides to park the Jose Mourinho bus against Brazil — and turn the match into a street fight — it’s hard to see anyone stopping the Seleção.

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