Hulk’s time to make a striking difference for Brazil against Colombia
Misplaced on the wing, Brazil need the the misfiring Zenit man to step up
Brazil’s Hulk has yet to find his best form in this World Cup. Photograph: Reuters
In his place they wanted Lucas Moura, the talented PSG attacker they knew well from his early years at São Paulo. Hulk could draw on no such reserves of good will having failed to leave any mark on the country’s footballing consciousness by the time he went abroad aged 17 after just 65 minutes for his club Vitória.
But when Scolari named his World Cup squad in May grumbling about Lucas’ exclusion was confined to a hard-core of são-paulinos and Hulk felt at last like an integral member of the side. At warm-up games for the World Cup there were now fans with Incredible Hulk masks and dolls and his powerfully built backside has turned the 27 year old from the pineapple growing state of Paraíba into something of a cult figure among Brazilian women.
But now ahead of today’s quarter-final against Colombia in Fortaleza the criticism is back after the Zenit Saint Petersburg player was responsible for Chile’s equaliser in his team’s brush with elimination .
Felipão called the mistake “unacceptable” at a World Cup and with no goals and no assists in his three matches so far the Brazilian press reported Hulk was set to be dropped for Colombia. Against Chile only Fred misplaced more passes and only Neymar was disposed more times and of the three Hulk’s shooting accuracy was the worst at just 36 per cent.
But barring any last minutes surprises he should once again take up his starting spot on the left against Colombia, further proof of how the player has become a central piece in Scolari’s thinking as he navigates an increasingly treacherous course to a sixth world title.
In part, this endurance in the face of renewed criticism highlights Brazil’s paucity of other striking options at the tournament. Fred was joint top scorer in last year’s Confederations Cup with five goals but is woefully out of form 12 months on when it really matters.
His slump is all the more alarming considering his understudy Jô, the Manchester City flop, has looked out of his depth when coming on for him; unsurprisingly given his inclusion in the Brazil squad left many fans leaning heavily on their faith in Scolari’s judgement.
With each shank and fresh air swipe Jô’s presence looks more and more of a self-inflicted handicap and those who had argued in favour of a recall for 33-year old veteran Luís Fabiano, who was in form back at São Paulo just before the Brazilian domestic season broke for the tournament, now look increasingly prescient.
The miserable return from his frontline strikers has forced Felipão to use this week’s training sessions to practice with withdrawing Fred and deploying the hitherto unused Napoli defender Henrique in midfield alongside Fernandinho and Paulinho and pushing Hulk up front alongside Neymar with Oscar deployed as linkman.
In a more central attacking role at his club Hulk scored 17 times in 30 league games last season as he helped Zenit to second place, with another four in the Champions League.
Brazil’s coach is unlikely to start with the Henrique-Hulk formation but should Fred continue to struggle he has at least practiced a possible solution that does not depend on summoning Jô from the bench.
This more forward role highlights the fact that if Hulk has struggled at the tournament it is because he is playing out of position for Brazil. Felipão is known to value him for his tactical acumen that sees the striker able to execute a hybrid role that asks him to help out in midfield as well as push up to the front two of Fred and Neymar and Hulk has never complained about being asked to play away from his preferred role.
But the claims that he is responsible for leaving midfield undermanned against Chile also overlooks the fact that Luis Gustavo and Fernandinho received little help from Oscar who has the privilege of playing in his natural position. The young Chelsea star has likely only avoided greater criticism because his performances have become so anonymous.
Hulk in contrast responded to his culpability for the Chilean goal with some character. His shooting might have lacked accuracy but at least he was looking to make amends and at times during the second half he almost singlehandedly drove Brazil forward. In his two previous games Felipão substituted him shortly after the hour mark. Against Chile he stayed to the end of extra time.
Considering the near nervous breakdown the team had on Saturday such character will be needed if the team is to overcome Colombia.
Scolari has already said he wants a different approach but for whatever reason seems loath to change his starting eleven and such force of habit could see Hulk sacrificed first if the team’s struggles continue.
But desperate for goals, Felipão might be better off freeing the player from his improvised role on the left and giving him a run up front and centre.