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.