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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.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Paulinho's Header Sends Brazil To Confederations Cup Final With 2-1 Victory Over Uruguay

Brazil clinched a 2-1 victory over Uruguay today to advance to the finals to the Confederations Cup and defend their Confederations Cup title at the Maracana Stadium on Sunday. Brazil will be aiming for a third consecutive Confederations Cup championship at the Maracana stadium and stand to face the winner of Italy and Spain from the other semifinal. Brazil played their standard 4-2-1-3 formation with Neymar and Hulk in wide positions positioned between Fred, the lone centerforward. Uruguay, meanwhile, opted for a 4-3-3 with the dangerous triumvirate of Diego Forlan, Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani spearheading the attack. Corinthians midfielder Paulinho returned to the Brazil squad after recovering from a mild ankle injury to replace Lazio’s Hernanes, who had started against Italy.

The match got off to a scrappy start as both teams struggled to develop any appreciable fluidity and momentum. Things appeared to liven up in the 14th minute, however, when Chelsea’s David Luiz fouled Diego Lugano in the box and conceded a penalty. Diego Forlan stepped up to the penalty spot but had his kick spectacularly saved by Julio Cesar, who dived to his left to read Forlan’s low drive perfectly. The penalty failed to change the tempo and rhythm of the match, however, as Uruguay applied pressure to Brazil in midfield, forcing the Selecao to attack down the flanks and play the occasional long ball to allow Neymar, Fred and Hulk to get behind the Uruguayan fullbacks. And then, a moment of magic from Neymar ruptured the deadlock in the 40th minute. Neymar chested down a pass from Paulinho, and had his flick of a shot deflected by Uruguayan goalkeeper Muslera. The ball subsequently bounced to Fred who poached the ball into the back of the net to give Brazil a 1-0 lead.

Uruguay responded to Fred’s goal minutes into the second half by playing the ball, through midfield, into the box with the ball eventually falling to Edinson Cavani after a maze of Brazilian defenders failed to clear the ball. Cavani calmly dispatched the ball past Julio Cesar’s right hand to make it 1-1 after 47 minutes. Cavani’s goal energized Brazil, with Neymar, for example, trekking back deeper on the left flank and into central positions in order to obtain an extra yard of space. In the 55th minute, Hulk challenged Muslera with an on target free kick that the Uruguayan keeper punched out for a corner kick. Uruguay, however, held firm by playing deep and bursting forth on the counterattack.

Scolari substituted Bernard for Hulk in the 63rd minute in a move that enlivened the Brazilian attack as Bernard, Oscar and Neymar delivered crisp, triangular combination play that allowed Brazil to penetrate the Uruguayan box on more than one occasion. Brazil dominated possession but found themselves resorting to a longer range shots as Uruguay packed the center of the box with ten men behind the ball. The match appeared to be heading for extra time until the 86th minute, when Paulinho rose to head in a Neymar corner to give Brazil a crucial 2-1 lead with roughly 7 minutes remaining.

This was a crucial victory for Brazil as it propels them to the Confederations Cup final and gives the team the luxury of another competitive game against world class opposition in a major tournament. The match showcased Brazil’s ability to play against skillful opposition who opted for a highly defensive game plan. Once again, Neymar was involved in both goals as he continues to show that the team revolves around him, even though today’s goals came from Fred and Paulinho. Brazil's victory against Uruguay allows soccer fans to dream of the mouthwatering prospect of a Brazil vs. Spain final, in Brazil at the famed Maracana Stadium on Sunday. Before that matchup, however, Spain have to surmount Italy, who will be without Mario Balotelli due to injury, although Andrea Pirlo and Daniele de Rossi are likely to be back in the Italy starting lineup.

Despite today's victory, Brazil coach Luiz Felipe Scolari clearly still has some tweaking to do with the team's performance and positioning, but the reality is that the Brazilian machine is finally starting to click after years of inconsistency and lack of direction. Today, they beat Uruguay on home soil to exorcise the ghost of their famous loss to the same nation in the 1950 World Cup final. On Sunday, the world will know if they have truly exorcised the ghost of 1950 by winning in the Maracana Stadium in the final of a major tournament, given that the Maracana stadium was the site of their historic loss in 1950.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Neymar and Fred Lead Brazil To 4-2 Victory Over Italy In Confederations Cup

Brazil defeated Italy 4-2 yesterday to take top place in Group A of the Confederations Cup and advance to face Uruguay or Nigeria in the semifinals on Wednesday. With this victory, Brazil retained the distinction of remaining unbeaten against Italy for 31 years, since their epic World Cup encounter in 1982. Italy were without star midfielder Andrea Pirlo due to a thigh injury as well as Daniele De Rossi, who was suspended after having picked up two yellow cards in preceding group matches against Japan and Mexico. Brazil fielded their standard starting lineup with the exception of Lazio’s Hernanes, who started in place of Paulinho in midfield.

Brazil dominated possession for much of the first half, including a flurry of chances in the opening minutes via Neymar and Oscar, but opened the scoring only minutes from the end of the first half when Fred’s header from a Neymar free kick deflected to substitute Dante, who calmly slotted the ball past Gianluigi Buffon’s left hand to make it 1-0. Dante, who had entered the match as a first half substitute for the injured David Luiz, scored in his hometown of Salvador de Bahia, and later revealed that he dreamed of scoring in front of his family and friends who were in attendance for the game.

Dante’s goal picked up the pace of the match significantly in the second half as Brazil sought to consolidate their lead and Italy attempted to claw their way back into the match. Emanuele Giaccherini equalized for Italy in the 51st minute after receiving a flick from Mario Balotelli on the right. Giaccherini delivered a bullet of a shot far post to score the first goal Brazil had conceded in the 2013 Confederations Cup. Minutes later, Neymar was brought down on the edge of the box and the Barca bound Brazilian sensation subsequently curled the ensuing free kick past the wall into the far right corner of the net to score his third consecutive goal in three matches.

Brazil coach Luiz Felipe Scolari called Neymar a “genius” and gushed at his prodigy’s performance and sensational free kick by noting:

He had lots of moments of quality, but what decided the game was the free kick. He noticed [Gianluigi] Buffon had taken a step to the side and put the ball on the other side. Only players who have that kind of notion, that we can call genius, are the ones who make the difference. And he makes the difference.

Ten minutes later, Fred appeared to seal the game for Brazil by magnificently controlling a long aerial delivery from Marcelo, sidestepping two defenders and sending a rocket of a shot into the roof the net to make it 3-1. But Italy were not going to bow down without a fight as Chienelli scored in the 71st minute from a corner kick deflection. The goal was hugely controversial because the referee appeared to have blown his whistle to signal a penalty for a foul on Mario Balotelli in the box, but then allowed play to continue that resulted in the Italian goal.

At 3-2, with twenty minutes remaining, the match entered its closing 20 minutes with an electric atmosphere and pace as Italy turned on the pressure in search of an equalizer. But it was Fred who finally decided the game in the 89th minute when substitute Bernard found Marcelo, whose shot ricocheted off Buffon to enable the poaching Fred to pounce for his second goal of the evening and set the score at 4-2.

Brazil fans are witnessing a milestone in the restoration and renovation of the team at this year’s Confederations Cup. After years of disappointing performances since the 2010 World Cup, with the team slipping to its lowest ever spot in the FIFA ranking, Luiz Felipe Scolari has started by fielding a consistent squad determined to deliver results first, and flair second. Scolari’s team has now beaten France, Japan, Mexico and Italy in succession. But the most important development for Brazil is Neymar’s emergence on the international stage as a striker, winger and creative midfielder rolled into one. Neymar has shown that he is much more of a team player than Brazil’s Ronaldo in ways that recall the great Pele, and his vision for his teammates and ability to change the overall tempo of the game has been demonstrated against world class opposition. The question now is whether Neymar and team can continue to perform at a high level as the tournament progresses to the elimination stage marked by their semifinal match on Wednesday. Italy, meanwhile, finished second in Group A and progresses to the semifinals to play Spain in a repeat of the 2012 European Championship final matchup.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Neymar Dazzles As Brazil Defeat Mexico 2-0 And Advance To Confederations Cup Semifinals

Brazil defeated Mexico 2-0 today to advance to the semifinals of the Confederations Cup as a result of Italy’s thrilling 4-3 victory over Japan. Neymar stole the show from the protesters who had gathered outside the stadium in Fortaleza by scoring his second spectacular goal for Brazil in as many games, creating innumerable problems for Mexican defenses and delivering a classy assist to striker Jo for Brazil’s second goal after some brilliant lead up play. The match showcased Neymar’s ability to “bear the weight” of Brazil’s legendary number 10 shirt, which was recently given to him by coach Luiz Felipe Scolari after a lengthy spell wherein Chelsea’s Oscar owned the number 10 jersey under the previous Brazil coach, Mano Menezes. Neymar has been the best player of the Confederations Cup by far, and his efflorescence of form arrives at exactly the right moment not only for the team, but also for fans and pundits who were beginning to write him off as a player that was unable to perform at a high level against non-Brazilian opposition.

Once again, Scolari resorted to his trademark tactic of initiating Brazil’s attack from the flanks, with Neymar, Hulk, Marcelo and Dani Alves all combining to stretch the Mexican defense. The first goal resulted from a Dani Alves cross that the Mexican defense failed to clear such that the ball landed to Neymar, who dispatched a brilliant volley into the back of the net. As in the first game against Japan, Neymar opened the scoring with a volley, but against Mexico, he scored with his left foot as opposed to his right in a move that recalled Brazil legend Ronaldo’s unique ability to effortlessly shoot off both feet. In the 15th minute, Dani Alves almost made it 2-0 with a skillful long range chip that Mexico’s goalkeeper Corona flicked over the bar at the last minute.

Mexico gathered their composure and applied pressure in the remainder of the first half, but quality chances were few and far between. Mexico’s right back Hiram Mier surged forward and managed to get around David Luiz but shot just wide of goal. Similarly, Dos Santos delivered a dangerous long range shot in the final minutes of the half but to no avail. Meanwhile, much of Brazil’s attention in the first half was centered around David Luiz, who bloodied his nose in a collision with Thiago Silva, and spent much of the half receiving medical attention on and off the field.

The game opened up again in the early minutes of the second half, with a disallowed Thiago Silva goal from a Neymar free kick, and a glorious opportunity for Hulk that the Zenit striker wasted by sending the ball squarely into the side netting instead of crossing to a teammate or shooting low, far post. Mexico then failed to convert a golden chance when Giovanni Dos Santos broke free down the left flank and crossed to Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez, but David Luiz brilliantly intercepted the ball to keep the score 1-0 Brazil. Neymar had a couple of additional chances in the second half, but his most dazzling piece of artistry came in stoppage time when he sidestepped two defenders on the left edge of the box, burst into the penalty area and laid the ball on a platter for substitute Jo, who coolly sent the ball into the roof of the net for his second consecutive Confederations Cup goal.

The victory marked sweet revenge for Brazil who lost to Mexico in the final of the 2012 Olympics and recently in a friendly in Dallas as well. Alarmingly for Brazil, however, centre-back David Luiz broke his nose during the game even though he played all 90 minutes, and it remains to be seen whether Luiz will be able to continue for the remainder of the tournament. The good news for Brazil is that Italy’s dramatic 4-3 defeat of Japan means that both teams qualify for the semifinals, and hence have the luxury of resting key players for the third and final match of the group stage. That said, a second place finish in Group A would presumably require playing Spain in the semifinals, which both teams are likely to want to avoid. Mexico, meanwhile, were soundly eliminated after suffering two consecutive defeats and their problems continue to multiply given recent poor performances in Hexagonal Concacaf group qualifying for the 2014 World Cup.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Brazil Open Confederations Cup With 3-0 Victory Over Japan

Brazil delivered an emphatic 3-0 victory against Japan in their opening game of the Confederations Cup thanks to goals from Neymar, Paulinho and Jo. The victory gave Brazil the crucial three points they were seeking as they prepare for upcoming group stage matches against Mexico and Italy. Coach Luiz Felipe Scolari fielded the same starting lineup that he used against France with his trademark two holding midfielders in the form of Luis Gustavo and Paulinho, and Chelsea’s Oscar positioned behind the attacking triumvirate of Neymar, Fred and Hulk. Alberto Zaccheroni, coach of Japan, played a 4-5-1 formation with the likes of Keisuke Honda, Yasuhito Endo and Shinji Kagawa positioned behind the lone striker Shinji Okazaki.

The match got off to a cracking start when Marcelo sent in a cross from the left flank that Fred chested down to compatriot Neymar, who volleyed an unstoppable shot into the top right corner of the net to give Brazil a dream start. Neymar’s goal ended a 9 international match goal drought. Wearing the famed number 10 jersey, Neymar delivered a characteristically colorful post-goal celebration as Brazil began their quest for a third consecutive Confederations Cup title in style.

Barcelona bound Neymar continued to combine well with Marcelo on the left flank while Hulk and Dani Alves correspondingly wreaked havoc down the right flank. As in the game against France, Scolari opted to position Paulinho and Luis Gustavo deep in midfield and press through Brazil’s trademark dangerous flank attack. Brazil commanded possession throughout the match and applied diligent pressure to every occasion in which Japan possessed the ball, allowing the Blue Samurai precious few opportunities to build up rhythm and momentum. When Japan did go forward, however, they looked like they might grab an equalizer through creative play from Okazaki and Keisuke Honda, particularly given the occasional mistake by David Luiz and Marcelo in Brazil’s backline.

Japan started the second half with vigor and determination, but it took only three minutes for Brazil to double their lead. Neymar collected a throw-in from Marcelo, weaved through a tangle of defenders toward the center of the box, and passed to Hulk, who fed Dani Alves on the right flank. Alves whipped in a cross to Paulinho, who turned like a striker and fired a low shot past the hand of Japan’s goalkeeper Kawashima. The strike marked Paulinho’s second goal for Brazil in three matches and illustrated the depth of Brazil’s attacking options given that they have recently benefited from goals from deeper lying midfielders such as Paulinho and Hernanes on more than one occasion.

Japan lacked their usual midfield creativity and looked sluggish in the second half. Up by two goals, Scolari decided to rest his attackers and substituted Neymar, Hulk and Fred for Lucas, Hernanes and Jo in quick succession. Brazil appeared content to hold onto possession and grind out a victory until the dying minutes when Oscar raced down the left flank and delivered a killer pass to Atletico Mineiro striker Jo, who dispatched the ball with clinical precision into the back of the net to make it 3-0 Brazil.

Today’s victory came head upon the heels of Brazil’s impressive 3-0 victory against France, and suggested Brazil is progressing in the right direction after several lackluster displays in the early matches of Luiz Felipe Scolari’s tenure as coach. Brazil must now prepare to face Mexico, the team that defeated them in last year’s Olympic final, on Wednesday. Meanwhile, Spain play Uruguay in the opening match of Group B and Mexico play Italy in the second match of Group A on Sunday.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Three Quick Observations On Brazil's Landmark 3-0 Victory Against France In Porto Alegre

Brazil secured their first victory against France since 1992 with a decisive 3-0 victory on Sunday in Porto Alegre. Sunday’s victory represents sweet revenge for Brazil given that they were eliminated by France in the 2006 and 1998 World Cups and additionally lost a hard fought friendly to France in February 2011. The victory means that Brazil marches into the Confederations Cup bursting with confidence because today’s match marked the national team’s first victory over a major European team in roughly three years. Scolari’s team delivered a tantalizing glimpse of Brazil’s attacking potential and ability to command the flanks in an impressive performance rendered all the more memorable because the victory came at the expense of Brazil’s arch-rival France, who were coached by Didier Deschamps, the midfelder who lifted the World Cup trophy after France defeated Brazil 3-0 in the 1998 World Cup final.

With the exception of Marcelo starting for Filipe Luis at left back, Scolari fielded exactly the same team that he started against England, with Neymar, Fred and Hulk spearheading the attack in front in front of Chelsea playmaker Oscar. Brazil almost scored in the first minute when a fumble by France goalkeeper Hugo Lloris meant that Neymar had possession of the ball in a position where the French goalkeeper had come off his line toward the edge of the box. The ball ultimately fell to Oscar, who was stymied by the French defense. Brazil had the lion’s share of chances in the first half, with Hulk, Neymar, Fred, Marcelo and Oscar attacking down the flanks in a strategy that dispensed of attacking straight down the middle of the park, and instead focused on delivering crosses into the box from wide positions.

Three key points about Brazil’s strategy today are worth noting as preparations begin in earnest for the kickoff of the Confederations Cup on June 15:

•Brazil played today in a variant of a 4-3-3 formation, specifically, a 4-2-1-3, with Paulinho and Luiz Gustavo positioned behind Oscar. Scolari likes the idea of two holding midfielders as opposed to one. In today’s match, Paulinho and Luiz Gustavo rarely joined the attack and played the ball laterally instead of forward, allowing the fullbacks to own the attacking jaunt toward goal. The main consequence of Paulinho and Gustavo’s static quality was that we saw Neymar and Oscar drop deep into midfield to collect the ball and surge forward. Neymar, in particular, lurked around center circle more than Brazil fans would like, and exploded down the left flank through beating Mathieu Debuchy and team with sheer pace.

•Scolari unleashed Brazil’s trademark flank attack in this match, and the move paid dividends in glorious fashion. Scolari’s emphasis on the flank attack differs significantly from his predecessor Mano Menezes, who focused on attacking down the center in a Barcelona-style, possession-based build up toward goal. Against France, Marcelo functioned as an auxiliary attacker, as did Dani Alves, although Hulk owned most of the flank attack on the right flank. Scolari’s move to free up the fullbacks restores Brazilian football to its roots with respect to the practice of stretching defenses such that they essentially confront five attackers instead of two or three.

•Brazil’s bench is bursting with talent to the point where Scolari can field two squads of roughly the same strength even assuming two to three injuries. In today’s match we saw Dante, Hernanes, Bernard, Fernando and Lucas all come on as substitutes, and if anything, the rhythm of the match went into a higher gear as the bevy of substitutes took the field. This was the first match where we have seen Dante, Thiago Silva and David Luiz all on the field at the same time, leaving many to wonder whether Scolari will eventually shift to the 2002 formation where he used three fullbacks in the form of Edmilson, Roque Junior and Lucio in order to free up the 2002 World Cup fullbacks Roberto Carlos and Cafu.

The significance of this victory is not to be underestimated even though this was a friendly. France have had Brazil’s number over the last 15 years and this match proved that Brazil’s youthful squad can win against a former World Cup champion. The buildup to all three goals by Oscar, Hernanes and Lucas was vintage with short, crisp passing from the flanks leading to possession in the box that led to goals. Buoyed by today’s victory, Brazil open their defense of the Confederations Cup with a match against Japan on Saturday, June 15. They then play Mexico and Italy in what are expected to be highly challenging matches that will severely test the ability of the Selecao to win a major win tournament roughly a year away from the 2014 World Cup’s kickoff in Sao Paulo.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Brazil And England Play To Memorable 2-2 Draw At Renovated Maracana Stadium

Brazil and England played to a memorable 2-2 draw at the Maracana stadium in Rio de Janeiro today in a game where Brazil dominated possession and England fought back on the counter-attack. Today’s game marked the first match at the newly renovated Maracana stadium where Brazil famously lost to Uruguay in the 1950 World Cup final. Brazil fielded a 4-3-3 formation with Dani Alves, David Luiz, Thiago Silva and Filipe Luis in defense, Luis Gustavo, Paulinho and Oscar in midfield, and Neymar, Fred and Hulk as the attacking triumvirate. Coach Luiz Felipe Scolari handed the famous number 10 jersey to Neymar instead of Oscar in a clear signal that he envisions the Barcelona-bound ex Santos star as the leader of the current youthful squad. England, on the other hand, played in a 4-5-1 formation with coach Roy Hodgson fielding striker Theo Walcott in a withdrawn position on the right flank behind Wayne Rooney.

Eager to avenge their 2-1 loss to England at Wembley Stadium in February, Brazil began by taking control of the midfield and attacking with their vintage short, crisp passing and the ability to beat defenders on the dribble. Moreover, Brazil pressured England relentlessly on the ball and allowed Roy Hodgson’s team little space by double teaming whenever England had possession. Chelsea midfielder Oscar orchestrated the lion’s share of Brazil’s attacks by dropping deep into midfield and sprinting forward in search of Neymar, Fred and Hulk. Neymar seemed keen to vindicate Scolari’s decision to grant him the number 10 jersey and shot on goal from close range in positions where he would have done better to pass to a teammate.

Neymar had a golden opportunity in the 19th minute when he received a pass with only the keeper to beat and shot it right into the body of the diving Joe Hart from the left flank. Two minutes later, Neymar collected a deft pass from Fred, sidestepped England defender Glen Johnson, but unleashed the shot just wide of goal. In the 35th minute, Oscar dribbled past a bevy of English defenders on the right flank and sent a bullet of a cross that Hulk backheeled just wide of goal. Minutes later, Oscar again found space on the right flank but Fred’s header floated over the bar. England’s best opportunity of the half came in the 39th minute, when Theo Walcott found space in the box to drive a shot straight at Julio Cesar, who parried the ball well.

The floodgates opened in the second half as Brazil continued to relentlessly apply pressure against the English goal. Playing largely in England’s half, Brazil continued to create chances and varied their passing game with some longer range shots on goal in an effort to disrupt Joe Hart’s rhythm. The long range strategy paid dividends in the 57th minute when Hernanes curled in a dipping shot that deflected off the cross-bar and fell to Fred lurking near the right side of goal, who twisted his body to dispatch the ball into the back of the net to give Brazil a deserved 1-0 lead. Buoyed by their breakthrough, the Samba boys rested on their laurels a little too much by easing up on their attacks and positioning themselves languidly in midfield. England were quick to capitalize on the let up in pressure as substitute Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain carved out space outside the edge of the box and rifled in a right footed rocket past the right hand of Julio Cesar to make it 1-1 in the 66th minute. Ten minutes later, Brazil were staring defeat at the Maracana stadium squarely in the eye when Wayne Rooney burst down the left flank on a counterattacking opportunity and sent a curling, wonder of a shot into the roof of the net to make it 2-1 England. Scolari responded by sending on waves of substitutes and was granted a reprieve from an embarrassing loss when Lucas Moura’s cross found Paulinho, who volleyed the cross into the back of the net to make it 2-2 with less than 10 minutes of regulation time remaining.

Overall, this was a disappointing result for Brazil, who should genuinely feel they had their pulse on the game and deserved a victory given their possession and chances. On the other hand, Brazil fans can take heart from the fact that the midfield gelled for the first time since the 2012 Olympics, when the team delivered some impressive displays of midfield possession and creativity en route to the Olympic final. Moreover, Scolari can take heart from the depth of his squad given that his substitutions featured Real Madrid’s Marcelo, Lazio’s Hernanes, Internacional’s Leandro Damiao, Paris Saint-Germain’s Lucas Moura and Atletico Mineiro’s playmaker Bernard. Neymar, meanwhile, struggled to live up to the weight of expectations, this time in the number 10 jersey, no less. Nevertheless, Brazil fans and Scolari will be impressed by the pace of the Brazilian midfield and can expect the team to only improve both in the next two weeks and throughout the upcoming Confederations Cup. Brazil’s next friendly is against France on June 9 in Porto Alegre.

Brazil: Fred (57), Paulinho (82)
England: Oxlade-Chamberlain (66), Rooney (77)