Brazil burning questions ahead of tricky World Cup qualifier vs. Uruguay
The South American qualifiers are much more like a marathon than a sprint; after all, the continent's presumed entrants at Russia 2018 will have played 18 games by the time the four direct berths are decided next year. Still, after four rounds things are looking quite interesting for neutrals: some of the more traditional sides are not only struggling but will lock horns over this international break. That includes Brazil and Uruguay, who will meet for the first time in almost three years on Friday at Recife's Arena Pernambuco.
With all due respect to Chile vs. Argentina, which on Wednesday will provide a nice coda to last year's Copa America final, Friday night's game in northern Brazil seems to be more mouthwatering. The prospect Neymar and Luis Suarez trying to outdo each other and earn massive bragging rights to take back to Barcelona is good enough, but Recife could also be crucial for the qualifying hopes for both teams.
As usual, especially after their fiasco in the last two official competitions, Brazil should be sweating a bit more under the spotlight. Why? Here are five reasons.
1. Brazil are far from form... unlike their neighbours
After four rounds, Brazil sit in third place in the league-format tournament on seven points, two behind Uruguay and five behind surprise package Ecuador. Fans are not up in arms because there are some distractions, like the nation's current political crisis. Plus, Argentina are playing worse. However, a bad result in Recife will move the thermostat right up and put more pressure on manager Dunga.
Although Brazil have won three of their last five meetings with Uruguay, the 4-0 triumph in Belo Horizonte in 2009 may as well be a century ago. The horrendously close game at the same stadium in the 2013 Confederations Cup is much more typical of these meetings.
2. Neymar hasn't really clicked so far
Despite the fact he was unavailable for the first two games of the campaign, Neymar has not made an impact so far in the qualifiers and his performance against Argentina in Buenos Aires last November was discreet to say the least. While the events of 2014 showed that Brazil needed to address their overreliance on their star, it doesn't mean that fans wanted him to swing to the opposite side of the spectrum.
It also doesn't help that Dunga still hasn't really made his mind about how to use Neymar up front. Against Peru he was deployed as a false nine, flanked by Willian and Douglas Costa. Against Uruguay, however, the manager will have the return of more specialized No. 9s in Ricardo Oliveira and Jonas. It could mean Neymar is deployed more on the left side of the pitch, where he's become comfortable playing for Barca.
3. Luis Suarez is back
As we all know, Luisito has pretty much only played for Barcelona since 2014 thanks to his World Cup shenanigans against Italy. His return for La Celeste will be against a rival he's never beaten or scored against. But, as we all know, Suarez has been unbelievable for Barcelona his season and few people would bet against him having a furnace in his belly for the match in Recife.
Also, it hasn't been forgotten how he humiliated David Luiz in the Champions League last season. One can be pretty sure the PSG defender will not have forgotten how silly the Uruguayan made him look under Europe's biggest spotlight.
4. Speed or safety for Dunga?
Bringing a point back from Argentina, where Brazil only won twice in the last 21 years, wasn't bad at all. However, fans of the Selecao mumbled about how happy Dunga was to settle for a draw at a time when Argentina are hardly dominant or full of swagger. Having said that, the group that gathered together in Brazil's Teresopolis base this week looks promising for those hoping to see a less pragmatic team.
Luiz Gustavo and Fernandinho were the only enforcers called up among the midfielders. Brazil also looked lighter, with Oscar, Lucas Lima, Coutinho and William offering some interesting options for a faster and more technical lineup that could give the Uruguayans (and Paraguay on Tuesday) a thing or two to worry about. Especially if Uruguay decide to "invite" Brazil to try to beat them on the break.
5. Who's in goal?
Since July 2014 when he took over the Seleção for the second time as manager, Dunga has called up at least seven goalkeepers. After Brazil's defeat to Chile in the first game of the qualifiers he controversially dropped Jefferson, who had become the first-choice keeper after the retirement of Julio Cesar.
The Botafogo keeper was deemed to have failed with one of the goals and lost his spot to Internacional's Alisson, who is now shadowed by Gremio's Marcelo and by the return of Valencia's Diego Alves, a goalie that has always threatened to take over the Seleção number 1 shirt only to struggle with injuries and the cold shoulder from Luiz Felipe Scolari before the last World Cup.
Yet Alisson at least won some recognition in the form of his presence in World Soccer's list of the 500 most important players in the world. He was the only Brazilian goalkeeper included.
Fernando Duarte is a U.K.-based Brazilian football expert who has reported on the Selecao for over a decade. Follow him on Twitter: @Fernando_Duarte.