Friday, 22 March 2013

Draw against Italy gives Brazil something to build upon

It is, of course, folly to read too much into international friendlies, particularly those that precede an important competitive game for one of the teams involved. For Brazil, though, there is no other litmus test; new (old) coach Luiz Felipe Scolari must plot a path to World Cup success using only these most untrustworthy waypoints.

There were plenty of positives to be drawn from Thursday's 2-2 draw with Italy in Geneva. The performance of Lazio midfielder Hernanes, in particular, was reassuring – not least to those convinced that his inclusion would signal a sea change for the seleção. Rather than being marooned out wide as he had been on previous outings for Brazil, Hernanes operated deep in midfield, setting the tempo with his lucid decision making and two-footed passing. The formula is fairly simple: if you can kick with both feet you often have twice as many options in crowded central areas.

Alongside him, Grêmio youngster Fernando didn't look overawed on debut. Powerful and intuitive, he has a promising future at this level, particularly if Scolari's doubts over the defensive prowess of Ramires and Paulinho persist. Filipe Luís was also quietly effective, while Júlio César took another huge step towards (re)establishing himself as Brazil's first-choice goalkeeper.

Neymar, stationed just behind Fred in attack, shone in spells and created Brazil's second goal with a shimmering run. Yet it was his pressing and positioning that drew plaudits from Scolari. "Tactically, that was one of the best performances I've ever seen from him," gushed the 64-year-old. "He was perfect."

Elsewhere, the outlook was far less positive. Daniel Alves was characteristically busy but suspect in defence, meaning that David Luiz – who captained Brazil on the night – was often called upon to pitch in as Italy attacked down the left. For all his abundant talents, Luiz is the kind of player that needs to be focusing on his own job rather than bailing out his right-back. As a result, Dante, a big hit at Bayern Munich this term, looked less assured than he did against England at Wembley.

And then there was Hulk. Not-so-incredible Hulk. The Zenit St Petersburg forward started on the right but was quickly shifted to the opposite flank as Scolari sought to counteract Christian Maggio's bounding forward runs. That ploy was partly successful but completely negated the influence of Brazil's number seven, who looks lost when unable to cut in onto his left foot. His miscontrol when well placed in the second half owed plenty to a poor pitch in Geneva but was also indicative of his general malaise. Many in Brazil remain unconvinced of his ability to perform at international level.

In some respects, Scolari can be thankful for Italy's second half reaction, which should ensure that nobody gets carried away the modest successes of the opening period. And while the seleção were second best for long periods, a draw is a foundation upon which Felipão can reasonably hope to build. It was, as Estadão columnist Artero Greco put it, "A fair result. Particularly for Brazil."

(Photo credit: Getty.)

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