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.)

Saturday, 16 March 2013

Five questions for Brazil ahead of Italy and Russia games

Luiz Felipe Scolari's second spell in charge of the seleção began with a whimper, with his side limping to an anodyne loss to England at Wembley in February. Felipão doesn't have to wait too long for a chance to make amends, however: Brazil face Italy and Russia in the next fortnight as the Neverending Friendlies series rolls on.

Ahead of those games, I've picked out five stories to keep an eye on. Will Neymar bounce back? Can Kaká become more than a stop-gap? Will David Luiz grace us with his saintly presence? Find out in my latest Unibet column.

Thursday, 7 March 2013

Will incidents prompt Brazil to tackle stadium ills?

Three incidents since the turn of the year – one of which resulted in the death of a young fan – have provided renewed cause for concern over fan behaviour and the stadium-going experience in Brazil. First came the collapse of a barrier during a Grêmio match, which left eight people requiring medical attention. Just four days later, fans reported a series of issues at the reopening of the Mineirão in Belo Horizonte.

Yet these problems seem insignificant next to the death of a 14-year-old supporter during the Libertadores match between San José and Corinthians, a tragedy that raised questions over the behaviour of Brazil's torcidas organizadas (supporters' groups) and their links to clubs themselves.

In my latest piece for ESPN FC, I reflect on these incidents – and the lessons that Brazil must draw from them.

(Photo credit: EduAndrade/LatinContent/Getty Images.)

Monday, 4 March 2013

The week(end) that was - #4

It has been a fine few days for Diego Forlán, whose goalscoring exploits have played a major part in Internacional's strong start to the year. Neymar and Abel Braga had rather less enjoyable weeks, however...

Forlán's class begins to show

Diego Forlán did not enjoy the most fruitful start to his career in Brazil, struggling to make his mark in an Internacional side that had a year to forget in 2012. But the early signs are that the current campaign will be rather kinder to the Uruguayan. His fine double against Esportivo at the weekend took him to six goals for the season and earnt Inter a place in the final of the Taça Piratini – the opening stage of the Rio Grande do Sul state championship. Forlán also netted in the quarter-final against bitter rivals Grêmio.

The 33-year-old has benefitted greatly from the seriousness with which Inter have treated the Gauchão. While Grêmio have been content to play reserve sides and preserve their stars for the Copa Libertadores, the Colorado have put pedal to the metal in an attempt to kickstart a year that they hope will be crowned with a major title. As a result, Forlán has enjoyed plenty of game time alongside Leandro Damião, with whom he is beginning to form a tidy partnership: the pair have bagged nine of the 12 goals scored by Dunga's first-choice XI in 2013. If they can take that form into the Brasileirão, Inter could finally mount a serious title challenge.

Lighten up, Abel

Vasco da Gama beat Fluminense on Saturday to reach the final of the first half of the Campeonato Carioca (keep up at the back!). This was less a game of two halves than one of four quarters, which played out like a Mogwai song: quiet-quiet-quiet-LOUDER-THAN-BOMBS. The game was goalless going into the closing stages, only for five goals – spread over two comebacks – to hit fans at the Engenhão like a flurry of punches. (A poor cameraman, incidentally, was probably the only one nursing actual bruises, after getting knocked to the ground by an over-jubilant Bernardo.)

In the post-match press conference Fluminense boss Abel Braga could have sounded off about his side's defending, but chose instead to hit out at Vasco substitute Dakson (yes, really) for having the impudence to back-heel the ball to a team-mate in the dying minutes. This wasn't a case of the youngster just playing to the gallery – the pass set up a promising attack – but even that would hardly be a crime. Braga, as Estadão columnist Artero Greco noted, would do well to lighten up: "There are worse things in football than a bit of showboating. Football is being infested by a wave of grumpiness."

Disciplinary worries for Neymar

It wasn't long ago that Neymar was earning praise for his philosophical attitude to being fouled, oh, seventy thousand times per match. This week, however, the striker is in the dock for his own disciplinary record. His booking against São Paulo in the clássico paulista was the 66th of his nascent career, a figure which is beginning to provide cause for concern. That the caution was (correctly) meted out for diving only confirms that, for all his abundant skill, Neymar still lacks a little of the maturity present in the very best players.

(On an unrelated note, here's a fine statistic on the commercial importance of Neymar to Santos. The average attendance at Santos' Vila Belmiro stadium when Neymar plays, since January 2012: 10,563. When he doesn't: 5,852. The Peixe have 18 months to find another way (or another starlet) to lure those fair-weather fans on a more frequent basis – or at least ensure that they cash in on them while Neymar is still around.)

Cruising on the continent

Palmeiras aside, it was a fine week for Brazilian sides in the Libertadores. São Paulo snuck past The Strongest (ahem), Corinthians beat Millonarios in an empty Pacaembu, while Fluminense went top off Group 8 with a win against Huachipato in Chile. The best performance of the lot, though, came in Argentina, where Atlético Mineiro dispatched Arsenal de Sarandí 5-2. Ronaldinho was again influential for the Galo but was barged out of the spotlight by Bernard, scorer of three goals in his first club game outside his homeland. With Brazilian sides performing so strongly, the grip of the country's recent continental hegemony could yet tighten further.

... and finally

This guy turned 60 yesterday. Parabéns, mestre!

(Photo credits: Alexandre Lops, Ari Ferreira.)