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This blog reflects on soccer qua football all over the world. The blog has a specific investment in attractive, attacking football and, as such, focuses on Brazil, the most emphatic historical exponent of the beautiful game.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Fred Comes To The Rescue To Help Brazil Tie Russia 1-1

Brazil and Russia played to a spirited 1-1 draw at Chelsea's Stamford Bridge stadium in a match full of chances that both teams failed to convert with the exception of one goal apiece. Fabio Capello’s Russian team appeared rested after having missed their scheduled friendly to Northern Ireland due to weather. Russia threatened the Brazil goal in the opening minutes thanks to strikes by Kerzhakov and Ignashevich. As the first half wore on, however, Brazil gradually began to assert themselves through the efforts of Neymar, who selfishly attempted to go for goal himself on more than one occasion when either Fred, Oscar or Kaka were better positioned to convert. Kaka and Marcelo contributed to the Brazilian attack while Hernanes remained largely in a deeper playmaking position and distributed passes to both flanks with impressive precision. Russia, however, maintained good form and cohesion both defensively and in midfield, thereby displaying superior positioning in comparison to Brazil, who played in characteristic Samba fashion with Neymar, Oscar and Kaka slicing their way through midfield supported by dangerous flank attacks from Dani Alves and Marcelo. Just as Brazil began to gain momentum, however, Russian midfielder Fayzulin picked up a pass from Kerzhakov and unleashed a rocket of a shot that Cesar narrowly deflected in the 41st minute.

Brazil emerged from the break determined to take control of the game as Neymar and Kaka began pressing attacks fed by passes from Oscar and Hernanes. The match began to turn, however, soon after Oscar’s substitution for Hulk in the 67th minute. In the 73rd minute, Russia finally broke through after the ball bounced as if through a pinball machine in the box for a couple of minutes before Fayzulin finally shot it past a line of Brazilian defenders into the back of the net. Russia appeared headed for their first ever victory over Brazil were it not for the efforts of Hulk on the left flank, who began to show that his experience with Zenit had not gone to nought  as he consistently troubled the right fullback Eschenko. Just when it appeared that Scolari was headed for his second loss in three games as Brazil coach, Marcelo played a give and go with Hulk whereby the Zenit striker drifted inward and returned the ball to the onrushing Marcelo, who in turn crossed to Fred in the box for the equalizer. Brazil piled on the pressure in the closing minutes but were lucky not to come away with a defeat given a late Shirokov shot from close range that went wide in the 93rd minute.

Key points from today’s game with respect to Brazil were as follows:
  • Brazil continues to develop an impressive midfield marked by extreme pace, vision and creative attacks and combination play.
  •  Fred remains far too static for a number 9 to cause any serious difficulty for the opposition. Ronaldo, recall, used to retreat deep into midfield and run at the heart of defenses. Fred, however, is both incredibly static and unthreatening for large parts of the game. Nevertheless, the Fluminense striker has now scored for four consecutive games in a row for Brazil, so Brazil fans should be thankful that at least someone can put the ball in the back of the net.
  • This was yet another disappointing display by Neymar, whose inexperience with European defenders is becoming painfully apparent. Scolari will need to figure out how to more effectively position the Santos sensation so that he can properly execute the threatening runs into the box that he would like to make.
  • Hulk inspired the Brazilian attack today after a disappointing performance against Italy four days ago. Were it not for his strength and vision, Brazil would have lost yet another match and dropped even further in FIFA World rankings.
Scolari is making progress with Brazil, as we are beginning to see a mature midfield supplemented by two of the finest fullbacks in the world in the form of Marcelo and Dani Alves. Brazil’s poor finishing is perhaps the most alarming aspect of their game, however, as Fred and Neymar, in particular, both had high quality chances that they failed to bury into the back of the net. The main cause of concern, however, hinges around Neymar and whether he can be unleashed to display his unique blend of skill and vision on the international stage. If so, Brazil stand a fighting chance of winning the World Cup. Without a confident Neymar, however, it is unlikely Brazil will progress past the semifinals of the 2014 World Cup and perhaps not even to that stage of the tournament at all.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Brazil And Italy Play To Breathtaking 2-2 Draw In Geneva

Brazil and Italy played to a breathtaking 2-2 draw in Thursday’s friendly in Geneva, Switzerland that conjured up memories of their memorable match at the 1982 World Cup where Italy emerged the winner as a result of Paolo Rossi’s famous hat-trick despite all of the attacking initiatives of the likes of Socrates, Zico, Eder and Falcao. On this occasion, Brazil leapt to a 2-0 lead at halftime thanks to goals by Fred and Oscar in the first half. Italy roared out of the gates in the second half and equalized thanks to a flick by Daniele De Rossi and a screamer of a goal by Mario Balotelli from 25 yards to level the match. Italy’s fightback was largely attributable to coach Prandelli’s decision to bring on Stephan El Shaarawy for Pablo Osvaldo in a move that added additional steel to the Azzuri’s attack and freed up Balotelli, in particular, to find the space to take more chances against a Brazilian defense that still needs to fine tune its positioning. Despite their second half goals, Italy played sustained attacking football throughout the game and can consider themselves denied of a win only by the acrobatics of Brazil’s goalkeeper, Julio Cesar, who once again demonstrated why many regard him as the best goalkeeper in the modern game.

Some quick thoughts on the game, with a focus on Brazil, are as follows:

•Today’s game was played at an electric pace, with end to end football for the first 60 minutes. Both Italy and Brazil demonstrated that they are serious contenders for the World Cup 2014 championship despite some dubious recent performances from both teams. Both teams transitioned well from defense to offense and created more chances than they were able to convert. Judging by today’s game, fans who find Spain’s possession play boring will discover refreshing alternatives in Italy and Brazil as they tweak their lineups and positioning for World Cup 2014.

•Brazil’s Ronaldinho, who was left out of the Brazil squad, would likely have struggled in a game marked by this kind of pace and sheer velocity. The same holds true for Kaka, who looked fresh, but was unable to impose his presence on the game after entering as a second half substitute for Oscar.

•Hernanes delivered a solid performance in a deep playmaker role that is likely to earn him a start against Russia on March 25. Brazil has struggled to find a deep lying playmaker since the days of Falcao and Cerezzeo from Tele Santana’s legendary 1982 squad, and Hernanes may well be just the man to anchor the transition to attack and orchestrate attacks on both flanks and down the center as well.

•Neymar, again, showed that he plays best when he withdraws deep into midfield and runs at the center of defenses as evinced by the sublime run he made to set up Oscar for Brazil’s second goal. The Neymar and Oscar pairing continues to develop and coalesce as a fixture in the Brazilian attacking formation and their partnership may well end up being the stage on which Brazil launches its case for World Cup 2014 in ways analogous to the pairings of Romario and Bebeto, or, more pertinently, Ronaldo and Rivaldo.

•Hulk delivered a disappointing performance, and this may partly be Scolari’s fault because he switched Hulk to the left flank and opted to let Dani Alves and Oscar own the right side of the field. Nevertheless, Lucas Moura is the obvious alternative selection and could well end up partnering more effectively with Neymar, Oscar and Fred than the burly Zenit striker.

In just two matches in charge, Scolari has overhauled the Brazil team and given it new life and a more balanced feel in terms of age, experience and skill. Scolari still has lots of work to do in terms of finding the right balance in central defense and midfield, but he clearly has his pulse on Brazilian football around the world in a way not shared by his predecessor Mano Menezes, whose vision was closer to Brazil-based players that he knew well. Like Menezes, Scolari has begun by tinkering with the Brazilian midfield. Thus far, he has avoided the temptation to opt for a defensive stopper qua Lucas Leiva and stayed true to Tele Santana’s vision of having four creative midfielders in deep and attacking positions. That said, Scolari is notoriously difficult to predict as a coach though what does seem to be the case is that the pieces of the Brazilian footballing puzzle are gradually starting to fall together after close to three years of experimentation.

Brazil: Fred (33), Oscar (42)
Italy: De Rossi (54), Balotelli (57)

Brazil: Julio Cesar(GK), Dani Alves, David Luiz, Dante, Filipe Luis (Marcelo, 77), Fernando, Oscar (Kaka, 60), Hernanes, Neymar, Fred (Diego Costa, 69), Hulk (Jean, 85)
Italy: Buffon (GK), Maggio, De Sciglio (Antonelli, 73), Barzagli, Bonucci, De Rossi (Diamanti, 80), Pirlo (Cerci, 45), Montolivo, Giaccherini (Poli, 67), Balotelli (Gilardino, 82), Osvaldo (El Shaarawy, 45).

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Scolari Drops Kaka From Starting XI For Brazil Against Italy

Brazil coach Luiz Felipe Scolari brazenly announced his starting lineup for today’s match against Italy while his counterpart, Italy coach Cesare Prandelli refused to reveal details of Italy's squad for the friendly in Geneva, Switzerland. Scolari opted to leave Kaka out of the starting lineup and instead field Lazio playmaker Hernanes and Chelsea’s Oscar in midfield in front FC Porto’s defensive midfielder Fernando. Fernando, Hernanes and Oscar will play behind an attacking triumvirate composed of Neymar, Fred and Hulk in a 4-3-3 formation. The back four features a central defensive partnership of Thiago Silva and David Luiz in midfield while the left and right flanks belong to Filipe Luis and Dani Alves, respectively. Filipe Luis was selected ahead of Real Madrid’s Marcelo in a move that suggests that Scolari may be interested in restraining Luis's attacking freedom given Marcelo’s inherent tendency to function as an auxiliary attacker.

The key selections, however, are Hernanes and Hulk, both of whom were sorely missing in Brazil's abysmal performance against England in February. Expect Hulk to threaten on the right flank with his surging runs and long distance cannon shots with his left foot. Hernanes, on the other hand, has the more difficult role of running the Brazilian midfield by dropping deep to free up Oscar and Neymar while orchestrating attacks down the center as well. Brazil’s performance is likely to hinge on the positioning of Hernanes and Oscar and the question of whether they can create enough movement off the ball to free up the attackers to score goals and restore Brazil’s almost forgotten winning mentality. 

Brazil Starting Lineup: Julio Cesar; Dani Alves, Thiago Silva, David Luiz, Filipe Luis; Fernando, Hernanes, Oscar; Hulk, Fred, Neymar

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Scolari Says Ronaldinho Will Be Called Up Again For The Brazilian National Team

Brazil coach Luiz Felipe Scolari has revealed that Ronaldinho will be called up again to the national team ahead of the 2013 Confederations Cup despite being omitted from the squad for the upcoming friendlies against Italy and Russia. Speaking of Ronaldinho and his squad selection philosophy, Scolari remarked:
Ronaldinho will be called up next time. All potential World Cup squad members will be given at least two matches to be looked at.
Scolari then elaborated on Kaka’s recall by noting it was part of a larger philosophy of giving a select group of players the chance to display what they can do for the national team:
Kaka's return goes with our philosophy of giving everybody a chance. Many of the players are fighting for the same position. I will observe all of them and then I will decide who will go to the Confederations Cup.
Kaka and Ronaldinho play in similar positions at the heart of Brazil’s attacking midfield and it is likely there will be room for only one of the two World Cup champions on the 2014 World Cup squad. The confederations cup will be hosted in Brazil and runs from June 15 to June 30, 2013.  Brazil are the defending champions in an 8 team tournament that additionally features Spain, Japan, Mexico, Uruguay, Tahiti, Italy and Nigeria.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Kaka Recalled For Brazil Squad Against Italy and Russia While Ronaldinho Omitted

Brazil coached Luiz Felipe Scolari named a strong Brazil squad for the upcoming friendlies against Italy and Russia on March 21 and March 25, respectively. Scolari is under intense pressure to win both matches given Brazil’s 2-1 loss to England at Wembley stadium on February 6 in his first match in charge of the Selecao. Brazil’s 2-1 loss to Roy Hodgson’s team marked their first defeat by England in 23 years and raised serious doubts about whether Brazil has enough time to prepare a World Cup squad capable of winning the 2014 World Cup given the recent firing of Mano Menezes after having coached Brazil for close to two years. 

In the match against England, Scolari selected and started Ronaldinho in the center of midfield but the Atletico Mineiro star was noticeably absent from Scolari’s selection for Italy and Russia. Instead, the squad notably features the return of Kaka despite failing to obtain a regular spot in Jose Mourinho’s starting lineup for Real Madrid. Highlights of the squad selection include the following:
  • The return of Kaka to the attacking Brazilian midfield
  • The return of left-back Marcelo after missing several national team matches due to injury
  • The recall of Vasco da Gama’s centre-forward Dede
  • The inclusion of Hernanes after the Lazio playmaker was forced to miss the England friendly because of a concussion sustained during club play
  • The omission of Ronaldinho, Luis Fabiano, Lucas Leiva and Manchester United’s in form right-back Rafael
Kaka has shown that he partners well with Neymar and helps the Santos striker by making diagonal runs toward the left flank in ways that tend to distract defenders from Neymar and enable exciting combination play in the box. Meanwhile, the selection of Hernanes means that Scolari may have the luxury of fielding Kaka, Hernanes, Oscar and Paulinho in a midfield quartet positioned behind Neymar and Fred. Scolari’s other complication concerns Lucas Moura’s impressive form at Paris Saint-Germain and the question of whether Lucas and Hulk can claim places in the starting lineup. 

Scolari made a tacit reference to Ronaldinho by remarking on his squad selection as follows:
I'm giving the players the same opportunities, they'll have one or two matches to play and then I'll make a decision. I don't know if they will be back in the future or not. I'll use these four matches that I have to observe the players and then I'll decide what to do for the Confederations Cup.
Depending on how the squad gels for Italy and Russia, Ronaldinho may have a chance to play in Brazil’s April friendly against Chile. The friendlies against Italy and Russia represent an opportunity for Neymar to respond to Pele’s recent criticisms that the Santos star is fundamentally an ordinary player who lacks the ability to shoulder Brazil’s World Cup dreams given his inexperience with European football. Pele charged Neymar with playing badly every time he plays outside of Brazil and further criticized the Copa Libertadores star for excessive attention to his hairstyle. 

Italy and Russia represent two difficult friendlies for Brazil at this stage of their evolution as a team. Expect Kaka and Hernanes to step up and control the Brazilian midfield while freeing up Oscar to drop deep and wide as necessary. We should also expect Neymar to vary his play and assert his presence more on the team’s flow and attacking rhythm by retreating deeper into midfield and running at defenses instead of getting stymied as a result of double and triple teaming defenders on the left flank.  

Brazil Squad For Friendlies Against Italy and Russia

Julio Cesar (Queens Park Rangers), Diego Cavalieri (Fluminense).

Dani Alves (Barcelona), Marcelo (Real Madrid), Filipe Luis (Atletico Madrid), David Luiz (Chelsea), Dede (Vasco da Gama), Dante (Bayern Munich), Thiago Silva (Paris Saint-Germain).

Paulinho (Corinthians), Ramires (Chelsea), Jean (Fluminense), Fernando (Gremio), Luiz Gustavo (Bayern Munich), Kaka (Real Madrid), Hernanes (Lazio), Oscar (Chelsea), Lucas Moura da Silva (Paris Saint-Germain).

Neymar (Santos), Fred (Fluminense), Hulk (Zenit), Diego Costa (Atletico Madrid).