All eyes on Oscar to fill Neymar's shoes
BELO HORIZONTE, Brazil -- After five games in the 2014 World Cup, it feels like an eternity since Oscar scored a peach of a goal to seal Brazil's 3-1 win over Croatia in Sao Paulo. The goal appeared to have answered any questions posed by fans and media in Brazil about him, following some timid displays in training and warm-up matches.
Despite being forced to deal with a tactical sacrifice, Oscar has hardly been the influential player Brazilians and many other neutrals expected him to be. However, the little man from Americana, Sao Paulo, is now the Selecao's biggest playmaking hope as part of the trap they intend to lay in Germany's path on Tuesday.
The Chelsea midfielder is the obvious choice for Luiz Felipe Scolari when replacing the wounded Neymar -- not in terms of crowd adulation or marketing potential, but purely on the pitch. While Brazil has hardly been centered around Neymar (and Argentina with Lionel Messi), the bleach-haired striker netted four goals for the Selecao before his injury and is still their top scorer in the competition, proof that Brazil's attacking actions really did revolve around him.
It stems from Big Phil's decision to tweak the 4-2-3-1 system he devised upon taking over in November 2012. The adjustment gave more freedom to Neymar while handing Oscar the mission of picking up the pieces, sometimes even playing on the left side of the attack -- definitely not his favorite.
Oscar struggled, and calls for Willian to be given a chance grew after the No. 10 failed to follow up on his brave display against Croatia. Now, however, he is needed more than ever in his Selecao career. Without Neymar, Oscar should come back to playing centrally to give the team the cohesion it has lacked throughout the tournament.
It remains unclear what Scolari plans to with the rest of Brazil's midfield. One would assume the return of Luiz Gustavo, who watched the 2-1 victory over Colombia on the bench thanks to a suspension, is a certainty, especially given his knowledge of the Bundesliga and his former Bayern Munich teammates.
No matter how cynical his fouling was in the quarterfinal, Fernandinho seems to have won his place, which would leave Paulinho as the odd one out. Moving Oscar to the center would require the arrival of an extra wide midfielder, and Willian could get his first start, giving the little Chelsea man a bit more freedom to operate and do what he knows best. It is bittersweet that his big chance to shine comes at the expense of a teammate; Oscar was one of the players who looked more affected by the news of Neymar's back injury on Friday.
As a matter of fact, he was informed about it in the Castelao mixed zone.
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If anything, though, the way Oscar found space in the Premier League shows that his shyness is complemented with courage. Oscar is certainly no Neymar, but his importance for the Selecao is often underrated. Even if Scolari decides instead to beef up the midfield by deploying Paulinho, Gustavo and Fernandinho, the Chelsea man would still be required to push forward. No matter what the formation, it's clear that Oscar must be given a free role by Felipao if he is to come out and play.
Brazil's success will also hinge on the player delivering. In this World Cup, Oscar has recovered possession 19 times but is also the Selecao's second-biggest "waster," losing the ball 52 times so far; Neymar "led" the team with 62. The worrying number, though, is the shots: only seven so far in the tournament. Oscar's absence from the penalty-takers' list was also noted even though he regularly takes part in the drills during practice.
Still, at least he is working hard. No one in Brazil, not even Neymar, ran more than the 31.1 miles Oscar has covered in Brazil's five matches.
While resilience has become the buzzword in Brazil's Teresopolis camp, with the local media calling for Scolari to plan a war of attrition with the Germans in Belo Horizonte, a Brazilian victory could depend a lot on somebody able to think and work fast, especially when exploring spaces left by Joachim Low's side. One could argue it is a lot of pressure for Oscar to suddenly leave his supporting actor role and lead the charge, but if there is a time the Selecao need heroics, it's now.
"We need to stay united and pull together as a team. Neymar's absence is very bad news for us, but we are still in the competition, and playing for him is the minimum we could do," Oscar said on Friday.
Easier said than done, but opportunity is knocking and the promise of more freedom should come as a major incentive. Hardly a player of effusive celebrations or even public demonstrations of leadership, Oscar is a sensitive guy who seems not to handle criticism as well as other teammates. But the Selecao's chances of making it to the final at the Maracana rely a lot on whether he will be able to step out of his shell. It's up to him to make the Selecao finally tick as a team in a tournament in which they seemed to rely too much on one man.
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.