Well folks, that glorious time for every football fan has finally arrived. It is the eve of the World Cup, which promises, as ever, to be an explosion of football, culture, humanity, and colour. Much has been written over the past few months about the tournament's first momentous step onto African soil, and this aspect will undoubtedly provide a further element of excitement (as if one were needed). Without further ado, then, let me start on the (drum roll please) official SKP World Cup preview of Brazil's campaign. (For an in-depth look at each of the countries involved, I suggest heading over to the excellent cahiers du sport blog.)
A first place finish in the CONMEBOL qualification region betrays the fact that Brazil endured a somewhat shaky route to South Africa. At home, the seleção's form was solid, if rather...well, un-Brazilian. With four goalless draws (from nine fixtures), Dunga's tactics (of which more later) at times drew substantial derision from fans and critics accustomed to a bit more flair. Despite losing at altitude in Bolivia, the side impressed more in away fixtures, romping to exciting wins in Chile, Uruguay, Venezuela, and most tellingly, Argentina, where Luisão's opener and a typically deadly Luís Fabiano double downed Maradona's men. Qualification was secured with a couple of games to go, and the side duly took its foot off the pedal with the loss to Bolivia and a home draw to Venezuela.
Perhaps a more suitable yardstick for judging Brazil's form is last summer's Confederations Cup, a competition which Dunga's men deservedly won. Winning every one of their five games, and scoring fourteen goals (including three against reigning world champions Italy), the seleção demonstrated the kind of ruthless tournament form that places them among the favourites in South Africa.
The career of Carlos Caetano Bledorn Verri seems inextricably tied to fairytales. It was his likeness with one of the Seven Dwarfs that earnt him the nickname Dunga (Dopey in the Portuguese version), and in South Africa, the coach of the seleção will be hoping that the World Cup completes the second mythical happy ending of his involvement with the national side. The first came in 1994, when Dunga, a defensive midfielder oft-criticised for his technical limitations lifted aloft the World Cup trophy at the Pasadena Rose Bowl, having captained Brazil to their fourth title.
Although some of the criticisms aimed at Dunga regarding his functional tactics are fair, the seleção will undoubtedly be one of the most exciting sides to watch in South Africa. A modest defence of Dunga's tactics is therefore in order. He has settled on a variation on a 4-2-3-1 formation (see below), with Elano, nominally on the right-hand side of the three, often tucking in when Maicon rampages forward from right-back. One of the most noteworthy elements of the formation is the employment of two deep midfielders with a mainly defensive remit; Gilberto Silva and Felipe Melo (although the latter has some licence to occasionally roam forward, as he did with great effect against Peru last year). This move strikes some as too defensive, and is exacerbated by the fact that neither player is a particularly fluent passer; critics may accept two deep-lying midfielders if one was in the mould of, say, Andrea Pirlo.
However, the solidity that this provides in the centre of the park serves as a foundation for other more exciting possibilities to emerge going forward. Robinho and Kaká will roam to their hearts' content behind Luís Fabiano, who himself will switch between channel-running and target-man functions. In addition, both Maicon and Michel Bastos are likely to do more attacking than most teams' wide midfielders; the former in particular will be one of the team's primary attacking threats down the right. This is where Elano comes in. Although posted as the right-sided attacking midfielder, the Galatasaray man will shift between that role and a more defensive one, depending on whether Maicon is next to Lúcio in defence or completing another lung-bursting break on the wing.
In the Confederations Cup, it was Ramires who started on the right, a role he performed admirably. Why, then, the recall of Elano? There are, I think, two main reasons. Firstly, and most importantly, Elano's experience makes him more disciplined than Ramires. The Benfica player is a fabulous athlete, part of whose oeuvre is to mount pacy attacks and stretch play down the wing. This role on the team's right, however, is already carried out by Maicon, and Ramires' youthful abandon may leave the team exposed. Elano, not blessed with great pace, is more happy to construct from deeper, thus leaving him in a better position to muck in with Gilberto Silva and Felipe Melo when Brazil lose possession.
The second reason is that Elano provides an excellent option at dead-ball situations; his corners provided a number of goals in qualification. Elano probably won't be the only contender for the seleção's set-piece duties; the side is blessed with an abundance of excellent options. Each one of Maicon, Dani Alves, Michel Bastos, Kaká, and Gilberto (the Cruzeiro left-back) has plenty of experience at club level, and will be vying for an opportunity to stake their claim. Considering also the aerial ability of Lúcio, Juan, and Felipe Melo, Brazil will cause substantial problems from dead-balls.
The Brazil substitutes bench stands as a monument to the fixity of Dunga's convictions. For each player in the starting XI, there is a ready made substitute for the exact role in the formation. Nippy striker who can drift wide or threaten centrally, like Robinho? Nilmar. Powerful but deadly striker, like Luís Fabiano? Grafite. Attacking midfielder who surges forward, like Kaká? Júlio Baptista(!).
This could be either a masterstroke or a colossal error. On the positive side, it should ensure that team cohesion is maintained even when the personnel changes through injuries or fatigue. But the danger is that there are no players who could offer the chance to alter the tactics drastically if necessary; no Ronaldinho to play as creator from the left, no classic playmaking No.10 like Diego (Kaká can dominate games, but more often through his goals and powerful running than with intricate passing).
The two players in the squad who could offer something substantially different from within the role that Dunga seems to have assigned them are the aforementioned Ramires, and Kléberson, who would be a more creative presence in one of the deep midfield roles. The Flamengo man, however, has not seen a minute of friendly action and will probably need a cushion to make bearable the amount of time he'll be sat on the bench in South Africa. Dunga will have to hope that the tactics he has honed since taking charge stand up to scrutiny, because there doesn't look to be a tried and tested plan B on the table.
Form and Injuries
In terms of injuries, Brazil have two minor concerns. The first is over Júlio César, who went off in the game against Zimbabwe nursing a back injury. By all accounts this was a precautionary measure, and reports suggest that the Internazionale goalkeeper should start against North Korea on Tuesday. Secondly, some lingering doubts remain over the fitness of Kaká. The No.10 came through the warm-up games unscathed and will certainly start against North Korea, but may struggle with so many games in a short period, having not had the game time that he might have expected in recent months. Expect him to be withdrawn if Brazil are cruising in a group game.
Surveying the form of the group, the outlook is generally rosy despite one or two worries. Lúcio, Júlio César, and Maicon were superb in Inter's treble-winning season; Robinho and Luís Fabiano have been among the goals, even if not quite at the pinnacle of their abilities; and Juan, Elano, and Gilberto Silva have had moderate seasons. Michel Bastos has shone on-and-off for Lyon, but will have to work on his defensive play in South Africa after some slack positioning in the friendlies. Kaká has admitted to not being at his peak since returning to fitness, but showed signs in the win against Tanzania that his best form may be just around the corner. The principle concern, however, is over Felipe Melo. The midfielder endured a torrid season with Juventus, a shadow of the player who was so dominant in the Confederations Cup.
With such a wealth of talent, the job of Brazilian coach can sometimes look an easy one. You just tell Kaká, Luís Fabiano, Maicon, Lúcio, and Robinho to go out and play, right? Dunga thinks not, and is to be commended for constructing a tactical system that allows expressive football within the bounds of a disciplined and balanced formation. If Kaká can rediscover the verve of previous seasons (and as the team's fulcrum, the pressure is on him to do so), it's hard to see Brazil failing to reach the final. Despite the likelihood of a strong challenge from Spain, I predict that Dunga's men will indeed win Brazil's fifth title.