FORTALEZA, Brazil -- This may well be a great World Cup missing just one thing -- a truly great team.
Of course, 200 million Brazilians were hoping that their team would sweep to success on a tidal wave of fantasy football. But without being the tournament's ugly ducklings, the hosts looked anxious and ordinary even before the injury that has robbed them of Neymar's match-winning quality. The supporting cast of Oscar, Hulk and particularly the hapless Fred have rarely offered the creative spark and threat this tournament demands.
The coach, trying hard to deflect his critics, told them to "go to hell."
But Luiz Felipe Scolari knows he has major problems ahead of the semifinal against a German side that had too much physical and mental strength for the French. The suspension that rules out the impressive defensive lynchpin Thiago Silva is a major headache. Probably Scolari will play Dante, who is yet to kick a ball in the tournament.
Dante will know his Bayern Munich teammates all too well -- but, of course, they know him and his weaknesses, too.
But the central defenders have been the best part of Brazil's engine without exactly looking watertight. David Luiz, famously described by TV pundit Gary Neville as looking as though he were "being controlled by a 10-year-old on a PlayStation," has come good. He has looked a rugged and robust leader, forever offering prayers that have all been answered, with two goals as a bonus. Another display like that will be essential against the clever German attackers.
That said, this is a Brazil team in danger of becoming all steel and no silk, particularly without Neymar. Fernandinho seemed to make it his personal mission to kick Colombian star James Rodriguez out of the semifinal, seemingly sure that hopeless referee Velasco Carballo would do nothing about it.
Yet that amazing stat lingers in the mind. Brazil haven't lost a home competitive game since 1975. That's 62 games ago, suggesting they simply don't do home defeats when it matters.
It's enticing to believe Brazil will deliver because somehow they always have. But that is a romantic notion based on the allure of the famous yellow shirt and the charisma of Pele, Rivellino, Zico, Rivaldo, Ronaldo and all.
The evidence of our eyes is that Brazil are struggling and judgment day is near. Germany, without looking sensational, are making few mistakes. Their sympathies for the injured Neymar are genuine enough, but there will be no tears shed about his absence.
What can Scolari do? Surely he has to gamble that one of Willian or Bernard can provide the missing spark in Neymar's absence. There is a good argument for pushing Hulk up front to replace the out-of-touch Fred and playing three creators behind to pick the locks, while Fernandinho and the presumably restored Luis Gustavo mind the fort.
Whatever, Scolari needs to do something different to freshen up this team, which is getting through so far on little more than home-nation hysteria. That passion play can only take you so far.
Either Brazil improve markedly -- or go out.