By Andrew Downie
SAO PAULO, Feb. 12 (Reuters) - There is always a spirited debate about who should make the next Brazil squad, but the discussion this week is an unusual one for the only team to have won the World Cup five times: where have all the strikers gone?
Coach Luiz Felipe Scolari likes to play with an old-fashioned centre-forward, and his preferred option is Fluminense striker Fred.
Scolari has already guaranteed Fred a place in his 23-man squad for the World Cup, but the 30-year-old forward is injury-prone and has played only half of his club's games in the past two years.
Jo, who came on as a substitute for Fred several times last year, has started the season well for his club, Atletico Mineiro, but is hardly a unanimous choice as Fred's stand-in.
Leandro Damiao, the only other traditional No.9 Scolari has used, has played just once this year for his new club, Santos.
The lack of options is causing angst in a nation that has never wanted for strikers or goals.
"You need to ask what's happening with Brazilian football," Edilson, a World Cup winner in 2002, said on Sportv this week.
"Back in my day I had to fight for a place with Ronaldo, Romario, Muller, Edmundo, Caio (Ribeiro), Viola, Luizao. And here we are worried about one player, Fred. Brazilian football is going through a really terrible phase."
Brazil's main attacking weapon come June will be Neymar, the 22-year old Barcelona forward voted the best player in last year's Confederations Cup.
Potential partners up front include Hulk, Robinho and Shakhtar Donetsk's Bernard. Attacking midfielders such as the English Premier League trio Oscar, Ramires and Paulinho can also get forward and score.
But none of them is an out-and-out striker, and that worries many Brazilians used to seeing players such as Ronaldo, Adriano and Careca leading the line.
"Whether the first-choice striker is fit or not, the fact is there's a crisis surrounding the No.9 shirt on the eve of the World Cup," columnist Flavio Garcia wrote in Wednesday's Lance! newspaper.
The problem highlights why Scolari was so keen to persuade Diego Costa to commit himself to Brazil last year. The powerful Atletico Madrid striker chose Spain instead, but he ticks all Scolari's boxes.
"I would prefer to have two penalty-box strikers," Scolari said on Tuesday, when he announced his squad for Brazil's next friendly, against South Africa on March 5.
"I like a centre-forward who has a presence in the box, who gets stuck in, who is strong in the air, and who plays a tactically important role."
Perhaps recognising the dearth of such options, Felipao made it clear he will rely on Neymar and use a "false nine" - a player used in a deeper central attacking position - or wide players if needed.
Among the options suggested as back-up are Diego Tardelli, the versatile Atletico Mineiro forward; uncapped Flamengo striker Hernane; and even Walter, the Fluminense player who has made as many headlines for his weight problems as for his impressive goalscoring record.
Fred's fitness is probably Scolari's biggest worry in the months to come. He chooses his squad on May 7, and he will be praying the big man is ready. Until then, the angst will continue, for manager and fans.
(Editing by Stephen Wood)