Ahead of the World Cup, nearly every soccer pundit picked Brazil as the odds-on favorite to win the World Cup.
It’s not hard to see why. For decades Brazil has been one of the — if not the — best teams in world football. If you talk about World Cup contenders, Brazil is always one of the countries named. Every time. Host the tournament on Brazilian soil and you don’t have to be Jonathan Wilson to come to the conclusion that Brazil should probably be the favorite to win the whole thing. You might as well, said the pundits before the tournament, just give the trophy to them now.
However, Saturday’s Round of 16 match against Chile showed that the hosts are in fact beatable, with Chile coming within a Gonzalo Jara strike off the post of sending the Seleção to the stands as spectators. Brazil is coming off of a group stage that looked deceptively easy but revealed troubling chinks in Brazil’s armor. Despite the home advantage in the tournament, it’s now becoming a distinct possibility that Brazil may not have the quality to hoist the trophy in front of their adoring home fans on July 13.
In this World Cup, the Seleção have seemed off the boil from the very beginning. Their opening match against Croatia was a relatively tepid affair by Brazilian standards, and though the scoreline eventually broke in Brazil’s favor, it was helped by the oft-discussed phantom penalty perpetrated by striker Fred.
If niggling doubts began with Croatia, it was only reinforced after thrilling 0-0 draw against a sharp Mexico team: exciting stuff, but a match that should be viewed as a disappointment considering the amount of offensive talent in Brazil’s side. Mexico is a talented team, but their reputation is not built upon being defensively astute. Brazil had their chances, and more often than not fired the ball directly at Mexican keeper Memo Ochoa.
Against a feisty Chile in the Round of 16, Felipe Scolari’s men simply did not look like World Cup champions. Paulinho, who continued his terrible run from his awful season at Tottenham Hotspur this past year, was benched for Manchester City midfielder Fernandinho. Fernandinho does not have the same tendency to push higher up the pitch, and Chile’s intense midfield pressure led to a match that, according to Zonal Marking’s Michael Cox, relied more on long balls and crosses to generate offense. Chile is a fun team to watch and were by far the best team Brazil had faced up until now (Mexico notwithstanding). It showed. While both teams had chances, Brazil’s finishing let them down again, and they were fortunate to escape with a win via penalty kicks
What is becoming increasingly clear is that for all its weapons Brazil is heavily reliant on Neymar for goals. When Neymar is given good service from the midfield in dangerous positions, Brazil looks like a very good team. However, with the midfield repeatedly bogged down now that teams have figured out how to press Brazil, that service has been hard to come by. Fred is a limited striker — useful in certain situations but not necessarily one to make his own shot. Neymar’s compatriot on the left wing, Hulk, has been prone to the occasional offensive derp as well.
Brazil’s defense has also fit a World Cup pattern of teams that are offensively astute but fragile at the back. The back line of Dani Alves, Thiago Silva, David Luiz, and Marcelo have been, for lack of a better word, leaky. The stats don’t show this due to Brazil’s relatively easy Group A, but unless Brazil’s back four tighten up significantly, they are an area ripe for exploitation for Brazil’s future opponents, particularly from the flanks.
If you think I doth protest too much, it’s a fair criticism. This is still the same Brazil team that dominated last summer’s Confederation’s Cup. They’re still playing on home soil (though the intense pressure from the home fans to succeed makes this a double-edged sword), and they still possess an immense potential. However, an in-form and highly impressive South American rival lies in wait. Colombia has been fantastic in this World Cup, and James “Hamez” Rodriguez has terrorized opposition defenses, notching five goals already. After Colombia lies a likely semi-final against either a resurgent France or a Germany team that took seven points from the Group of Death. Victory is not assured.
The mind reels to think about the political and social backlash that an early exit would cause in the country. Brazil has been generous and friendly hosts, even more because they’re favorites, they’re winning, and they know it. The cynic doesn’t want to think that the wonderful Brazilian people would turn hostile with a Seleção exit, but it’s not within the realm of possibility, considering the social unrest and controversy that marred the World Cup in the months leading up to its beginning.
The teams Brazil are facing are only getting better, and the team must show that they are able to play up to the level of their competition if they wish to win their record sixth World Cup trophy. But at this point, it doesn’t appear as though they are in fact the best team currently in Brazil.