RIO DE JANEIRO – Brazil head coach Luiz Felipe Scolari is ready to put the host nation's World Cup campaign on the line by taking a major selection risk for its semifinal with Germany on Tuesday.
Scolari is faced with a major headache after his best player, Neymar, was injured against Colombia. According to speculation in the Brazilian media, he is leaning toward Bernard, the most untested member of his attacking group, as the chosen replacement.
Such a move would be a serious gamble. Bernard is small and fast and could pose problems for the tough Germany backline, yet plays his club soccer in Ukraine and has scored only one goal for the national team.
"We have some big decisions to make," Scolari told Globo television on Saturday night. "We have to make the right one."
Strictly speaking, Bernard would not directly step into the Neymar role. If the 5-foot-4 speedster is selected, he would likely operate on the wing, with Oscar moved inside to fill the Neymar position.
There is no one quite like Neymar, not in Brazil, not in world soccer, and no matter what Scolari does, the team is going to lose some of the natural dynamism that comes with the home hero. That's why Scolari might feel the speed of Bernard could be a valuable asset in Belo Horizonte's Estadio Mineirao.
France attacked Germany with balls lofted over the defense. It didn't score but created some opportunities, and Brazil may gain some traction by combining that approach with Bernard running at the backline from a wide position and whipping in angled crosses.
The mental reaction of Brazil will also be key. Will Neymar's absence be a galvanizing force or a major disruption?
"We were all very sad at the situation and also because Neymar was very sad," Bernard said on Sunday. "Of course, the whole group has felt his loss.
"He is a big loss, not just as a player but also as a person. He is always smiling and saying positive things. But we have to be calm and overcome it. We know that we have other players who will be able to replace him."
Brazil and Germany have not met in a World Cup since the 2002 final, which Brazil won 2-0. This time around things are different. This version of Brazil is not so talent-laden, especially without Neymar, and will need to work mighty hard against a German side that moves the ball quickly and effortlessly.
Germany has been incredibly efficient and the defense only looked sorely tested in a 2-2 tie against Ghana, a quick-paced and athletic team.
Bernard, if selected, will have the opportunity to be the X-factor, in his home city no less. The 21-year-old was born in Belo Horizonte and played for local team Atletico Mineiro before departing to Shakhtar Donetsk last year.
Ukraine is not one of the top leagues in world soccer, but Shakhtar is its best team, is well funded and pays lucrative salaries. Realistically though, after only a year in Europe, Bernard is already looking to move on, and there are several teams in England and Spain that have already paid attention to his ability.
If Bernard can make Scolari's big gamble work then it could pay off for him, in more ways than one.
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