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Brazil face absences at the front and back ahead of tricky Paraguay qualifier

Theoretically, there could be tougher opponents for Brazil to visit on Tuesday, especially in the South American qualifiers, where you could be asked to literally play at the top of a mountain -- in this case, nobody is really relishing facing leader Ecuador at the Atahualpa Stadium in Quito, situated 9,350 feet above sea level. But surely Dunga could have done without a trip to Asuncion to face Paraguay in a week he is trying to address problems at both ends of the Selecao formation.

Brazil's opponents Tuesday have been what Brazilians call "a stone in the boots" the past couple of years, most noticeably having knocked the Selecao out on penalties in the last two Copa Americas, the last one with Dunga back in charge. The 1994 World Cup winner will also remember that the 2-0 defeat to Roque Santa Cruz & Co. in the 2010 qualifiers had the whole country asking for his head.

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And if you like numbers, get a load of this: Since 1968 Brazil has only won 4 out 11 games played in the Paraguayan capital. To make matters a tad more complicated, Tuesday's visit to the Defensores del Chaco stadium will happen without Neymar.

While the Barcelona forward has collected more bookings than goals for his country since 2015, he is still the main reference point for the team, and the kind of player the opposition always has to worry about. Moreover, he didn't look so out of the water playing as a false 9 in the 2-2 draw against Uruguay on Friday, even if for only 45 minutes.

It is likely Dunga will deploy Santos striker Ricardo Oliveira upfront as a replacement and as a target man for Willian and Douglas Costa. There isn't a massive crisis in the scoring department, with Brazil counting nine in five games (only Ecuador and Uruguay have more). It's at the back that things look a bit more worrying.

Of the five teams in the qualification zone (four with automatic spots and one with a playoff ticket), Brazil have the leakiest defence, having shipped six goals. In the five games so far, Dunga's bunch have only managed a clean sheet in the 3-0 win against Peru and conceded even to bottom of the table Venezuela.

If that is hardly a tragedy, one should remember that a tight defensive performance used to be the trademark of Dunga's style at the helm. In his first 11 games in charge after replacing Luiz Felipe Scolari in July 2014, Brazil only conceded three times. And while more cynical observers will see in the absence of David Luiz as a blessing in disguise after his woeful performance against the Uruguayans, the suspended PSG man will still leave some imbalance in the team.

Despite his struggles against Uruguay, David Luiz may prove difficult to replace on the Brazil back line.

Dunga called China-based Gil and used him in the first training session after last week's draw, but he also has Luiz' PSG colleague Marquinhos available as a possible companion for Miranda.

Paraguay have hardly taken the qualifiers by storm, but they have managed to deny Argentina anything useful in Asuncion and dented Ecuador's 100 percent winning record with an important away draw last Thursday.

They will be a test for whatever centre-back partnership Dunga decides to field. Played in a league format, the South American qualifiers are much more a marathon than a sprint, but falling behind is hardly something recommendable for Brazil, still licking the wounds of two very unsuccessful tournaments in a row.

Also, the level of the tournament so far has been quite exciting for neutrals, and the pack is tight at the top of the table. If Brazil are defeated in Asuncion, they might wake up in seventh place, while a triumph could put them in second place and buy them the breathing space Dunga could almost smell after his team constructed a 2-0 lead against the Uruguayans.

While there will still be 12 games to go, let's remember the next qualifiers will only be played in late August, enough time for frustrations to brew in case things don't go well. The manager hinted he expected a tough tournament in his press conference on Monday.

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"There other qualification tournaments in which we qualified in the last rounds and I think this could be even more complicated. We need to play to win, despite the fact that Paraguay will be at home and with the crowd roaring them forward," Dunga said.

The manager also had to address questions about Neymar's private life. The Barcelona striker was seen partying in southern Brazil after the Uruguay game. As diplomatic as he tried to sound, Dunga didn't really jump for joy with the distraction.

"It's a new generation of players in comparison to my time and you need to respect individualities," he said. "These days you have the social networks and people around the world know in two seconds what a player does. I can't demand that players nowadays think the same way I did. The most important thing for me is that Neymar plays his best when he is available."

On the pitch, Miranda will be Dunga's new captain, since both his first choices (Neymar and Luiz) are sidelined. The Internazionale defender will have to adapt quickly to playing with a new partner under some tricky conditions.

"If you want to play for this team you need to be able to handle the pressure, especially when everybody wants you to win. The defence had a night to forget against Uruguay and we need to tidy things up for the Paraguay game."

Indeed they do.

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.


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