In a World Cup of disasters – if you were rooting for any of the traditionalists – Brazil has withstood the challenges of its opponents to book a clash against Belgium, with a place in the semifinals up for grabs.
After years of dour, unimaginative football, the Latin Americans have again found their soul with Tite marrying the individual Brazilian flair with disciplined defending. The team, boasting the best defensive record in the event (alongside Uruguay), has also scored seven goals, with Neymar – taking a break from showboating – finally showcasing his genius in a match-winning effort against a tenacious Mexico. Acknowledging the Paris Saint-Germain striker’s role in the team, Tite said: “Neymar has been brilliant for us and I don’t need to pay attention to what others say. You can look at his actions, transitions, and his involvement in defensive transitions. He is playing his part in taking back the ball, in taking back the space. That sense of teamwork has been the best virtue.”
The Brazilians, however, will miss the services of the suspended Real Madrid midfield enforcer Casemiro, and Fernandinho is expected to take his place. The team’s defensive solidity has been forged by the stellar work of Miranda and Thiago Silva in the central defence, with Brazil opting for a zonal marking to shut out its opponents. “We mark the sectors. We don't mark individually. You don't run around and mark each player. We aggressively mark each sector of the pitch, which is why we block so many shots and so many crosses,” Tite, whose side has only allowed four shots on target, said.
The free-scoring Belgians, though, are expected to pose a sterner challenge. The tournament’s highest-scoring team (12 goals) breezed through the group stage, with striker Romelu Lukaku scoring four goals as Belgium won all its three games. “The creative power of Belgium is very strong. Two teams that play beautiful football with different characteristics will offer a great game. It will require more of our technical capability and focus,” the Brazilian coach said. “Belgium repeated the standards in every game with some tweaks. We are ready for all situations.”
Roberto Martinez, who had to ditch his creative game for a more direct approach, introducing Marouane Fellaini and Nacer Chadli in the game against Japan, understands the need for raw force to disrupt Brazil’s play. “We will need power. If we show the same mentality as we did on Monday, we have a big chance,” Martinez said. “It's a dream match for our players, they were born to play in a match like this. Naturally, we want to win but we are not expected to and that is an important difference.”
"Brazil deserves all the adjectives that you can find because of the quality, style they bring to the table. They have the knowhow, the mentality of how to win a World Cup, but we will play for a win and we have the talent to be challenging," the Belgium coach also said.
But the necessity to add muscle will need a tactical tweak from Martinez. The three-man defence, his preference so far, might come under increased pressure from the fluid interplay between Neymar, Gabriel Jesus and Philippe Coutinho, and the manager might look to introduce Fellaini in central midfield and allow Kevin De Bruyne to operate further up, to create maximum trouble for the Brazilian defence.
The Selcao, which has been knocked out by European sides in the last three World Cups, looks poised to negotiate this tricky affair but the Belgian golden generation is ready for a pitched battle.
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