Thursday 11 December 2014

Continuity the key for Cruzeiro, Brazilian champions for the second year running

The Campeonato Brasileiro, to bastardise that neat Gary Lineker aphorism, is a simple championship. 20 teams slog away for the best part of a year and in the end, Cruzeiro win.

It wasn’t always thus, of course: the Belo Horizonte side’s dominance is a relatively unusual phenomenon for a league that usually prides itself on the fact that pretty much any one of 12 or so teams could take the title in any given year. Yet for the first time since São Paulo’s reign of terror between 2006 and 2008, one side looks to be establishing something of a dynasty.

Key to Cruzeiro’s success this term was that most rare of commodities in Brazilian football: continuity. Forward-thinking coach Marcelo Oliveira stayed put following the 2013 title, as did the vast majority of his key players: Éverton Ribeiro, last season’s player of the year, resisted overtures from Europe, while Lucas Silva and Ricardo Goulart also stuck around.

Read the rest of this article on the WhoScored site.

Wednesday 10 December 2014

The Golden Boy's final act: Former Fenerbahçe playmaker Alex gets emotional send-off from Coritiba fans

Days before the game, they filled the streets, lighting flares and chanting his name. The words "thank you, captain," rang around the city like a mantra.

The game was always going to be a sellout; there had been queues to reach the ticket booths at the Couto Pereira. Coritiba had done just about enough to avoid relegation from Brazil's top flight, meaning there was nothing much to play for, but that mattered little. He would be there, for the final time. 25,550 people flooded the stands. It was their highest attendance of the season.

This was a party, certainly, but one tinged with sadness. Coritiba, one of Brazil's most historic clubs, were bidding farewell to perhaps their biggest idol of the modern era.

As kick-off approached, he made his big entrance. The reception was huge but there were to be no real histrionics on his part. Not that that surprised anyone familiar with him. For Alexsandro de Souza – better known as Alex – has always been one to shy away from the fanfare when possible.

Read the rest of this piece on the Mirror website.

Thursday 20 November 2014

Absolutely fabulous: Luís Fabiano gatecrashes São Paulo's Fantastic Four to provide reminder of his quality

Bad news for fans of title races going right to the wire: it now seems unlikely that São Paulo will manage to overthrow the heavyweights of Cruzeiro before the Campeonato Brasileirão season ends. Going into the midweek round, the Tricolor trail by four points having played a game more than their rivals. Stranger things have happened, but rarely to a side so battle-hardened as this Cruzeiro outfit.

And yet, as thoughts turn to end-of-year lists and prizes, there is an argument to be made that São Paulo are some kind of people’s champions. Led by the ‘Quartero Fantástico’ – the Fantastic Four of Kaká, Alexandre Pato, Alan Kardec and Paulo Henrique Ganso – São Paulo embarking on a run of 7 victories in 8 games to climb above Internacional, Corinthians and Fluminense.

Yet after the Cruzeiro win came a frustrating stutter: just one point salvaged from four games. The chasing pack closed in; one of the runners in the two-horse race looked to have limped out of contention. One man, though, had other ideas. Luís Fabiano has stepped up to the plate in grand style in recent weeks, netting four times in five starts to put São Paulo back within striking distance once more.

Read the rest of this piece on O Fabuloso's mini-revival on the WhoScored site. 

Tuesday 18 November 2014

Tears and tantrums: On Thiago Silva's fall from grace

Brazil’s doomed World Cup summer threw up all manner of memorable images. Most of those were of Luiz Felipe Scolari’s players looking utterly bemused during and after their shellacking at the hands of Germany, but there is one other that still stands out.

It is of Thiago Silva, the captain of the side, refusing to watch the penalty shootout against Chile in the second round. Almost 60,000 souls inside the Mineirão – in those hazy, hopeful days before it hosted that 7-1 – are urging Brazil’s players on; yet one of the men whose job that is cannot even bring himself to look. It later emerged that he had point-blank ruled himself out of taking a kick - not exactly leadership of the highest order, as many pointed out.

In the post-tournament scramble, Neymar’s appointment as Brazil’s new captain went almost unnoticed. But evidently not by Thiago. Having missed the first games of the Dunga Redux era due to injury, he jumped at his first chance to sound off about the transition at the weekend.

“[Neymar] didn't come and speak to me,” he told the press. “No one did. That's what's annoying. I can't pretend I'm happy. It's a sad, painful moment... like they took something away from me."

Read this piece on Thiago Silva's fall from grace on the Yahoo! Eurosport site.

Wednesday 5 November 2014

Five youngsters enjoying a breakout season in Série A

With six games of the season remaining, there remains plenty to play for in the 2014 Brasileirão – even if those dastardly Cruzeiro schemers have already all but wrapped up their second consecutive title. The race for the Libertadores places is hotter than the surface of the sun (just the four teams on 54 points as things stand), while plenty of sides are still battling manfully against the drop.

For many, though, the real battle begins after the season’s end, when European clubs will once more come sniffing round in search of talent to tempt to the Velho Continente. Many of the names likely to be in the mix will be broadly familiar by this stage – think Éverton Ribeiro, Lucas Silva, Gabriel – but the gold rush is usually such that it’s not just the established stars who attract attention.

Without wishing to tempt fate (heaven knows Brazilian football could do with keeping its talented kids for longer), I have picked five youngsters who could be on the radar having enjoyed breakout seasons in 2014. Find out who they are on the WhoScored site.

Wednesday 22 October 2014

Meet Lucas Lima, the heir to Santos' playmaking throne

The first pass is all about vision – that most nebulous of attributes that most players aspire to but very few attain. A quick look up in a busy midfield. A runner. A swish of the left boot. Centre-back and full-back sliced apart. Geuvânio scampers through to score the opener.

The second is different. A good pass, sure, but that’s not the main thing. Besides, it doesn’t even go down as an assist. No, the key here is the speed of thought. A free-kick. Everyone relaxes for a second. Some moan at the referee. Opportunity knocks. Ball on the floor, Eugenio Mena released. A simple cross later and Gabriel makes it 2-0. Job done.

He did not score and he did not make the headlines, but everyone who knew anything knew. One man and one man alone masterminded Santos’ 3-1 derby win over Palmeiras on Sunday: 24-year-old midfielder Lucas Lima.

Read the rest of this profile on the WhoScored website.

Friday 3 October 2014

Eduardo da Silva proving in Brazil that his finishing powers remain undimmed

Whisper it quietly, but it is perhaps indicative of the global standing of the Campeonato Brasileiro that players can thrive there long after they hit the proverbial wall in Europe. A fading Ronaldinho? Amazing in Brazil. Kaká, years after his peak? Doing really well, thank you very much.

The trend is testament to the fact that quickness of thought can compensate for ageing legs, particularly in a league that struggles to produce cerebral, tactically-astute players. A little bit of nous gleaned from European football, allied with technical quality, is usually enough to allow a player to stand out in Brazil.

Most appear to enjoy being the big fish in a small pond. But the recent form of one man also shows that the Brasileirão can also be a fruitful hunting ground for those who tend to prefer the quiet life.

In my latest column for WhoScored, I look at the recent form of former Arsenal striker Eduardo da Silva. Read it here.

Monday 22 September 2014

Five players who could shape the battle against relegation in the Campeonato Brasileiro

Finally, after over a year of utter dominance, it looked as though Cruzeiro may have company at the top of the Campeonato Brasileiro table. The reigning champions were defeated 2-0 last weekend by São Paulo, who then proceeded to lose to relegation candidates Coritiba, moving back to seven points adrift going into the final three months of the season. However, without wishing to jinx anything before it materialises, we may still have a title race on our hands.

But while things are beginning to simmer at one end of the table, there’s a full-scale battle royale raging at the other. The scrap against relegation could hardly be more dramatic: while Flamengo appear to have done enough to stave off the threat, everyone from Figueirense down will be fighting to the death from here on in.

With margins so small, things really could be settled by a few hardy warriors. For WhoScored, I have picked out five players who could shape the relegation battle in Brazil.

Monday 15 September 2014

Brazilian football's biggest courtroom dramas

Shameless plug alert, part two:
Available on a pay-what-you-want basis here. 

Sunday 14 September 2014

Meet the new guy, just like the old guy: Brazil's clubs hark back to the past in search of success

Shameless plug ahoy:
Buy it at your local newsagent or click here to order online.

Tuesday 9 September 2014

Fantastic four begin to click for São Paulo

Of all the sides in the Campeonato Brasileiro, none contains more recognisable faces – to European football fans, at least – than São Paulo FC. There's Álvaro Pereira, the Uruguayan wing-back, on the left flank. Former Arsenal midfielder Denílson sits in front of the back four, sniffing out danger and, yes, playing five-yard sideways passes. Luís Fabiano plunders goals and collects red cards like they're going out of fashion. Then there's Rogério Ceni, the goalscoring goalkeeper, who is something of a cult figure in some circles.

Really, though, the team's true star power lies in an attacking quartet that has begun to light up the division in recent weeks. In Kaká, Paulo Henrique Ganso, Alan Kardec and Alexandre Pato, São Paulo could well have found their very own fantastic four, a combination capable of taking them into next season's Libertadores, if not a sustained title challenge (you win again, Cruzeiro).

Read the rest of this piece on the WhoScored website.

Wednesday 20 August 2014

New faces provide reason to be cheerful even in the wake of Brazil's managerial farce

Some clever bloke with a hip, east-London beard once said that history repeats itself first as tragedy, then as farce. You don’t imagine that the corrupt old boys of Brazil’s football federation have much time for Marxist thinking. And yet, somehow, no group or individual in the game appears so committed to embodying that snappy, throw-away maxim.

These days, they don’t even wait for the pain to sink in before following it up with light relief. Just witness their choice in Brazil coach. Dunga was hounded out of the job after the disappointment of the 2010 World Cup, accused of being a tactical Luddite by a press corps for whom he could barely conceal his distaste.

But here we are, four years and two coaches later, back at square one. A bright new dawn was needed after the horror of The 7-1, yet Brazil have instead drifted back into the recent – and unsuccessful – past. Farcical barely even covers it.

Still, at least there was some good news in Dunga’s first squad selection. For a start, there was no Felipe Melo. Indeed, the former Internacional coach should be gently commended for drafting in five players who have impressed in the Campeonato Brasileiro in recent months – and who were overlooked by his predecessor.

Read the rest of this piece here.

Saturday 2 August 2014

Replacing Ronaldinho no easy task for Atlético-MG

He left as he arrived: with misdirection and mystery. Whispers of discontent. A request to play at the testimonial of Deco in Portugal. A missed flight. A few days off the radar. For Ronaldinho, it was ever thus. After two years of magic and madness with Atlético Mineiro, the medicine show is now set to roll on – possibly to the MLS, possibly pretty much anywhere where there are parties and girls and fans who know his name.

Not that Atlético can have failed to leave an imprint on his heart. From the moment the Galo were revealed as his destination after some all-too-public football club speed dating in 2012, this was always going to be a match made in heaven. The club indulged Ronaldinho's occasional dalliances and he repaid them with healthy dollops of his genius, as well as an international profile they had hitherto lacked. In 2013, the Belo Horizonte club won the Copa Libertadores for the first time in their history.

Now, though, they must rebuild. For WhoScored, I take a look at the players who will need to step up for Atlético in the second half of 2014.

Thursday 31 July 2014

Five players in Brazil YOUR club should sign

With prices rising ever higher in Europe, more and more sides will be looking further afield as they seek to boost their squads this summer.

Contrary to received wisdom, Brazil is no longer one of the great training grounds of the beautiful game. Coaching, even in the upper echelons of Brazil's league system, often leaves a great deal to be desired, while funding and long-term planning have increasingly become alien concepts.

This, of course, is a discussion for another time, but it is noticeable that the talent does not flow as thick and fast as it once did. But there are bright spots, even they owe more to sheer weight of numbers than anything else.

For MirrorFootball, I have chosen five players based in Brazil that could make an impact in the Premier League. Find out who they are here.

Wednesday 23 July 2014

No order, no progress: Dunga reappointment shows Brazil have failed to learn from mistakes

The Brazilian national flag is unique in including, in text, two ideals the country purports to uphold. One is order, the other progress.

A whistle-stop tour through the history books – colonisation, slavery, corruption – reveals that, at various points in this country's short, fraught history, one or other of the two has not always been perfectly preserved.

Sport, of course, has a funny way of echoing or mirroring society at large, and so Brazil's football history has been peppered with its fair share of ignominy in between the dizzying highs. At times there has been order; at others progress; but rarely have the two gone hand-in-hand.

Read this piece on the return of Dunga to the Brazil national team on the Yahoo! Eurosport site.

Sunday 13 July 2014

Luiz Felipe Scolari must go, but Brazil's issues run deeper

If the World Cup final is the game no one wants to lose, the third-place play-off is normally the game no one wants to play.

On this occasion, though, one of the coaches might just have been glad of the opportunity. Having seen his Brazil side eviscerated by Germany earlier in the week, Luiz Felipe Scolari was likely eyeing a consolatory victory over the Netherlands on Saturday night.

Like being handed a Twix after a tornado, it would not have provided too much comfort to most. Brazil fans were left stunned by the Mineiraço, the days since blurring together in a state of disbelief. But for Scolari, the old war horse, it was a chance to shift the landscape, even if just a touch.

He had spent the days since the Germany game speaking of a mental “blackout” on the pitch – a six-minute spell during which he “could have done nothing” to prevent the Seleção conceding four times. While he explicitly assumed responsibility for the loss, there was a hint of buck-passing here: if not onto the players then at least onto some higher power who had seen fit to curse his side in this manner. Such ideas hold some sway in superstitious, God-fearing Brazil.

Read the rest of my final Yahoo! Eurosport blog from Rio de Janeiro here.

Saturday 12 July 2014

Five players Brazil should have selected for the World Cup

They say that while success has many fathers, failure is always an orphan. That, though, is categorically not the case for this Brazilian World Cup campaign, at least in the eyes of the local media, who have spent the days since the earth-shattering defeat to Germany pointing the finger at anyone with even a passing connection to the squad.

The first victim of the guillotine, of course, is likely to be coach Luiz Felipe Scolari. Tactically, he got it all wrong against Germany. Instead of following his scouts' advice and bolstering his midfield, he elected for the nippy, playground flair of Bernard on the flank. The 21-year-old never looked like he was making an impression, while Luiz Gustavo and Fernandinho were outnumbered and overwhelmed in the centre of the park.

But perhaps Scolari's biggest errors came in his squad selection. Both he and Neymar have insisted in recent days that anyone would have picked the same 23, but that does not ring true. One look at the squad reveals players (Henrique, Maxwell, Jô) who could and should have been left out in favour of other, more dynamic options.

Read the rest of this piece on the ESPN FC site.

Thursday 10 July 2014

Who should stay and who should go from the current squad as Brazil look to the future?

Brazilians might just about be recovering their breath after the shock and awe of Tuesday night's Mineiraço, but the inquest is just getting started. The Seleção's worst ever World Cup defeat has sparked understandable soul-searching in Brazil, with fans and journalists alike trying to make sense of the savage 7-1 loss to Germany.

Much of the ire thus far has been directed at coach Luiz Felipe Scolari, who, despite remaining tight-lipped over his future in the wake of the game, will surely vacate the building after this most galling of failures. "Go to hell, Felipão," read one front page on Wednesday. It captured the nation's mood.

But while debates over the structural changes that must be made to get Brazilian football back on track will rage for months and years, there is a more pressing question at hand: Which members of the current squad deserve to be preserved for next year's Copa América – and thinking further ahead, the 2018 World Cup?

Read my player-by-player assessment on the ESPN FC Brazil blog.

What now for Brazil? Humbling at the Mineirão must spark changes

If there was ever a result to shake a nation to its core, this was it.

Brazil did not expect this. Even if Neymar's injury had lowered expectations a touch ahead of the semi-final against Germany, nothing could have prepared the home fans for what happened on Tuesday night.

It was their biggest home game in 64 years; the pressure was at fever pitch. They knew Germany would be a tough side to beat, especially without their captain and best player. But still. 7-1?

The question, once the dust has settled, will be this: "What now for Brazil?"

Read the rest of this post on the MirrorFootball site.

Dante's inferno: Without Thiago Silva, Brazil's defence crumbles to dust

When Neymar was stretchered off the field in the dying moments of Brazil's quarter-final victory over Colombia on Friday, Brazil fans feared the worst. Confirmation came from the hospital soon after: the forward had fractured a vertebra and would miss the rest of the World Cup.

Immediately, the speculation began over how Luiz Felipe Scolari would set his side up to counteract the absence of its talisman and top scorer against Germany. Pick an extra central midfielder and hope for a goal from a set piece? Start Willian wide and give Oscar a more central role? No one could replace Neymar's star quality, of course, but there were decisions to be made, plans to be foiled.

Yet amid all the bluster, it was almost forgotten that Brazil would be missing another key player in the semifinal. And in the event, Thiago Silva, suspended after picking up a silly booking against Colombia, would prove the more telling loss.

Read the rest of this piece, on Brazil's defensive implosion, on the ESPN FC blog.

Living room scene: How (some) Brazilians watched their team get destroyed by Germany

Volume up, lights down. A fairly typical family in Rio de Janeiro state settles down to watch the game.

The scene is being repeated all over the country: it is 4pm but when Brazil play 200 million people down tools and head home or to a bar. They even declare a half-day public holiday to make it official.

The game is on almost every channel. Of course it is: this is the biggest game in Brazil since 1950. We opt for Globo, not because its coverage is the best (it's definitely, definitely not) or because, on such occasions, when history is to be made one way or the other, it feels appropriate to do what everyone else is doing. The power of shared experience, or something.

Read the rest of this piece on the Yahoo! Eurosport site.

Wednesday 9 July 2014

Brazil 1-7 Germany: How the Brazilian press reacted to the Seleção's nightmare evening

The Brazilian press pulled no punches in the wake of the Seleção’s humiliating 7-1 defeat to Germany on Tuesday.

The hopes and expectations that Brazil carried into the tournament turned to dust at the Mineirão, with Joachim Low’s side ruthlessly exposing the hosts’ flaws.

“The disgrace of all disgraces” read the GloboEsporte headline, followed by: “Massacred tactically and technically, Brazil suffer the worst defeat of all time.”

Read the rest of this round-up here and check out O Globo's savage Brazil player ratings here.

Mineiraço: Brazil's tragic defeat to Germany will be talked about in hushed tones for years to come

Vamo, vamo, vamo,” David Luiz hollered in the tunnel. Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go! Brazil’s newest cult hero and temporary captain then stood in silence for a few seconds, steely-eyed, gazing out onto the pitch. A deep breath or two and then the roar.

Luiz led Brazil out onto the pitch in that familiar funereal procession. No one knew just how appropriate that slow walk would prove. As the anthem started, he raised a shirt high above his head. ‘Neymar 10’, it read. Brazil’s fallen hero, remembered as if he had passed away.

The tears may have subsided in the wake of the Chile game, but this was still an emotionally charged moment. Of course it was: this was Brazil’s biggest home game for 64 years.

But even before hindsight cast the Neymar tribute in such a damning light, the contrast between the sides was telling. While Germany lined up like a super-powered Flamengo side (what an occasion to use that shirt for the first time in the World Cup!), Brazil were again caught up in the moment.

Read the rest of this piece on Tuesday's Mineiraço on the MirrorFootball site.

Tuesday 8 July 2014

Hope springs eternal: has Neymar's injury taken the pressure off Brazil?

Although Juan Camilo Zúñiga probably did not realise it at the time, his challenge on Neymar in the closing stages of Brazil’s quarter-final win over Colombia has changed the complexion of this World Cup.

The inquest in the Brazilian media began almost immediately: opinion pieces riddled words like “cowardly” and “criminal” occupied far more column inches than the result itself the following morning; medical diagrams of the spine had been printed in every sport pullout in the country by Sunday.

You would have thought by the reaction that someone had died rather than been ruled out of two football matches. But then Neymar, perhaps the most beloved Brazilian out there at this moment in history, is of such importance to Luiz Felipe Scolari’s side that the sense of loss is understandable.

Yet there is an argument to be made – albeit one that requires something of a leap of faith – that Zúñiga has done Brazil a favour. While Neymar’s absence will be keenly felt on the field, the Seleção may just have stumbled into a psychological landscape that suits them perfectly.

Read the rest of this piece on the Mirror website.

Monday 7 July 2014

World Cup preview: Brazil vs Germany

The nation may be in a state of semi-mourning after Neymar was ruled out of the World Cup, but Brazil are nonetheless through to the final four.

Now, though, things get really tough. The Seleção face their toughest opponents so far in the form of Joachim Low's Germany, who will be looking to avenge the 2002 final defeat. Can Luiz Felipe Scolari get one over on Die Mannschaft again to seal a place in the final at the Maracanã?

Sunday 6 July 2014

What now for Brazil with Neymar injured?

Brazil coach Luiz Felipe Scolari has to find the answer to a question he hoped would never be asked. It's one that has been on the lips of Seleção fans for the last year or so, albeit always hypothetical before this week: What do Brazil do without Neymar?

Thanks to Juan Zuñiga's clumsiness, the Barcelona star has been ruled out for the rest of the World Cup. Brazil must find a way to cope without their talisman and best player.

For MirrorFootball, I look at five possible tactical solutions for the Seleção.

For ESPN FC, five players who have to step up to the plate to make up for the loss of Neymar.

Saturday 5 July 2014

Neymar injury sours win over Colombia and could ruin Brazil's World Cup hopes

For once this tournament, Brazil were buoyant.

Thiago Silva's redemptive goal had set the tone in their World Cup quarter-final against Colombia. When David Luiz added a sensational second after the interval, it looked like being the night on which their title hopes truly came back to life.

But that was before the real news of the evening filtered through.

Neymar had left the field on a stretcher following a clumsy challenge by Juan Zuñiga in the second half before being taken to hospital. The forward had appeared to be in some pain on the way down the tunnel, clutching his lower back and grimacing.

After the final whistle, the coach Luiz Felipe Scolari admitted that he would be a doubt for the semi-final against Germany. But even that uncertainty – that sweet, hopeful uncertainty – was soon snatched away from Brazil. Neymar, the team doctor revealed an hour or so later, had fractured a vertebrae. He will miss the rest of the World Cup.

Read the rest of this piece on the Yahoo! Eurosport site.

Friday 4 July 2014

Tears for fears: On Brazil players crying and what it tells us about the pressure they are under

There is an advert on Brazilian television at the moment that stars Seleção captain Thiago Silva. He’s sat on a bus, which is passing through a tunnel. He is all alone and begins a monologue to camera, detailing the challenges he has had to overcome to become the player he is today. Then he looks out the window, wistfully. It looks like he is on the verge of bursting into tears.

It would be foolish to read too much into a bit of publicity, of course, but it is hard not to see the clip as a perfect metaphor for Brazil’s World Cup to date. There is plenty of emotion, sure, but it feels laden with negativity, like a weight on the shoulders of players who 12 months ago were joyously running riot at the Confederations Cup.

My latest Yahoo! Eurosport article is about the emotional instability that appears to be gripping the Brazil camp. Read it here.

Thursday 3 July 2014

World Cup preview: Brazil vs Colombia

Four games down, three to go.

Following the nervy, error-strewn victory over Chile, Brazil's World Cup campaign continues on Friday against Jose Pekerman's impressive Colombia side.

With the Cafeteros so fluent so far, it could be a tough task for the Seleção in Fortaleza. Neymar has been passed fit for Brazil, but doubts persist over the hosts' title credentials after a series of below-par displays.

Carl Worswick and I have previewed the game for ESPN FC. Read our take here.

I also contributed to this betting preview for Unibet.

And for the Mirror: five key battles at the Castelão.

Wednesday 2 July 2014

Scolari's choice: On Brazil's Plan B – or lack thereof

Before the World Cup began, most observers felt that the settled nature of Brazil's side was a huge advantage. Manager Luiz Felipe Scolari seemed to have found the winning formula during the Confederations Cup, providing answers to questions that had troubled the Seleção for years.

Luiz Gustavo and Paulinho emerged as a genuine centre-midfield pairing after months of uncertainty; Júlio César made the goalkeeping berth his own; Hulk silenced his doubters to become a certain starter; Fred jumped to the head of the queue of slightly underwhelming Brazilian strikers. Everywhere you looked, there was stability. "We have a team," remarked former Seleção striker Tostão with customary succinctness.

How quickly things change. After four largely underwhelming World Cup games, the local press is conducting an ongoing inquest into Brazil's tactical set-up.

Read the rest of this article on the ESPN FC website.

Monday 30 June 2014

Pressure? What pressure? Neymar keeps his cool again to boost Brazil

It had the feel of a defining moment.

Of course it did: Brazil had to overcome Chile in a penalty shootout in the first knockout round. At the World Cup. A home nation's hopes in the balance.

The eyes of 200 million people were glued to television sets, in Fan Fests, living rooms and scruffy botecos. They had all been through the wringer after 120 minutes of fraught, breathless action in Belo Horizonte had failed to produce a winner. Only the width of the crossbar had prevented the underdogs winning in extra time. Luiz Felipe Scolari's face said it all: We are not enjoying this one bit.

Brazil's fifth penalty taker was Neymar. Minutes earlier he had rallied the troops, but here he was all on his own. The Seleção's best player, their only genuine craque, walked up to the spot. You could not help but fear for him.

Read this piece on Neymar's ability to cope with pressure at ESPN FC.

Sunday 29 June 2014

Brazil manage to surf wave of emotion to secure victory over dogged Chile

They gathered round in a circle, arm-in-arm. They had walked onto the pitch in a similar fashion two hours before, but all the anticipation and excitement had long since drained away. This was now a test of mettle rather than of style or anything else. Do or die. Sink or swim.

Neymar was the first to speak, then Fred, who at least managed to contribute something after another horrible display.

The last player to pipe up was Paulinho. He had not played a part in the game, having lost his place to Fernandinho. But this was no time for sulking. “A porra é nossa,” he howled from the middle of the scrum.

Rough translation: "This f****r is ours!"

This piece can be read on the Yahoo! Eurosport site.

Saturday 28 June 2014

World Cup preview: Brazil vs Chile

Brazil failed to convince in their opening World Cup games against Croatia and Mexico, but the 4-1 win over Cameroon on Monday has restored some confidence ahead of the knockout stages.

The round of 16 kicks off in Belo Horizonte, where the Seleção side face a difficult challenge in the shape of Jorge Sampaoli's Chile. One of the more impressive sides in Brazil so far, La Roja will be eyeing an upset on Saturday afternoon.

Read my 50:50 preview for ESPN FC here.

Check out my betting preview for Unibet here.

Friday 27 June 2014

Brazil fear Chile – but cool, calm Neymar primed for test

"If I could choose another opponent, I would. I think they're the trickiest side we could have been drawn against. They have everything."

It's fair to say that Brazil head coach Luiz Felipe Scolari isn't looking forward to Saturday. Having navigated their way through Group A, his side face their toughest challenge yet in this World Cup, with in-form Chile standing between them and a quarter-final berth.

But while Scolari will feel that he has been dealt a dud hand, he can at least feel safe in the knowledge that he has one supremely talented trump card at his disposal.

Neymar has undoubtedly been one of the names of the World Cup so far, and his record against Chilean defences suggests that he could have some joy at the Mineirão.

Read the rest of this piece on the ESPN FC site.

Thursday 26 June 2014

Craque da Copa: Neymar proves critics wrong to boost Brazil's World Cup hopes

Before last Monday, Brazil star Neymar had only played once at the Estádio Mané Garrincha.

It was his final game for Santos, ahead of his long-awaited transfer to Europe. His destination was Barcelona, who won a long and often tedious bidding war with Real Madrid for his signature.

Neymar felt the full force of the occasion. During the Brazil anthem, a single tear rolled down his cheek. The nation ’s brightest prospect for 20 years was flying the roost. The big wide world beckoned.

Many doubted he was good enough for one of Europe’s best clubs. A show pony, they called him. A YouTube sensation. Not fit to lace Lionel Messi’s boots, let alone grab the spotlight from him.

This article appeared in a Daily Mirror spread on the World Cup's poster boys. You can read the rest here, and Ed Malyon's take on Lionel Messi here.

Wednesday 25 June 2014

'Garrincha walked among us': How the Brazilian papers responded to the win over Cameroon

The Brazilian press were in understandably jubilant mood after the Seleção sealed qualification to the World Cup round of 16 on Monday.

Most of the praise was reserved for Neymar, whose two-goal salvo sent Brazil on the way to a 4-1 win over Cameroon. With the game having taken place at the Estádio Mané Garrincha, allusions to Brazilian football's great doomed idol were perhaps inevitable, but no less apt for that.

"With Mané's blessing" read the front page of Correio Braziliense, with reporter Marcos Paulo Lima declaring that Garrincha had "walked among us".

Read the rest of this paper round-up here, plus my match report from Brasília here and quotes from Luiz Felipe Scolari here.

Tuesday 24 June 2014

Neymar channels Garrincha as improving Brazil brush Cameroon aside in Brasilia

There was something inevitable about it all.

Brazil's best player appearing for the first time at a stadium named after one of this country's most fabled footballing idols. Neymar at the Estadio Mane Garrincha. Two dribblers, two dreamers, united by the universe. It sounded like a recipe for fun.

The people of Brasilia, this most sparse of capital cities, flocked to the ground, the outlandish, unforgivable expense of the place (£400million by conservative estimates) briefly forgotten. The stadium, with its steep sides, shook with noise as Brazil's players warmed up, with one man especially at the centre of attentions.

Read this piece on the Yahoo! Eurosport site here.

Thursday 19 June 2014

'Horror show' at the Castelão: the Brazilian papers react to the Seleção's 0-0 draw with Mexico

It probably won’t surprise you to know that when the Seleção win, it’s front page news in Brazil. Few countries stop to the extent this one does when their heroes play, so it makes sense that their successes are celebrated.

But the support is not unequivocal, as Wednesday's papers demonstrated. Brazil’s 0-0 draw with Mexico hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons, with local journalists none too impressed with the display at the Castelão.

“No inspiration” read the front page of O Globo’s World Cup pullout. “With Oscar well short of what he produced in the opening game and Neymar tightly marked, Brazil had trouble breaking through the Mexican defence,” wrote Mauricio Fonseca, while columnist Renato Mauricio Prado bemoaned the the absence of any kind of passing rhythm: “We didn’t settle. The biggest sign that we were playing badly was the frequency with which Julio Cesar punted the ball upfield."

Read the rest of this paper round-up on the Mirror website.

Wednesday 18 June 2014

Brazil fail to impress against Mexico despite Fortaleza's warm embrace

In the lead-up to Brazil’s second Group A game, much was made of the welcome the Seleção would receive in the city of Fortaleza.

It was here, last summer, that the craze of the a cappella anthem first took root, players and fans alike ignoring the shortened, FIFA-approved version of the hino nacional to sing their hearts out before the Confederations Cup game against Mexico.

So it was that the Castelão stadium came to be regarded as something of a Ground Zero for this new, united Brazil side. The players certainly seemed content to be returning to Fortaleza.

“We feel at home here,” admitted Thiago Silva. “We are always well received here in the north east.”

Read the rest of this piece on the Yahoo! Eurosport site.

Tuesday 17 June 2014

World Cup preview: Brazil vs Mexico

Brazil continue their World Cup campaign this afternoon against Mexico in Fortaleza.

Having ground out a win against Croatia, the Seleção will be keen to put in a more convincing display at the Castelão. They will also be looking to avenge the 2-1 defeat in the final of the Olympic football tournament two summers ago.

I have previewed the game for three sites:

First, for the Mirror (where you can also find lots more non-Brazil-related writing by me this tournament).

Second, for ESPN FC, alongside Mexican football expert Tom Marshall.

Finally, for Unibet, with a betting angle.

Monday 16 June 2014

Agora sim: Rio de Janeiro finally catches World Cup bug as Argentina come to town

It was a long old wait for Rio de Janeiro.

Three and a half days of the World Cup. Ten games. A lifetime, it felt like. For this city that holds football so dear, it could easily have been taken as an affront.

Rio had hoped to host the opening game; instead, Sao Paulo got the nod. It had to, really, given that the Maracana was the only real choice for the final. But with the schedule ensuring that Brazil would only play in the Cidade Maravilhosa in the final (should they reach it), plenty of cariocas felt they had been dealt a bad hand.

That feeling was only strengthened by the fixture list. The first visitors to the Maracana would be Bosnia – fine – and... no, this must be some kind of joke.

Seriously? Argentina?

Read the rest of this blog on the Mirror website.

Saturday 14 June 2014

Oscar shines brightest as Brazil grind out opening-night win over Croatia

And breathe. After weeks and months and years of expectation and build-up, Brazil got the World Cup underway with the victory that 200 million souls so dearly craved.

But while a 3-1 scoreline implies a level of comfort, the success over Croatia was what locals might call a "vitória suada" – a sweaty victory. Brazil were made to work for their reward at the Arena São Paulo, forced to dig deep after Marcelo's misfortune had given their visitors the lead in the opening stages. From that point, this was always going to be a battle rather than a victory march.

Cometh the hour, cometh the man. It was Neymar (who else?) who dragged Luiz Felipe Scolari's side level, guiding a shot past Stipe Pletikosa on 29 minutes. "I didn't mean to hit it that softly," he later laughed, but the relief on the field at that moment was palpable. A fresh start. A clean slate.

The Barcelona striker would go on to add a second and it surprised few when he was named FIFA's man of the match. But he was outshone on the night by one of his colleagues.

Read the rest of this piece on the Yahoo! Eurosport site.

Friday 13 June 2014

A universe in yellow and green: World Cup fever grips Brazil ahead of opening match

It started at the airport. Normally the humidity is the first thing you notice when you arrive in Brazil; that or the heat or the fact everyone is wearing running shoes with jeans. But this time there was something more prominent.

Every advert – and there were plenty of adverts – were related to football. This was a certain corporate definition of World Cup fever to be sure, but it served as a reasonable barometer for what was to come.

The woman who took our parking ticket looked bored. Another muggy night, another dull shift. But she burst into a smile when I commented on her nails, which boasted Brazilian flags in green, yellow and blue varnish. She could not wait for the World Cup to start.

Read the rest of this piece on the Mirror website.

Thursday 12 June 2014

World Cup preview: Brazil vs Croatia

The World Cup begins today with Brazil's game against Croatia. While a nation holds its breath, allow me to plug a couple of previews.

First, for ESPN FC, a two-way take on the game featuring me and Aleksandar Holiga. He thinks Croatia can get a draw. Read it here.

Second, a preview with more of a betting angle for the good folks at Unibet. Brazil/Brazil HT/FT is my main pick. Check it out here.

Wednesday 11 June 2014

After years of preparation, now is the time for Brazil to embrace their destiny

So, then. This is it. No more talking. No more posturing. No more friendlies (oh, so many friendlies since South Africa). No more planning. Just actual, competitive football matches. Hopefully seven of them.

For Brazil, the road from World Cup 2010 to here has been a long one – both off the pitch and on it. For while the state of the country’s roads and stadiums has been subject to growing scrutiny ever since that last tournament ended, it is easy to forget that the Seleção were in a similar state of disrepair not so long ago.

Read this scene setter at Yahoo! Eurosport here.

Tuesday 10 June 2014

Brazil World Cup predictions

Without wishing to tempt fate, all seems to be in perfect order in the Brazil camp ahead of the big kick-off. The side is settled, the players came through the friendlies against Panama and Serbia without a hitch, and there are signs that the Seleção can tap back into the public goodwill and momentum they built up last summer on the way to Confederations Cup glory.

Ahead of the tournament, I've made my predictions for this Brazil side for ESPN FC's World Cup blog.

Have a read here.

Saturday 7 June 2014

Fred provides timely reminder of his skillset as Brazil pass tricky Serbia test

There are, broadly speaking, two schools of thought over pre-tournament friendlies. There are those who prefer to face modest opponents, hoping for a morale-boosting victory. Others favour a stiffer challenge, believing a tough, competitive game to be more suitable preparation for the real thing.

Brazil's game against Panama earlier this week would have appeased the former camp: while Luiz Felipe Scolari peddled the line that Los Canaleros were some kind of Mexico-lite, the Seleção's comfortable 4-0 victory did not tell us a great deal about their readiness for the big kick-off on June 12. That match was about building fitness and avoiding injury.

Friday evening's meeting with Serbia, however, was a different story entirely. This was no relaxing kick-about before the World Cup; rather, Scolari's men were for long periods given the run-around by a side who finished below Belgium and Croatia – Brazil's first opponents in Group A – in their qualifying group.

Read the rest of this piece at ESPN FC. 

Wednesday 4 June 2014

One down, one to go: Brazil cruise to win over Panama as World Cup preparations gather pace

No meltdowns and no injuries. After a week of training at the Granja Comary complex in Rio de Janeiro state, those were the basic requirements for Brazil ahead of their penultimate friendly against Panama before the World Cup.

Sure enough, the Seleção came through unscathed, scoring four times in what amounted to little more than a leisurely Tuesday evening stroll at the cavernous Serra Dourada stadium.

Read the rest of this piece at ESPN FC.

Tuesday 3 June 2014

Júlio César aiming for World Cup redemption with Brazil after blunders and tears in 2010

If Brazil have had to walk a long road since the 2010 World Cup, some bear the scars of having made the journey bare footed.

Under the stewardship of Dunga, the Seleção flattered to deceive in South Africa, their cautious, reactive game plan failing to pay off as hoped. In particular, the quarter-final defeat by the Netherlands in Port Elizabeth played out as farce: a first-half Robinho strike had seemingly put Brazil in command, but an own goal and a Wesley Sneijder header after the interval sent the Oranje through to the last four.

Two men were singled out by the inquest into the defeat. One of them, Felipe Melo, has not pulled on the yellow jersey since nodding into his own net and then being sent off for a crude stamp on Arjen Robben.

The other man was Júlio César.

Read the rest of this article at Yahoo! Eurosport.

Wednesday 28 May 2014

Brazil's perfect couple: Why Thiago Silva and David Luiz gel so well for the Seleção

During last summer’s Confederations Cup, one image provided some light relief from the scenes of police brutality and looting that marked the more troublesome side of the protests throughout Brazil. It showed two children – one with an enigmatic pout, the other with extravagant curly hair – sitting on the bonnet of a car. The former was a dead ringer for Thiago Silva; the latter looked just enough like David Luiz for the picture to go viral.

The pair (of footballers, not their look-alikes) will once again be in the spotlight this summer. In many ways, they make for an odd couple. Thiago Silva is quiet and reserved, preferring to do his talking on the pitch, while David Luiz adores the spotlight, rarely forgoing the chance to speak his mind or share his personal life online. You get the sense that, if they met one another in street in a world without football, they would probably not have a great deal to talk about.

On the field, however, they dovetail wonderfully. Theirs is a gloriously instinctive division of labour: Thiago intercepts, David makes the last-ditch interventions; Thiago leads by example, David shouts himself hoarse; Thiago spreads calm, David energises. The whole is greater than its two contrasting parts.

Read the rest of this piece on the Yahoo! Eurosport site. 

Tuesday 27 May 2014

Brazil looking to feed off protests as Scolari and players begin World Cup preparations

Around two hours away from Rio de Janeiro at the end of a road that winds its way intricately through a forest-clad mountain range is the city of Teresópolis. It is one of a cluster of settlements that sprung up around the region’s shimmering gem, Petrópolis, which once upon a time provided Brazil’s imperial elite with respite from the heat and chaos of Rio, 70 miles below.

This has been the Seleção’s home in Brazil since 1987. It was here that the squad trained in the lead-up to every World Cup between 1990 and 2002, and it is here that Luiz Felipe Scolari’s charges gathered on Monday ahead of this summer’s tournament.

They would have expected a warm welcome. The city, after all, takes no little pride in its status as Brazil’s footballing headquarters. This year, the main road into the centre is adorned with cartoon images of Neymar, Pelé and Cafu. But when the team bus rolled into town, it was met with angry protests rather than cheers.

Read the rest of this piece over at ESPNFC. 

(Photo: Marcio Iannacca)

Thursday 22 May 2014

Pelé and Zico voice concerns as Brazil's World Cup preparations limp onto home straight

You know things are grave when Pelé, that most malleable of sporting icons, feels the need to break from the party line. The former Brazil star, whose stance on the protests that swept the country during last summer's Confederations Cup (rough outline: pipe down and enjoy the football) drew such ire from many of his countrymen, became the latest to voice his concern over the stuttering preparations for the World Cup this week.

"We knew six years ago that we were going to host the tournament," O Rei said with a sigh at a PR event in Mexico. "Now here we are, one month before it starts and there are unfinished stadiums and other problems. It's shameful and frustrating."

For once, it is hard to argue with him. The FIFA deadline for the World Cup arenas – December 31 – came and went like a feather on the breeze. Sao Paulo's stadium, the Arena Corinthians, staged its first match at the weekend. The Arena da Baixada in Curitiba – one of a number of grounds to be renovated rather than built afresh – was almost cut from the schedule in October after repeated hold-ups, only for FIFA secretary general Jerome Valcke to grant a stay of execution. At every turn come new delays.

Read the rest of this piece on the ESPN website.

Wednesday 21 May 2014

Money can't buy you love: Brazil's stranglehold on the Copa Libertadores loosens after spell of dominance

When Atlético Mineiro won the Copa Libertadores – South America’s Champions League – in 2013, they gained a whole raft of new followers. With recognisable stars like Ronaldinho and Gilberto Silva, a thrilling emerging talent in Bernard and a cosy stadium that throbbed with sound on match night, they were certainly an attractive proposition.

At the Independência (they turned down the chance to play at the renovated Mineirão), the Roosters would overwhelm opponents with their high-intensity game plan, pressing all over the pitch and attacking with ruthless diagonal thrusts. It wasn’t the most nuanced tactical set-up, but by golly it worked.

Their success appeared to confirm a trend: Brazil was simply getting too good at this Libertadores lark. Atlético were the fourth Brazilian winners in four years, following in the footsteps of Internacional, Neymar’s Santos side and Corinthians, who went through the competition unbeaten in 2012, conceding just four goals. You had to go back to 2004 for the last final with no Brazilian representation.

This dominance was largely grounded in money. In recent years, Brazilian football has taken something of a Great Leap Forward when it comes to the commercial side of the game, exploring new revenue streams and profiting from growing global interest.

Read the rest of this blog on the Yahoo! Eurosport website.