Missing man Neymar a real spur for Brazil
Hosts can shake things up to overcome Germany in World Cup semi-final
Brazil’s Willian attends a training session in Teresopolis near Rio de Janeiro on Monday. Brazil will meet Germany in their 2014 World Cup semi-finals on Tuesday. Photograph: Marcelo Regua/Reuters
Much like Ireland in 2002, Brazil has, over the last few days, become utterly focussed on a man who is no longer available to play. The locals are having to hurtle through the various stages of grief rather more quickly than we did then, though, and having done denial and anger, are perhaps on to bargaining now, with suggestions everywhere yesterday that Neymar’s loss might somehow prove to be a good thing if the rest of the squad are somehow made more united and determined by his absence.
After the manner of Friday’s defeat of Colombia, as it happens, the tone of Brazil’s campaign could do with a bit of improving too.
It’s a little ironic that as the hosts and Germany have progressed through this tournament, the ambitions of both have markedly declined. They want to win, of course, now more than ever but they appear to care less with each passing game precisely how they do it.
Big Phil Scolari, to be fair, has never turned his nose up at winning ugly but on Friday he seemed to embrace it with particular warmth. Joachim Löw’s steady shift towards gritty functionalism in recent games is more of a surprise. But, much like Scolari, his changing approach has served to emphasise his lack of faith that his German team, having become regulars at this stage of a tournament, can actually deliver a title while attempting to live up to his ideals.
Lip serviceIn Brazil’s case, the Neymar injury has moved any attempt at tactical analysis firmly to the margins and provided a licence for Scolari to do completely as he sees fit, not that that changes much.
The players, meanwhile, have been rolled out one after the other and obliged to pay lip service to their determination to win a sixth world title for their injured team-mate. Like the Irish 12 years ago, it’s likely the greater motivation is to show they can thrive without their stand out star.
Something in their favour on that front, is that having excelled in the group stages, Neymar was actually rather poor in his side’s two knockout games to date.
On recent evidence the introduction of Willian and promotion of Oscar to a more central role may not turn out to be such a bad thing for Brazil. More worrying is the general ineffectiveness of Hulk and Fred as well as the absence from defence of Thiago Silva.
Fifa yesterday rejected the defender’s hopeful appeal against the yellow card against Colombia and also decided not to take any action against Juan Camilo Zuniga for his challenge on Neymar.
In his absence the new hero of this Brazil team, David Luiz, will captain the side and be partnered by Dante of Bayern Munich. It will be interesting to see whether the now PSG defender’s remarkable run of form survives the enforced switch beside him.
Attacking swaggerLuiz has looked a different player here to the one Jose Mourinho decided was not dependable enough to anchor the Chelsea defence. There has been all the attacking swagger we have become accustomed to with the 27-year-old but, so far at least, none of the comedic mishaps.
Two goals, including a stunning free-kick on Friday as well as a confidently converted first penalty in the shoot-out against Chile, on top of some commanding performances at the back, have sent his already high stock soaring. Having just become the world most expensive defender he is now achingly close to becoming its most celebrated one.
Germany, needless to say, will have other ideas. The folks back home have not been convinced by what they have seen so far but Löw has not bothered to big up his team’s performances, merely pointing to the result.
As usual, there has been plenty of meddling with the line up and the sense persists he has yet to get it completely right. But the team is looking more traditionally German with each game; but will be of no more lasting value than the more engaging teams that have fallen at this stage in each of the last two World Cups if they don’t win.
Miroslav Klose is the only surviving member of the team that faced Brazil in the 2002 final but, despite his workrate against France, he seems likely to miss out here with Thomas Müller having looked in the earlier games to pose a more menacing threat. Behind him it could be quite a battle with Bastian Schweinsteiger and Sami Khedira showing on Friday that, after so many injury problems, they had recovered their ability to impose themselves physically on opponents.
Which is all very well with the Brazilians, well at least until somebody gets hurt.