Angered, the coaching staff suspended the session temporarily. But the players didn’t mind. They attempted to take retribution into their own hands, comically kicking balls high into the skies. None hit their desired target. They’ll hope for better on Saturday but can now be buoyed by one immensely powerful realization: Brazil are scared.
The strongest narrative of this World Cup so far has been that well-drilled, well-organized, spirited and brave sides are excelling no matter what their reputation or ranking. In their final Group H game against Russia, north African side Algeria conceded after just six minutes. But despite their opponents finding plenty of space and creating problems in the final third, Algeria were adamant that they were not going to concede a second.
For the rest of the game, Russia were unable to engineer a clear-cut opportunity while, acknowledging their own attacking limitations, Algeria recognized the importance of set-pieces and fired a number of dangerous warning shots before Islam Slimani rose to power home a headed equalizer on the hour mark. Typically, Russia responded frenetically. They brought on more attackers from the bench and subsequently lost balance. Algeria, penned inside their own 18-yard line for the final 25 minutes, were intelligent and resolute. And as their opponents lost focus amid frenzied panic, Algeria, essentially, allowed Russia to self-destruct.
There’s been quite a bit of that. Luis Suarez aside, Portugal succumbed in their opening game against Germany when Pepe, so ridiculously, got himself sent off. A couple of African sides, Cameroon and Ghana, have, rather stereotypically, squabbled over money and team morale plummeted as a result. But the usual offenders – Holland and France – have offered nothing but peaceful tranquility.
Four years on from mutiny, Les Bleus, are at ease. Much was made of Didier Deschamps’ decision to leave Manchester City midfielder Samir Nasri out of his World Cup squad but he’s since been proved correct. Nasri, a gifted soccer player, is a loudmouth and a prima donna. Deschamps, who captained France to World Cup victory in 1998, could do without such antics and placed his faith in raw, inexperienced players who carried lower profiles. Hungry and determined, devoid of any poisonous, brattish cliques, the group has delivered. More than that, France has played expressive, entertaining soccer and the off-field harmony has effortlessly translated to the pitch where the team has played with a freedom and zest.
It’s naïve to think only pluck and courage and heart and determination will push a team towards a World Cup triumph. But it’s equally naïve to think a team which relies heavily on one special player won’t eventually crash and burn when required to reach for an alternative plan. And that’s Brazil’s greatest concern as they prepare for Saturday’s clash with their fellow South Americans.
Without Neymar, what has Brazil offered so far? Not much. In their opening game against Croatia, Oscar showed some neat touches, great nous and awareness and displayed his composure in front of the goal, too.
But the problems greatly outweigh the positives. There’s the frustrating Fred, the Paulinho-versus-Fernandinho midfield conundrum and the worryingly creaky defence. In the first half of their final group fixture against Cameroon, Neymar took the game by the scruff of the neck, single-handedly shouldering the burden and delivering with a wonderful performance. He was brave and spirited and determined and carried his teammates.
But when unable to influence proceedings to his liking, Brazil appear to come unstuck. It’s happened already. Against Mexico, they were held scoreless. Oscar was replaced. Neymar was well-shackled, any potential breakthroughs snuffed out by an excellent display from goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa. There was also space for Mexico to exploit and though they tried their luck with shots from distance, Chile certainly won’t. They will be direct, using their pace and power to run at the Brazilian defence. With a numerical advantage in midfield, Chile will attack from deep and with offensive threats like Alexis Sanchez and Eduardo Vargas penetrating from wide areas, Brazil’s marauding fullbacks will have to worry more about their defensive responsibilities.
There is a tenacity to Chile’s play that can trouble Brazil. There is a relentless, terrier-like pressing system and a tactically astute coach in Jorge Sampaoli. They work hard, possess boundless energy and can be devastating in the final third. They won’t be intimidated by Brazil, the conditions won’t inhibit them and they’ve already achieved one terrific victory over a heavily fancied side at this tournament.
But perhaps most importantly, there’s a unity and a sense of togetherness. There is no isolated, gifted genius in Chile’s ranks, no individual that carries the hopes of a nation.
If Brazil hope to find a victory on Saturday, perhaps they need to be more like the team they’ll face.
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