Tite's Brazil pass another test with superb comeback win over Uruguay
Brazil are not yet mathematically over the line -- it is still possible to draw up a sequence of results that would leave them in sixth place, meaning they'd miss the trip to the World Cup in Russia next year. But effectively they are home and dry after their series of consecutive wins under coach Tite stretched to seven -- and the latest was the most impressive of the lot.
There was one test that Tite's men had yet to pass -- how would they react to going a goal down? It happened Thursday against a Uruguay side that, granted, were missing the suspended Luis Suarez. But Uruguay had collected a 100 percent home record both with and without the Barcelona No. 9 -- six games, six wins, 16 goals scored, one conceded.
That became 17 when they took an early lead, with a goal right out of their book. Under coach Oscar Tabarez, Uruguay are not seeking aesthetic beauty, but they know exactly what they are doing. They seek to force an error from the opposing side close to goal and take quick advantage. Before the 10th-minute mark, Uruguay's Edinson Cavani made up huge distance to intercept a ball that Brazil left-back Marcelo chested back to his keeper. Keeper Allison brought Cavani down, and he buried a superbly emphatic penalty kick.
So how would the spectacle unfold? Uruguay could happily get players behind the ball and wait for another mistake. Brazil, though, passed their way out of the pressure, showing a fluidity through midfield that had been missing for so long before Tite came to the fore.
Uruguay were concerned with blocking Neymar's progress down the left flank. But they gave him too much room to cut infield, and with his growing sense of game awareness, he made it count. True, there were times when his attempted cross-field passes were intercepted and Uruguay broke at pace. But any cost was outweighed by the benefit it brought to the side's attacking play. On one infield incursion, Neymar drew the cover and slipped a neat pass for Paulinho, who levelled the scores with a long-range special.
At the interval, Tabarez made an adjustment. Diego Rolan and (soon afterward) Cristhian Stuani were moved wide to the right, with midfielder Carlos Sanchez going infield to block Neymar's space. But Brazil are not a one-man band. The vital second goal came from the other flank, with the Liverpool partnership working well. Philippe Coutinho played it in and Roberto Firmino turned left before rifling a shot in. Uruguay keeper Martin Silva parried, but Paulinho swept in the rebound.
The resurgence of Paulinho has been one of the stories of the campaign, with Tite, who worked with him to great success at Corinthians, well aware of his strengths and weaknesses. He has filled the CSL star with confidence -- and one of his specialities is precisely the timing of runs into the opposing box.
The ease with which Firmino turned centre-back Sebastian Coates was also worthy of note. The choice of the gangling Coates over the quicker Jose Gimenez made little sense against such a mobile front line -- and Uruguay were punished with the goal that effectively won the game. Uruguay were subjecting Brazil to an aerial bombardment when one speculative long kick out of defence put Neymar in behind Coates. But there was nothing speculative about the finish -- a sublime chip over Silva.
There was even time for Paulinho to complete his hat trick when he broke into the box with perfect timing to chest home a Dani Alves cross.
This, then, was the night when Brazil put themselves in a different category from the rest of the field in the qualification campaign. There was very little to fault with their performance. Perhaps the only quibble would be with the defensive work of the full-backs, Alves and Marcelo -- a defect that may be punished by a team able to control midfield better than the Uruguayans.
That aside, Brazil are coasting toward qualification while everyone else is in a dogfight. Uruguay remain second but are sinking back to the pack. Argentina and Colombia go third and fourth, respectively -- but neither can take a great deal of pleasure from scrappy 1-0 home wins, both the product of disputed penalties. Just behind them are Ecuador and Chile, with Paraguay still alive -- although they must visit Brazil in Tuesday's next round, a match that emphasises there are now three separate competitions going in the same qualification campaign.
The likes of Venezuela and Bolivia are building for the long term, and everyone else is scrapping for points -- while Brazil are already preparing for Russia 2018.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.