At one point or another, the road to the World Cup was always going to pass through Spain. Yet with their expert navigation of the Confederations Cup so far, it would seem Brazil have positioned themselves as the team to topple the world and European champions at next year’s feature event.
From the confusing days of Mano Menezes and his scattergun approach to squad selection and the early, disappointing results under returning Brazil manager Luiz Felipe Scolari, there was often the sense that the five-time World Cup winners just needed competitive matches to get out of their funk.
The Confederations Cup has been providing those in quick succession. In each of the three matches they have won so far, Brazil have been met with three very different scenarios.
They have excelled in all of them.
First up it was Asian champions Japan—a pacey, technically gifted side that was always going to pose a threat on the counterattack and challenge Brazil’s deep-lying midfielders.
It wasn’t always pretty, but Scolari’s men got the job done, keeping a clean sheet against the Blue Samurai while celebrating goals from Neymar, Paulinho and Jo. Paulinho’s performance was especially scrutinized at the final whistle, but it wasn’t until Saturday’s match against Italy that Scolari would, out of necessity, address one of the few problem areas in his first XI.
Next up was a defensively solid Mexico side that earned more corners and kept more of the ball than Brazil over the 90 minutes.
But again Brazil didn’t break, and the excellent Luiz Gustavo laid down his first-team credentials with a standout performance. He completed 93 percent of his passes, didn’t lose a single aerial battle and committed five fouls in a physical match without picking up a yellow card.
Neymar found the back of the net for the second match in a row as well, and backup striker Jo proved Scolari had a dependable attacking option on the bench when he tallied his second goal in as many substitute appearances.
Then came Saturday’s encounter with Italy—a match that had a little bit of everything.
After starting strong, Brazil were soon drawn into a physical battle that bordered on the nasty. Neymar and Ignazio Abate went at one another like charging bulls until Neymar’s foul forced the AC Milan right-back off with a shoulder injury. Luiz Gustavo, Claudio Marchisio and David Luiz also picked up yellow cards in a mean-spirited first half that was, perhaps surprisingly, capped off by Dante’s opener in stoppage time.
The entire tone of the match changed with that goal. Following the restart, both teams traded numerous chances while keeping up an incredible pace that only slightly took away from the ferocity of the opening period.
Neymar, again, added to his international goal total in style, delivering a swerving free kick that bulged the top right-hand corner of Gianluigi Buffon’s goal. Fred, as well, wrote a few headlines with an impressive brace that began with a well-controlled ball from Marcelo’s lofted pass over the Italy defense.
Even substitute Bernard, who replaced Neymar with 20 minutes remaining, was involved in the action. He helped set up Fred’s second goal when his lay-off pass to Marcelo resulted in a Buffon rebound for the Fluminense striker to stroke into an empty goal.
Lazio’s Hernanes, who came in for the injured Paulinho, was especially impressive. He completed 92 percent of his passes and offered Brazil a deep-lying playmaking option they simply didn’t have with the soon-to-be Tottenham midfielder. He could well keep his place in the team going into the semifinal round and is, in a person, a symbol of how this side has evolved since the first ball was kicked against Japan.
That was a week ago.
In the few days between the start of the tournament and the 4-2 win over Italy, it seems everything has come together for Brazil. Results such as that February loss to England and the draw with Chile in April couldn’t seem more decisively confined to the past.
Since taking to the field against longtime nemesis France, the Selecao have won four straight matches against four strong teams by a combined score of 12-2. Their best players have shone, while the players they needed to make an impression have done just that.
Brazil can now be considered co-favorites to win the World Cup just over a year from now. Chances are good we’ll get to see them take on the only team in their path on June 30 in the Confederations Cup final.