They weren’t glamorous nor were they spectacular but Brazil’s latest set of tests on the road towards the FIFA World Cup Finals in 2014 could prove to be crucial. And whilst Gabon and Egypt failed to provide the challenge that Mano Menezes might have hoped for, both games showcased the strength in depth of the Brazilian squad, the beginnings of a midfield revolution and signs of a positive collective attitude.
In the build up to both friendlies, the 49 year old former Corinthians manager was hamstrung by injuries to the Real Madrid duo of Kaká, recalled to the National Team squad after more than a year’s absence, and Marcelo. Furthermore, Menezes took the decision to pick a squad without Brazilian-based players with the Campeonato Brasileiro Série A season reaching an exciting climax. It therefore afforded an opportunity to those players who had impressed in the early stages of the European football season, for example Benfica’s attacking midfielder Bruno César; those on the fringes of the First Team, namely Chelsea defender David Luiz, and those who had been frozen out of the National Team picture for a prolonged period of time, most notably Lazio central-midfielder Hernanes, to prove their worth to Brazil’s Head Coach.
Many of those who featured in Menezes’ squad made their bow at international level for Verde-Amarelha, one of those being Valencia CF goalkeeper Diego Alves. Whilst the 26-year-old is yet to make an appearance for Els Taronja in La Liga, he was tidy and impressive in between the goalposts for Brazil – that despite being rarely troubled in either game. His shot-stopping capabilities were though tested against Gabon, where he produced a number of excellent saves from the lively AC Milan striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang who provided the Brazilian defence problems with his direct and skilful running. Questions marks still remain over Alves’ ability with the higher ball, especially from set-pieces, however his overall performances were very promising – something that will give Júlio César’s current deputy, Botafogo’s Jefferson, plenty to mull over.
Once again though it was Brazil’s midfield that impressed. A Seleção dominated proceedings in both games, keeping the ball with ease – that despite the bobbly and, in parts, waterlogged pitch in Libreville which rendered it extremely difficult for the South American outfit to play its trademark passing game. Liverpool’s holding midfielder Lucas Leiva did an excellent job of breaking up the opponents attacking play as well as shielding the back four, however it was Hernanes who really stood out down the right-hand side. The versatile player, who started both games, produced a number of wonderful reverse balls for the wing-backs to run onto and his ability to find both pockets of space to run into along with his excellent timing of runs should seal his place in future Brazilian squads.
Fears over the National Team’s striking options would also have been somewhat allayed by the encouraging signs emanating from the Jonas-Hulk strike partnership. Whilst the 27 year old Valencia CF striker Jonas made the headlines with his two-goal salvo against Egypt, FC Porto’s Hulk was the unsung hero. Despite the stocky centre-forward, who just three years ago was playing in the second division of the Japanese Football League, not scoring in eight appearances for A Seleção he was a constant threat – fizzing in crosses from the wings, orchestrating counter-attacks and effectively interchanging with the Brazilian midfield. Indeed, his ability to hold up the ball and general movement, drawing defenders from one side of the pitch to the other, ultimately created space for the likes of Hernanes and Bruno César to run into.
Be it international friendlies or high-pressure situations, these are the times where the core and true colours of the group spirit is simultaneously formed and tested. And whilst there were plenty of excellent individual performances to wax lyrical about, collectively Mano Menezes’ outfit expressed a positive intent throughout – something that has notably been missing from the set-up for a number of months. Every player wanted to touch the ball and looked to get forward at each opportunity. Brazil’s Head Coach will no doubt be delighted with both results and, in particular, with keeping two clean sheets, however he’ll take greater satisfaction from the professional manner of the victories, the opportunity to blood new faces into the squad and, above all, consolidate on what he has already garnered from previous games.
As for 2011, the statistics read – Played: 16. Won: 9. Drawn: 4. Lost: 3. The big stain on Menezes’ record book this year was undoubtedly the disappointing exit at the Quarter-Final stages of the Copa America to Paraguay on penalties. However, a recent upturn in form, which has seen the Samba Boys end the year on a five-game unbeaten streak, albeit against significantly weaker opposition, means the team can head into 2012 with cautious optimism. Nonetheless, the chorus of critics of Menezes’ work continues to grow with 57-year-old former Brazilian captain Socrates the latest to launch a scathing attack on the current Brazilian team, describing it as “patterned, stigmatized and absolutely conservative.” As far as Mano is concerned, all he can do is to keep on winning and winning well.
The next leg of Brazil’s World Tour sees a rematch against Egypt in Cairo in late February followed by a trip to Sweden in mid August. And with the likes of Neymar, Leandro Damião, Paulo Henrique Ganso and Kaká all likely to come back into contention in the coming months, competition for places will be fiercer than ever. The Brazilian garden still ain’t rosy, but the seeds have very much been sown.