As opening gambits go, it was far from convincing. Having watched their most bitter of rivals stutter against Bolivia (a result which was reported with considerable verve in Brazil) the seleção met Venezuela, hoping to put down an early marker in the competition. A year after being knocked out of the World Cup with barely a whimper of protest, opportunity hung heavy in the La Plata air; this was the moment for Brazil to shake off the dust, to reintroduce itself to the world. A team rich in youthful vim and logic-defying hair styles marched onto the pitch. Mano Menezes looked on sagely as Neymar, Ganso et al. took their starting positions. The stage was set. And then... nothing.
Brazil 0-0 Venezuela
The seleção, in fairness, started the match with considerable intent; Neymar was typically busy, combining with André Santos on the left, and cutting inside to good effect. As usual, Daniel Alves channelled his inner mad dog, sprinting wildly up and down the right flank. One such burst brought Brazil their best chance of the match; Alexandre Pato's effort clattered back off the bar with Renny Vega well beaten. Defensively, Menezes' side started impeccably, pressing high up the pitch, and regaining possession before their opponents had time to mount any threat. Consequently, Venezuela only managed one notable foray in the opening period, an attack which resulted in the (otherwise faultless) Thiago Silva being booked.
This level of comfort should have increased Brazil's attacking capabilities, prompting one of the deeper midfielders to contribute more in attack. Given Lucas Leiva's recent success in shielding the back four, that duty fell on the shoulders of Ramires. Unfortunately, the Chelsea man (a good player though he is) simply doesn't have the skill set to be effective in this task; energetic surges culminated with the ball bobbling away from him, and passes, when played forward, seemed to be observing some overly draconian speed limit. Paulo Henrique Ganso, who looked slightly sluggish in only his second match back since injury, was deprived of any purposeful link-up in the centre of the park, and as a result spent rather too much time trying to play ambitious through-passes to the forwards.
And what of Brazil's strikers? Neymar faded somewhat after his bright start, yet still attracted two or three markers every time he received possession, thus (theoretically) creating room for his colleagues. Alexandre Pato turned in a middling performance; two moments of sublime skill (his effort against the bar, and a jaw-dropping piece of control from a Dani Alves long ball) didn't disguise the fact that he was marked out of the game for long periods. That just leaves... (checks team sheet)... oh, Robinho. Well Robinho was... He had a shot in the first half, didn't he...? Or was that someone else...?
Worryingly for Menezes, the match followed the script that has defined a number of recent Brazil matches. Despite exerting early pressure, the seleção couldn't manage a break-through, and proceeded to turn in a disorganised, panicky, second-half display. His substitutions (Fred, Lucas, and Elano all entered the fray) made scant difference, and Venezuela grew in confidence as the match wore on. Both Júlio César and Lúcio needed all of their experience to snuff out a couple of promising counter attacks from the underdogs. The final whistle almost came as a relief to Brazil; one sensed that they wouldn't have scored in another hour of play.
So far, so gloomy. A little perspective, however, is called for. This wouldn't be the first time that a team fluffed their opening lines before embarking on an impressive tournament run; Spain demonstrated as much in South Africa last year. The performance (and the attendant criticism) could also serve to galvanise the seleção, motivating players for the battles ahead. Menezes will be aware, though, of the severity of his situation; further turgid performances against Paraguay and Ecuador would almost certainly lead to calls for his head.
It would not be surprising if, due to that mounting pressure (and his side's lack of fluency), Menezes sacrificed Robinho against Paraguay. Elano, who has proved himself to be a dependable figure in recent years, would be the main candidate for inclusion, and would occupy a withdrawn role on the right. That, ironically, would transform Menezes' formation into almost the exact system employed by Dunga in South Africa; the lopsided 4-2-2-2. We have already seen that one of the shortcomings of Dunga's reign - the refusal to employ a regista in the midfield platform - has merely been reproduced by Menezes. The main difference, then, is largely one of attacking personnel. Menezes must hope that his faith in Brazil's emerging stars is justified.
(For more on the tactical state of the seleção, check out this post from the ever-excellent Santa Pelota, and this one over at the brilliant Zonal Marking.)
(Photo credits; (1) Paulo Whitaker, (2) Lea la Valle.)