Tim Vickery Column: Some considerations on Brazil's squad to face South Africa
Coach Luiz Felipe Scolari found his blend during last year’s Confederations Cup. The pieces of the jigsaw began to fall into place in the warm up friendlies against England and France, and the process continued through the competition. Brazil ended the tournament not only with the trophy, but also with a consolidated group and a team identity.
Since then Scolari has been happy to tinker; the recall of Ramires brings with it the option of a 4-3-3 as a variation on the usual 4-2-3-1; he has had a look at reserve options with both full backs; Willian has been successfully introduced; and bringing back Robinho last time allowed him to have a look at the idea of playing the Milan man in a ‘false nine’ role. What would he appear to be thinking this time?
When Julio Cesar did not fix up a move during the (European) summer transfer window, Scolari acted fast to cut off speculation, guaranteeing the keeper a place in the World Cup – but in the squad, not the team.
I imagine that at the time he trusted that the situation would be sorted out in January. When yet another window shut with Julio Cesar languishing at QPR, a Plan B for the first choice jersey became unavoidable.
It now seems that his favourite goalkeeper will join Toronto in the MLS. But the season there does not start til the middle of next month. Reading between the lines, there would seem to be an opportunity for Jefferson of Botafogo to make a claim to be first choice – a few months back it is likely that Jefferson was no more than a reserve in the coach’s mind. It will be interesting to see who starts against South Africa.
Rafinha was the surprise selection here, because the excluded Maicon has done well on his recall. Two factors; Rafinha is now getting a game at Bayern Munich, after Pep Guardiola relocated Philip Lahm to the midfield, and the former Coritiba product has showed the dynamic lung power that always made him an interesting example of the Brazilian tradition of attacking full backs.
Moreover, Maicon will be coming up 33 at the World Cup. Might the rigours of the European season have taken the edge off his game by then? Scolari is insuring himself against that possibility by taking a look at Rafinha.
The key moment in the development of this team was the introduction of Luiz Gustavo in the holding role. But who is his reserve? In recent squads it has been Lucas Leiva, but the injury to the Liverpool man opened up a space which has been filled, predictably, by Fernandinho of Manchester City.
But there is a doubt about him for the role. Fernandinho is a player of terrific lung power. But primarily what Brazil are looking for in this case is positional sense, someone to sit in front of the centre backs and plug the gaps as they appear across the line. Is he comfortable doing this?
If not, he may still have a chance. The fact that Hernanes has not been called up this time is surely significant. The likely explanation is that Scolari also wants to test Fernandinho in the position of back up to Paulinho, the more attacking of Brazil’s central midfield duo. The capacity to act in more than one function (I can recall Fernandinho playing at right back for Atletico Paranaense) is an important consideration when filling in the final few names of a World Cup squad.
Why no Robinho? The Milan attacker has picked up an injury, but should be fit well before March 5th. He did well on his recall last November. So why discard him so quickly?
The answer would seem to be that Scolari has no desire to use the South Africa game to experiment with a ‘false nine.’ He wants to see the real article out there on the pitch, a penalty area target man type, which has always been his preference, all the way back to the days of Jardel at Gremio.
Scolari delayed the announcement of the small domestically based contingent in his squad because he is waiting on the fitness of Fred. Should the hero of the Confederations Cup recover in time, then he will have another chance to lead the line. But Fred, further injury aside, has a guaranteed place in the World Cup squad. But who will be his reserve? Jo, of Atletico Mineiro, who did well when given a surprise chance last year? Perhaps another opportunity for Leandro Damiao, finally cleared to play for Santos? We must wait to see who gets picked for South Africa – and then wait to see how they perform under pressure.
Because there will be pressure on whoever plays at centre forward on March 5th. It will be a duel in Johannesburg for the right to a place in the World Cup – and football history is full of stories of strikers who grabbed a late chance to sneak into the squad, and went on to become World Cup heroes.