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Football Reporting


Neymar remains Brazil’s great hope to end World Cup drought as Selecao prepare for qualifying, Copa America

Few of the South American national teams have been in action since November, and most have played just four matches in the past 18 months. After the famine comes the feast. Starting in June, there is the prospect of 21 matches in a 10-month period, assuming that everything goes to plan.

And if the inactivity is a cause for concern for Brazil coach Tite, so is the activity planned for his team in June and July: the Copa America, co-hosted by Argentina and Colombia. Brazil are based in the latter, and get their campaign underway in a month’s time. That is, of course, if the situation in Colombia permits.

The country has erupted in violence, the national police clashing with protestors for the past two weeks, and the gamble of going ahead with international club games in the country has clearly backfired. There were violent protests around and outside three Copa Libertadores games this week, with frequent interruptions because tear gas was blowing onto the field. Tite declared himself worried by what is happening. There must be doubts about the Copa, but not about the next two rounds of World Cup qualification.

Brazil host Ecuador on June 4 and travel to Paraguay on June 8 in qualifiers that were rescheduled — originally these dates were kept free for Copa warmup games. Now, even if the Copa goes ahead, the warmup has become more important. The priority is qualifying for the World Cup at the end of next year.

Tite made it clear that the squad he announced in Rio de Janeiro on Friday morning is exclusively for the two World Cup qualifiers. The team for the Copa needs another think, and comes with the headache that the Brazilian championship does not shut down, so any home-based players will be forced out of more than a month’s worth of games. Being coach of Brazil is difficult, constantly surrounded by such political considerations.

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But with the eyes on the prize of Qatar 2022, Brazil have made a good start, winning all of last year’s four qualifiers. This explains why the squad is little changed, with nine English-based players, four each from Brazil and Spain, three from France and two each from Italy and Portugal.

There is only one genuine newcomer — centre-back and recent Benfica signing Lucas Verissimo — and there are recalls for the full-back pair of Daniel Alves, injured last time, and Alecsandro in place of Manchester United’s Alex Telles. Perhaps the biggest surprise is the recall of one of Telles’ teammates, midfielder Fred.

Brazil’s physical preparation specialist pointed to the data that Fred was producing — ground covered during games and ground covered at speed — to conclude that his qualities are important. Tite stressed that Aston Villa midfielder Douglas Luiz is suspended for the first game, and Fred has come in to give cover in that position. It is an important one. Douglas Luiz has held down the left side of midfield, where Belgium did so much damage in the fateful quarterfinal of the 2018 World Cup, allowing left-back Renan Lodi to push forward and freeing Neymar to roam. Described by the coach as “both bow and arrow, constructor and goal scorer,” Neymar remains the great hope that the 20-year wait for World Cup win number six can come to an end in Qatar.

The most interesting development for the local public is the recall of striker Gabriel Barbosa. He has been in fine form for a scintillating Flamengo side, but can he step up to a higher level? It is an intriguing question. He failed to live up to expectations in Europe, or five years ago in the Copa America Centenario, and made no impression on the Liverpool defence in the 2019 Club World Cup final. But he is mobile, talented and versatile, and at 24, is far too young to be discarded.

With so many games coming up, his chance is now.

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