Brazil as a nation do not lack confidence when it comes to the fortunes of their football team. For this World Cup, those confidence levels are sky-high, and it is clear to see why.
But Brazil are racing to overcome injuries to key players as they prepare for their last-16 match against South Korea on Monday, after a heavily-changed side lost 1-0 to Cameroon on Friday night. The winners will face either Japan or 2018 runners-up Croatia in the quarter-finals.
Neymar is still recovering from an ankle injury suffered in their opening win against Serbia, and they have only one pure full-back available after left-back Alex Telles suffered a knee injury in the Cameroon defeat.
Neymardependencia is a term that has been used frequently over the past decade as Brazil have sought a sixth World Cup title.
The dependency on Neymar has been there, and both Jamie Redknapp and Gary Neville had tipped the PSG forward to be the star of the tournament.
“If he plays, it’s because he is in full health and ready to start, to play from the beginning and the entire game with no limitations,” coach Tite said of his talisman.
“My preference is always to play my best players from the start.”
Brazil’s injury problems are mounting. Starting full-backs Danilo and Alex Sandro are out after injuries suffered earlier in the competition and their availability is still unclear.
Telles and forward Gabriel Jesus, who also suffered a knee injury against Cameroon, were officially ruled out for the rest of the tournament by the Brazilian FA on Saturday.
With their ticket already booked for the next round after two wins, Tite made nine changes to the team that won 1-0 against Switzerland, leading to Brazil’s first loss to an African nation in the World Cup.
“The physical demand is ever increasing, the time is short, it’s a cumulative effect of games and sometimes you don’t have the ideal recovery time on your hands,” Tite continued.
“I don’t really know what to say other than that, mentally, the Cup is very demanding. It drains you. The intensity of the matches, the preparation – they are components of analysis that we have to delve into deeper, but they are all considerable.”
‘Tite’s had much more time to work’
Brazil have progressed from each of their last seven round-of-16 matches at the World Cup, only failing to win in normal time once during this run, progressing via penalties against Chile in 2014. They were last eliminated at this stage in 1990 against Argentina.
Crucially, there is belief in the manager. There have been times in the past when the spotlight has been on the man in charge to get the best out of the country’s most technically gifted players – but there is no such scrutiny this time around.
South American football expert Tim Vickery tells Sky Sports: “What we’ve seen during the qualifying campaign is the benefit of a complete cycle.
“Going into the last World Cup, he’d had less than two years. He’s now had the complete cycle heading into this World Cup and it’s just given him much more time to work.
“Everything that Tite has tried has worked. It’s all changed since they lost the final of Copa America last year to Argentina. Since then, they’ve gone 15 games unbeaten – 12 wins and three draws – 38 scored, five conceded.
“The only problem during the build-up to the World Cup is that everything has gone too well.”
Where could South Korea catch out Brazil?
Such are Brazil’s wealth of options, you really do have to nit-pick to find areas of possible weakness. One or two question marks over the make-up of the defence remain. Gabriel Magalhaes has performed well for Arsenal but was left out of the World Cup squad.
Vickery adds: “With Magalhaes, I don’t understand it as he was in the squad consistently for almost a year and didn’t get a game. He’s the only left-footed centre-back that they’ve got.
“In the friendlies against Ghana and Tunisia in September, you thought that would be the time they’d look at him, but they dropped him entirely and brought in Gleison Bremer of Juventus and Roger Ibanez of Roma.
“I’ve absolutely no idea why, but Tite was obviously not convinced by him. Something has happened there, and I don’t know what it is. Bremer has been selected and Gabriel has been squeezed out. It’s a big surprise.”
The other three centre-back options are more or less settled with Eder Militao, Thiago Silva and Marquinhos battling it out for a regular start.
South Korea will rely on talisman Heung-Min Son to lead them against Brazil, after he ran himself into the ground on Friday to ensure his team reached the last 16 with a dramatic come-from-behind 2-1 win over Portugal.
The Koreans are the only Asian side to have reached the semi-finals before, when they were co-hosts with Japan in 2002, and they will be hoping to shock Brazil on Monday to make history again.
After an extraordinary group phase that saw former winners Brazil and Argentina defeated by low-ranked opponents, plus Belgium and Germany eliminated, South Korea see this World Cup as their best chance in decades to make their mark.
Did you know?
Between spells with Portugal and South Korea, Paulo Bento has only lost one of his last five games as a manager at the World Cup (W2 D2).
This will be his first game in the tournament beyond the group stage, while he could become the first Portuguese manager to win a knockout-stage game at the World Cup.
“Every match, every minute is very valuable and precious. The entire team has great morale, great teamwork,” said wing-back Jin-Su Kim.
“We all have truly wanted to get this far and we are all really thirsty for this.”
South Korea have pedigree, having dumped former champions Germany out in the group stage at the 2018 World Cup. As co-hosts with Japan in 2002, they reached the semi-finals, knocking out Italy and Spain along the way.
Known for lethal counter-attacking and indomitable spirit, South Korea looked to be heading for elimination but delivered a surprise stoppage-time winner in Al Rayyan on Friday to beat Portugal and reach the last 16.
Monday’s match against Brazil is their first in the knockout rounds since 2010 and only their third overall.
Kim said there were a few injury concerns among the South Korean squad, but the team were well prepared, capable and confident.
“Of course it will be a very challenging match. We really want to show everyone what we’ve got and show what we’ve been waiting 12 years for,” Kim said.
“Our fighting spirit will be important and we have to sacrifice ourselves for the team.”
South Korea’s Portuguese coach Paulo Bento companied about a gap of just 72 hours between matches and said his team had physical and emotional fatigue, compared to a Brazil who hve a squad with enough depth to rest players.
He said he was expecting Brazil to take the game to South Korea but was confident his players could keep them at bay.
“We’re up against world-class players we are not intimidated,” he said. “In our squad we have world-class players.”
“One match it’s not an entire tournament, we have one chance… Most important is we show we are a team that wants to win, wants to compete and fight until the last whistle,” he said.
“Based on that, everything is a victory.”
Could Brazil be got at in the full-back areas?
Vickery says: “The full-backs have totally different roles now for Brazil from what you’d expect. They’re not auxiliary wingers. Now that they’ve got wingers, they don’t need a Roberto Carlos or a Cafu going up and down the flanks all the time.
“The model Tite’s looking for full-backs is much more like we see at Man City rather than at Liverpool. Their role is less flashy but the right-back will tuck in as an extra midfielder to cover that defensive space.
“The left-back will have a little bit more licence to cut into the attacking line with an element of surprise but, again, what they’re looking for from the full-backs is something much less glamorous than you might expect from Brazil full-backs.
“Danilo and Alex Sandro aren’t world-class players but they’re not expected to do world-class things.
“If Danilo is out injured, Militao can also play in that area, not only at centre-back. It’s a thought that is flickering in Tite’s mind. That’s a way of getting yet another attacking player into his squad.”
Tite’s three consolidated ways of playing
Where do you start with Brazil’s offensive players?
“One of the things he’s been looking at is just little tweaks,” says Vickery of Tite’s approach during the final preparatory matches. “Now, they have three consolidated ways of playing. The idea is the same, but they’ve just got little tweaks in the formation that they can use for different games or inside different games.
“More important than those numbers is that they’ve now got three consolidated ways of playing. The first one that really came through after that Copa American defeat, they brought Raphinha into the side. At the time, he wasn’t well-known in Brazil at all.
“I’ve never seen a player take to playing for the Brazilian national team as easily as he has. He was on one flank and then Vinicius Junior exploded on the other flank as an international star last season.
“Having these two wingers made the team very direct, with Neymar floating around as a false nine. Lucas Paqueta would then be used as the most advanced of a midfield three as he had a sweet thing going with Neymar.
“That was the first thing they worked on. The second aspect that trialled was looking at a centre forward. Richarlison had a difficult start to last season because Everton bizarrely let him play in the Copa America and then let him play in the Olympics as well.
“He didn’t have any close season at all, and his fitness paid a price for it during last season. For a few months, he wasn’t 100 per cent and wasn’t playing particularly well but he came firing back towards the second half of last season with Everton so Brazil wanted to look at him as a centre forward.
“With the players they’ve got setting up the play, they don’t need a centre forward who can do that. They want one with a penalty area presence. He’s now got seven goals for Brazil in his last six games. He’s absolutely flying, and once you’re doing that it becomes harder to leave him out.
“The first thing Tite looked at in terms of getting a centre forward into the team was dropping one of the wingers. Vinicius hasn’t quite done as well as Raphinha so far, so they’ve looked at bringing in Richarlison and using Paqueta as a false winger who can cut inside and link up with Neymar.
“It’s a slight tweak, and it may now be their first-choice formation. But then, what if Brazil are playing very defensive opponents or if we’re behind and chasing the game? What if we wanted both wingers and a centre forward?
“It’s something they looked at in September against Ghana when effectively Brazil played Paqueta as the second man in midfield in place of Fred. That’s the ultra-attacking system they used against Ghana to see how it would work out and they won the game by half-time. They hardly suffered any problems at all so they’ve got that up their locker as well.”
Brazil have the quality, can they now show it?
Tite has been bold and decisive in his selections, but he is someone who has trained himself to block out the outside noise. “Courage is the ability to face fear” is a Nelson Mandela quote he has referenced.
It is the privilege of his position which emboldens him, and his prioritising of mental health helps remove any added pressure.
“The culture here in Brazil is really manic depressive,” ends Vickery. “It wavers between we’re rubbish to we’re unstoppable.
“After that Copa America defeat, the feeling was that it wasn’t even worth turning up for the World Cup. As soon as we meet a European side in the knockout stages, we’re going to lose.
“The mood is now totally different. They see themselves as favourites and anything less will be a disappointment.”
There was criticism after defeat to Argentina in the Copa America final last year at the Maracana, but the response has been emphatic.
Brazil set a new record for most points in CONMEBOL qualifiers. Including the 12-game unbeaten run leading to Russia 2018, they are also now 29 games unbeaten in World Cup qualifiers.
Thirteen clean sheets in 17 qualifying games this time around with an average of 2.5 goals scored per game, all against the backdrop of severe loss of life in the country resulting from a global pandemic.
Where in Russia there was division and doubt, now there is unity and belief. There is harmony to the samba beat. Brazil have the quality; it is now up to them to show it.
Midfielder Fred replaced Neymar against Switzerland. With Brazil already through to the knockout phase, Tite rotated the entire squad against Cameroon.
With Neymar back, Tite said there will be no changes in the forward line from the team that started against Serbia, with Lucas Paqueta behind Neymar, Vinicius Jr, Raphinha and Richarlison.
If Neymar is still out, Real Madrid prodigy Rodrygo is likely to be Tite’s first option, as the pairing of Fred and his Manchester United team-mate Casemiro in the midfield that Tite used against Switzerland was less than convincing.
Newcastle’s Bruno Guimaraes could also be an alternative, pushing Paqueta forward into a playmaking role.
The biggest question mark is who will play left-back with Sandro and Telles ruled out.
Marquinhos replaced the Sevilla defender after he sustained the injury against Cameroon, but right-back Danilo and midfielder Everton Ribeiro are also options.
“Alex Sandro’s replacement will be a player that has already played in that position in his club. Make your research and you will find out who he is,” Tite said.
Hee-Chan Hwang was expected to be in the starting line-up again against Brazil after missing the team’s first two games because of a hamstring injury.
Bento complained of the short three-day rest period between games from the group stage to the round of 16, saying it hurt South Korea more than Brazil.
“It’s not fair,” Bento said. “I think that it has to do with the new FIFA reality, which is to create worse conditions for the less-favoured teams and probably better conditions for the more-favoured ones.”
Opta stats – Brazil in search of sixth title
- This will be the eighth meeting between Brazil and South Korea, and the first competitive meeting between the two sides. Brazil have won six of the previous seven matches (L1), most recently a 5-1 victory in June.
- South Korea have never previously beaten a South American side at the World Cup, drawing twice and losing four times.
- Brazil have lost four of their last 10 matches at the World Cup (W5 D1) – their previous four defeats in the competition were spread across 36 matches (W26 D6).
- This will be South Korea’s first game in the knockout stages of the World Cup since 2010, when they were beaten by Uruguay in the round of 16 (1-2). They have only won one of their five games beyond the group stage in the competition (D1 L3), with that victory coming against Italy in the round of 16 in 2002.
Brazil face South Korea on Monday at 7pm. Follow our dedicated live blog from 6pm on the Sky Sports website and app.