Brazil can't adapt without Thiago Silva
When Neymar was stretchered off the field in the dying moments of Brazil's quarterfinal victory over Colombia on Friday, Brazil fans feared the worst. Confirmation came from the hospital soon after: the forward had fractured a vertebra and would miss the rest of the World Cup.
Immediately, the speculation began over how Luiz Felipe Scolari would set his side up to counteract the absence of its talisman and top scorer against Germany. Pick an extra central midfielder and hope for a goal from a set piece? Start Willian wide and give Oscar a more central role? No one could replace Neymar's star quality, of course, but there were decisions to be made, plans to be foiled.
Yet amid all the bluster, it was almost forgotten that Brazil would be missing another key player in the semifinal. And in the event, Thiago Silva, suspended after picking up a silly booking against Colombia, would prove the more telling loss.
It meant Brazil was without the defensive partnership that has proven so fundamental to their form over the past 18 months. The Selecao did not lose a single one of the games Thiago and David Luiz started together -- and won 21. There would be no such safety net against Germany.
Although Napoli defender Henrique is an old Palmeiras cohort of Scolari's, there was really only one choice to step into the back line. Dante has long been viewed as a capable enough understudy and had performed well when called upon in the Confederations Cup this past summer, with a vital goal in the win over Italy.
He had the added advantage of knowing the Germany players inside out, having spent the past few seasons playing with and against them in the Bundesliga. That experience, Scolari hoped, would prove important at the Mineirao.
In the end, it counted for nothing. Dante and the rest of the Brazilian defence were given the run-around by a Germany side who seemed hell-bent on redefining the word ruthless. As the goals rattled in, cameras cut to Thiago sitting in the stands and watching through his fingers. How he must have wished he could have been out there to steady his teammates.
It would be wrong to lay all the blame at Dante's door. This, after all, was a rout mapped out by the metronomic midfield passing triangles upon which Germany's recent success has been built. With Scolari electing to start Bernard instead of Paulinho, Toni Kroos, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Sami Khedira had the run of the midfield and poured forward at will. Luiz Gustavo and Fernandinho were outnumbered and overwhelmed.
It was notable, however, that Germany had so much joy down Brazil's left. Thomas Muller slipped into the space between Dante and Marcelo time and again, swapped passes with the oppressively tidy Philipp Lahm and ghosted into the area unchecked. He was an itch the Selecao just could not scratch.
On the other flank, Maicon, preferred to Dani Alves once again, had a touch more joy against Mesut Ozil -- but only a touch. There are no defensive heroes in a 7-1 defeat, after all.
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Scolari admitted after the game that Brazil had lost their bearings during that staggering first-half salvo. "I couldn't change anything ... it was one goal after another," the former Chelsea manager said. "There was nothing to be done during that breakdown."
Luiz, who entered the field looking steely and left it in floods of tears, was perhaps the most culpable of all Brazil's defenders, having lost Muller for the opener and tried too hard to make amends thereafter.
"I want to say sorry to all Brazilians," he sniffed after the final whistle. "It's a day of great sadness, the end of a dream."
Really, though, it was more brutal than that -- a nightmare, perhaps. This was a night when Brazil's defence crumbled and, with it, their hopes of lifting the World Cup.