Tim Vickery Column: Scolari will name the players he trusts to win the World Cup
Sure, if there are injuries then there is time to make a change. But, characteristically, Scolari right from the off fills his chosen 23 with confidence – ‘you are the players,’ he is saying ‘who I trust to win the tournament.’
So who will they be? Many select themselves. The full strength first team has been evident for a while now – from those friendlies against England and France before last year’s Confederations Cup. In a 4-2-3-1 formation, the starting line up reads as follows; Julio Cesar; Daniel Alves, Thiago Silva, David Luiz, Marcelo; Luiz Gustavo, Paulinho; Hulk, Oscar, Neymar; Fred.
There could be changes during the World Cup – there could even be changes before if some of the players are looking below par in training. But this is the team that has played together and won together, and all of these players are guaranteed a place in the squad.
Since finding his team, Scolari has been able to have a look at options and alternatives. As he comes to name his squad, the problem – and it is a lovely problem to have – is that almost everything has worked. The only way that Scolari can pick 23 is by leaving out people who have not let him down. Let us have a look at some of the areas where there is room for doubt.
Julio Cesar is the clear preference as first choice, with Jefferson his reserve. The third choice would seem to be between Victor of Atletico Mineiro and Diego Cavalieri of Fluminense, with the former probably in the lead.
In an ideal world, this role would go to a young keeper, as part of his preparation for future World Cups, but no obvious candidate has emerged. My personal view is that Fabio of Cruzeiro is very unfortunate not to be in the running.
Daniel Alves on the right and Marcelo on the left are unquestionably the first choices. But there is much less certainty about their reserves. The veteran Maicon was successfully recalled at right back after the Confederations Cup, but two months ago against South Africa Scolari opted to have a look at Rafinha, now getting a regular game at Bayern Munich.
He did well, showing mature defensive covering, and at the end of a tiring club season it could be that his relative youth gives him the nod over Maicon.
During the Confederations Cup the back-up left back was Filipe Luis, who clearly did not impress as he has not been called up since. Maxwell of PSG has instead been called up, and has done well as a steadier alternative to the talented but hot tempered Marcelo. But might the form of Filipe Luis for Atletico Madrid bring him back into contention?
Another scenario, unlikely but not completely impossible, is not to take a reserve left back, and thus open up space for an extra attacking player. Scolari indicated that this is not entirely out of the question when he tried out Daniel Alves at left back for a few minutes against South Africa, possibly a rehearsal for an emergency in the World Cup.
Captain Thiago Silva and David Luiz will start, with the left footed Dante well established as a reserve. But who will be the fourth centre back?
Miranda’s form for Atletico Madrid makes him hard to overlook. But he has not featured since coming on as a substitute for the closing minutes of Scolari’s first match in charge, the 2-1 defeat away to England last February. Since then a number of other candidates have been able to push their claim.
Dede of Cruzeiro, strapping and quick, is clearly one. Henrique of Napoli is a Scolari favourite, and comes with the added bonus of being comfortable in the midfield holding role. But maybe the front runner is Marquinhos of PSG, a young defender with a huge future. This will be one of the most difficult decisions that Brazil’s coach has to make.
Luiz Gustavo is the holder – the team took shape as soon as he was introduced last year – and Paulinho alongside him with license to push forward. Ramires is also a certainty. He does not fit naturally into the 4-2-3-1, which was one of the reasons for his exclusion from the Confederations Cup. His subsequent recall has added the variation of 4-3-3, with Hulk dropping to the bench.
Luiz Gustavo’s reserve since the Confederations Cup has been Lucas Leiva of Liverpool. But he got injured at an unfortunate time, and lost momentum. His presence in the squad now looks unlikely, especially since David Luiz (and Henrique, if included) can cover this position. Paulinho’s reserve over the last year and a half has been Hernanes – who will be waiting very nervously for news from Rio on Wednesday. Two months ago Fernandinho of Manchester City was recalled for the game against South Africa, a result of his sound club form. In the first half he played in the Luiz Gustavo role, without looking entirely comfortable. After the interval he pushed up into Paulinho’s normal position and did much better, crowning his display with a cracking goal. Fernandinho is probably in, which leaves Hernanes sweating. There is room for both, but that means one less attacker.
The line of three
Hulk’s immediate reserve would seem to be Ramires and the switch to 4-3-3. Oscar is a vital player, an all-round midfielder whose versatility adds so much to the team. There are doubts, though, about his level of fitness. Might he be jaded after playing so much football in recent years? Should that be the case, then his club-mate Willian is the man likely to step in. And now comes the problem; who is Neymar’s reserve? Assuming there is space for both Hernanes and Fernandinho, and assuming that two centre forwards are chosen, it would seem to come down to a straight choice between Bernard and Robinho.
Scolari fell in love with the former during the Confederations Cup, praising ‘the joy in his legs.’ But he might suffer from his settling in season with Shakhtar Donetsk. A strong case can be made for Robinho; Scolari has complained about a lack of experience in his squad, and as well as this valuable commodity, Robinho also offers some extra versatility. Bernard can play both flanks, but Robinho can do this and also operate in the ‘false nine’ role, for which he was recalled last November, when he ended up scoring the winner against Chile.
The only way to have both Bernard and Robinho would be to drop Hernanes, or do without a reserve left back. This dilemma illustrates that there would seem to be very little hope for the likes of Lucas Moura, Phillippe Coutinho and Kaka, let alone Ronaldinho. There simply is no space for them.
Scolari loves his target man – the first thing he did on his return to the national team was reinstate the figure of the centre forward. But this is one area of his squad where he is not blessed with an embarrassment of riches.
Undisputed first choice is Fred of Fluminense, who was full of goals last year and has now recovered from a long lay off. His injury record, though, makes it very unlikely that he will be the only player with these characteristics in the squad, which means that Jo of Atletico Mineiro will surely be included as well. With Leandro Damiao out of form, it is hard to think of other candidates – this is one position, then, that will not cost Luiz Felipe Scolari too much sleep when he comes to name his 23. We shall see if it costs him sleep once the tournament kicks off.