With the hopes of 200 million people resting on their shoulders, hosts Brazil face their toughest test yet when they take on Germany in the semi-finals of the World Cup in Belo Horizonte on Tuesday night.
For many pundits, the Selecao have already at least matched or even exceeded expectations by making it this far in the tournament. But a semi-final exit is unlikely to satisfy a demanding public and Brazil are under pressure to deliver – and now they must do so without their star player and talisman Neymar.
The 22-year-old has undoubtedly been Brazil’s player of the tournament in a side that is otherwise lacking in star talent, compared to the country’s great teams of the past, and which has struggled to find any fluency or rhythm this World Cup.
Luiz Felipe Scolari’s side has been built around Neymar and his absence, due to the fractured vertebrae he suffered towards the end of Brazil’s 2-1 win over Colombia in the quarter-finals on Friday, leaves them desperately seeking a plan B against a strong German side.
The onus will fall on Brazil’s other attacking players, particularly Hulk and Fred, to carry the goal-scoring burden. While both have failed to make a significant impact so far in this World Cup, the 30-year-old Fred in particular has looked far from being the world-class striker Brazil so badly need.
As to who will replace Neymar in the starting line-up, the most likely choice seems to be between Willian and Bernard.
Scolari hinted earlier this week that Willian may be his preferred option. The Chelsea player was assigned Neymar’s position when Brazil’s reserves played against a local under-20 squad at a training camp outside Rio de Janeiro.
Whoever starts will be aware they have big shoes to fill.
“It’s a difficult situation,” Bernard said this week. “No player would want to have this opportunity to play because of an injury to someone so important to us on and off the field. But it happened and we have to understand that we can get through this.”
One positive for Brazil is that their display against Colombia was probably their most complete team performance of the tournament.
But there is the psychological impact that the loss of their leading goal scorer will have on the rest of Brazil’s players, already feeling the weight of expectations as they seek to win a sixth World Cup on home soil.
Brazil team doctor Jose Luiz Runco said the players were “shocked and saddened” when they heard Neymar would miss the rest of the World Cup.
“We have to try to be mature in a moment like this,” Brazil defender David Luiz said.
“We are sad because we are missing an important player and someone who was trying to fulfill his dream of winning this title.”
Selecao captain Thiago Silva, who was suspended after he picked up a second booking in the win over Colombia, revealed Neymar’s injury had been a key topic of conversation in talks between the players and team psychologist Regina Brandao.
“Neymar was something we spoke about a lot,” he said. “She emphasised that we all had to feel at ease because Neymar’s already done what he had to do so now it’s down to the other players.”
Scolari, meanwhile, has sought to turn the blow of Neymar’s loss into a way to bring his players together.
“The team will miss the way he plays, the happiness. I’m sure that tomorrow they will play for Neymar, but also for themselves and, above all, for the goal of the whole group - to qualify for the final,” he told reporters.
“He has done his share, now it’s up to us, myself, Thiago, the others and all the Brazilian people. This is the match where we are playing for everything we dreamed of, for each and every one of us, and for Neymar.”
Brazil’s rough tactics
Neymar’s absence could prompt Scolari to take a pragmatic approach to Tuesday’s match, focusing on a solid defensive platform and looking to hit Germany on set pieces and counter attacks. It could also see a continuation of the Selecao’s rather physical approach to this World Cup.
Far from their famed ‘Joga Bonito’, Brazil’s progress in the tournament so far has been characterised by a tough, uncompromising style of play – typified by their quarter-final display where the hosts committed a tournament high 31 fouls.
Germany coach Joachim Loew has put pressure on Mexican referee Marco Rodriguez, who failed to punish Uruguay's Luis Suarez for biting Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini earlier in the tournament, to stop Brazil’s tough tackling from getting out of hand.
“I hope the referee Rodriguez will clamp down, because I have seen in the last few matches that Brazil’s physical energy is going beyond of what we see in Europe,” said Loew.
The pressure is also on for Germany, who are seeking to end a 24-year wait for a fourth World Cup title and desperate to avoid a semi-final exit for the third tournament in a row.
But they will take hope from their display against a talented France side in the quarter-finals, which showed signs of a team growing in strength and confidence.
“We are confident and if we manage to play to our abilities, our hopes of reaching the final are not all that bad,” said Loew.
Date created : 2014-07-08