Mikey Stafford reports from Rio de Janeiro
AT SOME POINT Brazilians are going to have to forget about Neymar and accept their fate now lies in the hands of the one true football great still involved with the Seleção.
Luiz Felipe Scolari has described Neymar’s injury as a “catastrophe” but the loss of their main attacking outlet would surely be more damaging were any other coach in charge for this evening’s World Cup semi-final against Germany in Belo Horizonte.
Scolari has been here before and has the winner’s medal to prove it. He was in charge for the final in 2002 when Brazil beat Germany in the only previous World Cup meeting between these countries.
Of course then he had Neymar’s predecessor as the shining hope of Brazilian football, Ronaldo, to score the goals. Neymar has featured in every one of the 27 games of Scolari’s second reign in charge. The challenge is to find another way.
He has done so before. Not universally loved after an indifferent start to his career as Brazil coach, which included a 2-0 Copa America quarter-final defeat to Honduras, Scolari caused consternation ahead of the World Cup in Japan and Korea by dropping Romario, the then 36-year-old hero of 1994 who was still scoring regularly for Fluminense.
Romario gave a tearful press conference, the president of Brazil called for his inclusion and fans were in an uproar but Scolari, angered by several incidents of indiscipline, held his nerve. This was a man of huge courage and self-confidence before he had even won a World Cup.
The 65-year-old has now returned for potentially his final job before retirement, even if those who know him best doubt this football obsessive can ever turn his back on the game. Winning a sixth World Cup, on home soil at that, would be one hell of a way to sign off and Scolari will reason that the ends justify the means.
He was handed the Brazil job the first time around on the strength of his record with Gremio, where he took a team of modest players to six trophies in three seasons and fans dispirited by the style of play were soon placated by silverware.
The Brazil of 2002 were not Gremio and he abandoned his preferred 4-4-2 to accommodate Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Ronaldinho. Those complaining that players as ordinary as Fred and Jo do not deserve to win a World Cup should remember that behind that front three 12 years ago Kleberson was preferred as a holding midfielder to Juninho.
Ever since his days with Gremio, Scolari has known how to extract the most from his players and he is doing so again. Following a lacklustre start to his second coming as Brazil manager, which began with a 2-1 defeat to England at Wembley, Scolari has won 19 of his 27 games in charge, losing just once more after London, to Switzerland.
Oscar, Hulk, Fernandinho, David Luis, Marcelo — these are star players at some of the biggest clubs in Europe, who have been the subject of massive transfer fees, yet Scolari has them playing a very limited, almost simplistic, style of football.
Neymar was the go-to man, but not to the same extent as Lionel Messi has been for Argentina, and Brazil managed to beat Chile (on penalties) and Colombia without Neymar playing anywhere near as well as he did during the group stages.
A man of the no-nonsense south, Scolari is already loved and revered by Brazilians, and his reputation is unlikely to be tainted by failure tonight or next Sunday, should Brazil win through to the final. Describing Neymar’s injury as a “catastrophe” is surely the coach’s attempt to free his players from pressure rather than his true opinion. What World Cup-winning coach would place so much emphasis on the abilities of one, admittedly wonderful, footballer?
Scolari, with his sports psychologist Regina Brandao, must turn the loss of Neymar into an advantage by allowing his team to remove the yoke of expectation.
If Scolari can’t lose it is beginning to look like his opposite number Joachim Löw cannot win. Germany have reached their fourth consecutive World Cup semi-final but a demanding country’s 18-year wait for a major trophy is beginning to take its toll.
Löw, in charge for nearly half that period, has at his disposal one of the most talented groups of players Germany has ever enjoyed, but already there are discussions taking place across the media as to who should replace him.
Playing Philipp Lahm at midfield was viewed as stubbornness, switching him back to full-back for the quarter-final win over France was seen as weakness. However there was no denying the Germany backline looked better with him alongside the imperious Mats Hummels and Jerome Boateng, who possesses more pace than Per Mertesacker.
The form of Mario Götze is a bigger concern. With Marco Reus absent through injury, the Bayern Munich man was supposed to provide the unpredictability in attack for Germany but he looks out of shape and devoid of determination.
Thomas Muller is an incredible tournament player and goal-scorer but he lacks that flamboyant quality of an in-form Götze or fit Reus. Toni Kroos, Mesut Özil and Andre Schürrle all have their qualities but are conventional midfielders more than anything else.
So, unlike Messi’s Argentina or the Netherlands of Arjen Robben, both sides are without real creative genius in attack and, outside of a couple of group stage blow-outs neither has truly impressed to date.
Suspended captain Thiago Silva will be a loss but Luiz looks ready to lead and Dante alongside him should be able to provide useful insight into the Germans. Particularly at set-pieces, from which they have looked particularly dangerous.
The inclusion of Willian in place of Neymar and the return of Luiz Gustavo can help Brazil in the midfield battle but the burden of goal-scoring looks heavier on the shoulders of Hulk, Oscar and Fred than it does Muller or Miroslav Klose, the one playing survivor of 2002.
The other survivor in the Brazil dugout will no doubt have a plan but this time the discrepancy in resources may just be too wide to bridge.
Brazil (4-2-3-1): Julio Cesar; Maicon, Dante, David Luiz (c), Marcelo; Luiz Gustavo, Paulinho; Willian, Oscar, Hulk; Fred
Germany (4-2-3-1): Manuel Neuer; Philipp Lahm, Jerome Boateng, Mats Hummels, Benedikt Howedes; Sami Khedira, Bastian Schweinsteiger; Thomas Muller, Toni Kroos, Mesut Ozil; Miroslav Klose
Referee: Marco Rodriguez (Mexico)
Kick-off: 5pm (9pm GMT), Estadio Mineirao, Belo Horizonte.