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Firmino saves Brazil as Uruguay set up clash with Colombia win

Brazil kept up their winning run in CONMEBOL qualifying.”>

On the way to winning the Copa America on home soil last year, Brazil were held to a 0-0 draw by Venezuela and had three goals disallowed for narrow VAR decisions. This time, in a South American World Cup qualifier, Brazil managed to score and the 1-0 victory in Sao Paulo maintains their 100% record after three rounds. But there were moments when they must have thought they were on course for another tough night.

In the first few minutes Brazil were unfortunate to have another goal chalked off — and to make it worse, it came from a move which emphasised how coach Tite has rethought his side. Attacking left-back Renan Lodi has been given freedom to charge forward, with Douglas Luiz providing midfield cover; Marquinhos played a wonderful long diagonal ball and Lodi’s volleyed cross was pushed out by the goalkeeper for Richarlison to ram home. However, it was ruled that Lodi was offside by a tiny margin and Brazil would have to wait another hour to break the deadlock.

Losing this goal was especially unfortunate for Richarlison, who started the game at centre forward. In the absence of the injured Neymar, Tite withdrew Roberto Firmino to a deeper position on the left, introduced Gabriel Jesus on the right wing and played Richarlison in a more central role.

The great centre forward debate is likely to rage on. Tite decided after Russia 2018 that Gabriel Jesus is a wide striker, while Richarlison also prefers to cut in from the flanks and lacks the back-to-goal link up play of a genuine centre forward. And with Venezuela almost solely concerned with defending, there was no space for the strikers to burst into. Brazil passed the ball patiently, with Lodi sending in some dangerous crosses, but there was little sign of a goal. It was probably just as well that the game was being played behind closed doors as the notoriously impatient Sao Paulo crowd would have made things harder for the home side.

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Tite shuffled his pack. There were times when Firmino switched to the right, with left-footed schemer Everton Ribeiro moving across. At half-time Douglas Luiz was sacrificed, in the hope that Lucas Paqueta could add more penetrating passing; Gabriel Jesus and Richarlison swapped roles for a while and Brazil were about to introduce Pedro, a genuine penalty area specialist, for his international debut when the goal came at last.

Most of Brazil’s best attacks had come down the left but they produced an excellent quick triangle down the right. Everton found space to put in a deep cross and the ball fell off a defender for Firmino to make a tricky high finish from close range look deceptively easy.

Little of this game will live long in the memory, but it means that Brazil have maximum points from the first three games and are top of the table. Though two of them have been at home and so far they have only faced the bottom three teams, things are about to get much more interesting: starting with Tuesday’s visit to Uruguay.

Against Venezuela, Brazil clearly missed the capacity of Neymar to improvise something from nothing. His absence will also be felt in Montevideo, along with that of holding midfielder Casemiro, described by Tite as the side’s “competitive leader” and the man who balances out the lineup. It hardly mattered that Casemiro was missing against Venezuela; the same may not be true against Uruguay, whose morale will be soaring after a 3-0 win away to Colombia.

Achieved in the stifling heat of Barranquilla, this is a result which should give great pleasure to Uruguay’s veteran coach Oscar Washington Tabarez. The victory encapsulated so many of the virtues of his near 15-year reign.

Colombia’s Carlos Queiroz had a problem in setting up his side: both his first-choice right-backs were injured in last month’s action, so he withdrew Juan Cuadrado and gave him license to break forward. Queiroz plays with three central midfielders in front of the back four — normally one of them would be Cuadrado, tucking back in defence, and breaking wide in possession — but without him there the trio were too close together. Uruguay found it easy to press them; few sides do it better. Nahitan Nandez snapped in, won the ball, and fed Edinson Cavani who slotted safely home.

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Queiroz spotted his error and withdrew a midfielder on the half hour, introducing winger Luis Diaz. Straight away Colombia were more threatening and Uruguay were grateful for the return of centre-back Jose Maria Gimenez, who missed last month’s games. He had his hands full with centre forward Duvan Zapata but Uruguay held on until half time, when Tabarez reorganised.

With two strikers, Uruguay were too open. Cavani, with impeccable spirit of sacrifice, played on the right wing, tracking the attacking bursts of Colombia’s left-back and on came Darwin Nunez, one of the immense list of graduates from the magnificent Under-20 project that Tabarez introduced, to perform the same role on the other flank. With three in the centre of midfield, Uruguay were better able to get a grip on Colombia’s James Rodriguez.

Indeed the second goal came after Rodriguez lost possession. Rodrigo Bentancur broke forward, combined with Luis Suarez and was adjudged — perhaps harshly — to have been fouled by Jeison Murillo. Suarez made no mistake from the penalty spot.

After goals from Uruguay’s veteran strikers, Nunez then flew the flag for youth with a cracking strike from outside the area to make it 3-0 and seal a fine win. Uruguay had made a long trip to face a difficult opponent in tough circumstances and with sacrifice, intelligence and flexibility, they achieved the result of the round. There could hardly be a better way to set up Tuesday’s meeting with top of the table Brazil.

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