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Brazil: Neymar leads the charge for World Cup number six

It wouldn’t be a World Cup without Brazil, would it? The sight of those canary yellow shirts flitting across our television screens make those sunny summer days seem even warmer.

This time around, the Selecao are firmly amongst the favourites to lift the title a record sixth time and for good reason.

In Neymar, Jesus, Coutinho, Willian and Firmino, they have some of the finest attacking talent on the planet. Add to that a defence that has conceded just five goals in its last 19 games, and you can expect Brazil to go deep into the tournament in Russia.

Brazil’s World Cup squad

Goalkeepers: Alisson, Ederson, Cassio

Defenders: Miranda, Marquinhos, Thiago Silva, Geromel, Marcelo, Fagner, Danilo, Filipe Luis

Midfielders: Casemiro, Fernandinho, Paulinho, Renato Augusto, Coutinho, Willian, Fred

Forwards: Neymar, Gabriel Jesus, Firmino, Taison, Douglas Costa

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How did they qualify?

In the end, it was convincing. But it could all have been so different.

On 28th March 2017, Brazil became the first nation apart from the hosts to book a place at the World Cup, with a 3-0 win over Paraguay in Sao Paulo. And by the end of the marathon South American qualifying campaign in October, the Selecao had amassed 41 points, scored 41 goals and racked up a goal difference of +30.

When Dunga was fired as manager after the sixth round of qualifiers, however, Brazil had won just two, were sixth out of ten in the table and the local press were seriously contemplating the previously-unthinkable: the country might not make it to the World Cup for the first time in its history.

In Dunga’s place the CBF installed Tite, the ex-Corinthians manager, and the turnaround has been miraculous. The new coach pushed Neymar back out to the left, where he is at his most effective, recalled Paulinho, and brought in Gabriel Jesus as the team’s centre-forward.

In terms of personnel, the changes were not wholesale. But the effect he has had on the collective has been spectacular. He implemented his preferred 4-1-4-1 formation, a shape that suits the tools at his disposal, and made the unit far more compact both in defence and attack.

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You no longer see the vast chasms of space between the back four and midfield that allowed Germany to run riot in that 2014 semi-final humiliation. And in possession, this new-found cohesiveness has given Brazil the ability to exchange passes quickly in midfield and work delightful combinations around the opponent’s area – in a manner worthy of the famed golden jersey.

In Tite’s first game, Brazil romped to an impressive 3-0 win against Ecuador at the lung-bursting altitude of Quito and have not stopped since, winning nine and drawing two of their subsequent 11 competitive fixtures.

The run included a magnificent 3-0 victory over Messi’s Argentina in Belo Horizonte and a 4-1 triumph against Uruguay in Montevideo’s hostile Estadio Centenario.

They are, then, one of the in-form sides going into the tournament.

Key men

When talking about Brazil’s brightest light, only one name springs to mind: Neymar. He is the team’s poster boy and its most conspicuous on-pitch presence. His artistry with the ball at his toes is beyond doubt. The ex-Santos star has the ability to glide past opposition defenders at will and decide the result of tight games with moments of inspiration.

Question marks, however, remain over his head. Firstly, there is his fitness. After recovering from a broken metatarsal, will he be firing on all cylinders?

Then there is his attitude. Always a point of discussion, it has come even more firmly into the limelight since his move to PSG. He is still prone to petulant outbursts and fits of rage when he doesn’t get his own way, which could have a negative effect on the collective. During qualifying he picked up six yellow cards in 18 games, a rate that could see him miss out on at least one match in Russia.

Brazil are no longer as reliant on him as they were in 2014, when his absence against Germany turned the team into a nervous wreck. As they proved in the two friendlies in March, when they beat both Russia and Germany without their talisman, they have enough talent in other areas to cope.

It is difficult to imagine Brazil lifting the trophy, though, without Neymar being front and centre. It will be Tite’s job to make sure that he is calm, collected and focused on the task at hand.

Elsewhere, Brazil have quality in abundance. Manchester City’s boy wonder Gabriel Jesus was their top scorer in qualifying with seven goals and Tite’s surprise recall Paulinho is the driving force from the centre of the park. Inter Milan’s Miranda has been the team’s rock in the centre of defence and Casemiro provides vital protection at the base of the midfield three.

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One to watch

In a squad like Brazil’s, it is sometimes difficult to pick an unknown quantity to keep an eye on. Almost all of their starting players regularly appear for Europe’s biggest clubs.

One who could make an impression in this tournament, however, is diminutive Shakhtar Donetsk player Fred. An energetic, all-action box-to-box midfielder, Fred performed admirably in this season’s Champions League as the Ukrainians reached the quarter finals.

He will not start for Tite’s team but will probably have a few chances off the bench to show what he is capable of.

Manchester City are mooted to have made a £50m offer for his services, so this could be the perfect opportunity for an English audience to get better acquainted with someone they could be seeing a lot more of next season.

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The manager

As mentioned above, Tite’s arrival on the scene brought about a stunning upturn in the fortunes of the Selecao. He might, however, still be the least well-known member of the Brazil set up outside of his homeland.

The head coach has spent his whole career managing in Brazil or the Middle East, most notably with Sao Paulo-based Corinthians. He led the Alvinegro to the domestic title in 2011 and a Copa Libertadores and Club World Cup double in 2012, overcoming Chelsea in the final.

In 2014, as his current charges were being so thoroughly embarrassed by Die Mannschaft in Belo Horizonte, Tite was taking a sabbatical in Europe, watching training sessions, studying tactics and taking advice from the sharpest minds in the game. He has an openness to new ideas that marks him out from other Brazilian coaches and this positive attitude has paid dividends.

The media touted him for the top job immediately after the home-World Cup disaster, but the CBF erroneously opted to reinstate Dunga. When that backfired, Tite – who in the meantime had led Corinthians to another domestic title – was finally brought in.

If Brazil have a successful summer in Russia, it would not be a surprise to see him take the reins at one of Europe’s elite clubs at some point in the not-so-distant future.

World Cup 2018: The top 10 contenders

Potential route to the final

In Group E, Tite’s men will come up against Serbia, Switzerland and Tunisia. The Swiss – who Brazil face first, on 17th June in the Rostov Arena – will present the sternest test of the three, but given Brazil’s form coming into the tournament, you would expect them to top the group with gas still in the tank.

Assuming that is the case, they will then face the runner-up of Group F, which contains Germany, Mexico, Sweden and South Korea. In the quarters, their most likely opponents are Belgium and, in the semis, the Selecao would probably face one of France, Portugal or Spain.

It will not be an easy ride for the boys in yellow, but to win the World Cup you have to beat the best at some point along the way.

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Expert opinion

Martin Fernandez - columnist for O Globo and pundit on SporTV

“The players believe in Tite more than they believed in Dunga. He quickly managed to convince them of his way of playing. People’s perception changed, too. Tite has his own style, he’s a kind guy, he’s charismatic, his interviews are more light-hearted. He’s had a positive effect on the Brazilian people and on the players.

“He was always seen as a cautious coach, more concerned with not taking risks than playing attractive football or keeping possession. But in the Selecao, with so many resources, so many players, he’s loosened up. He turned them into a more offensive team and the Selecao has turned him into a more attacking coach.

“I think Brazil are on the same level as the four favourites, along with Germany, Spain and France. Maybe Germany and Spain are a little bit ahead because of the time they’ve had together. Even though Spain changed their coach recently they have a consolidated playing style, the players understand each other and there are more variations within the system, without needing to change players. Germany have had the same manager for 12 years. It wouldn’t be a surprise if Brazil won, but they’re not runaway favourites.

“I think this group is more prepared to deal with the emotional side of the game. A lot the players who are going to Russia were there in Brazil. It’s an older group and the coach is a colder, more rational character than Scolari or Dunga. In 2014, there was the whole thing of playing in Brazil, of being obliged to win. That has gone now. This is a more mature team, perhaps with the exception of Neymar, who still has a temper.

“The weak point of the team, tactically, is the two full-backs. Both are really offensive. Daniel Alves and Marcelo like to get forward, that is the way they’ve always played. Brazil leave some spaces in behind the full-backs, this is a problem that needs to be resolved and it’s not clear how they will do it.

"Against Germany [in the friendly] Brazil suffered a lot of crosses, from both sides of the pitch, crosses from good positions."

Odds

Brazil are currently William Hill's favourites, with them on offer at 4/1 to lift the trophy.*

They are 4/1 to get knocked out* at the semi-final stage - as they did four years ago - and both Neymar and Gabriel Jesus are in the running for top goal-scorer, at 9/1* and 14/1* respectively.

*Please note these odds are correct at time of publishing and could be subject to change.

**This article is brought to you by William Hill. William Hill is not affiliated to the English FA or the England Football Team

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