Brazil are back! Why this squad is the best Selecao we've seen in a long time
BELO HORIZONTE, Brazil -- Fourteen games undefeated, a goalkeeper unbeaten for his country since March (603 minutes, plus stoppage time, and counting), a coach who oozes confidence, forwards who convert chances (and return the favor), a water-tight defense and a midfield creator who is regaining his mojo away from the Camp Nou.
Oh, and no Neymar.
That's enough for Brazil to maintain its unofficial Southern Hemisphere title belt against the eternal rival, Argentina. The Albiceleste were dispatched 2-0 in an engrossing game that epitomized the Copa America: home supporters close to rapture, scything tackles, arsenic glares, point-and-cuss melees and moments of sublime skill. Most of all, it was exhausting: to watch and, presumably, to play in. Which is what the Copa should be.
Dani Alves -- kicks and flicks at 36 -- belted out the national anthem, supported by a frenzied crowd of 55,000-plus, as if it were his own personal Haka: eyes wide, jaw quivering. All that was missing was the flicking tongue and elbow bash. He was there the last time Brazil and Argentina squared off in the Copa America (as was Lionel Messi) in 2007 and he was here in this very stadium, watching helpless from the bench as Brazil succumbed to the "Mineirazo," the infamous 7-1 World Cup semifinal horror show against Germany in 2014. He knows more than most how long it will take to expiate that day and he knows it will take more than a victory over Argentina. But it's a step along the long path back to where the Selecao belongs.
Argentina had not beaten Brazil in a competitive game since before the Messi era, in June 2005. To find the last time they had beaten the Selecao in Brazil in a tournament, you need to dial the clock back more than half a century, to the 1964 competition organized to celebrate the Brazilian FA's 50-year anniversary.
But the Copa America, while drenched in history, cares little for what has gone before. Tite, Brazil's human beta-blocker of a coach, knew this all too well. So much can happen in 90 minutes, and often does, when these two meet. Tackles were flying from the outset, Nicolas Tagliafico was the first to go into the book (seven others would follow, including Argentina boss Lionel Scaloni) inside of 10 minutes and Gabriel Jesus would have to momentarily leave the pitch with a blood injury shortly thereafter.
But Brazil can do both snuff and avant-garde cinema, and the sequence that led to the opener was evidence of this. Philippe Coutinho nutmegged Leandro Paredes, Alves pulled off a "sombrero" and a no-look pass that released Roberto Firmino wide on the right. A swift, hard cross and Gabriel Jesus was there to turn it into the back of the net.
The crowd howled with elation, only to be reminded that Argentina are no house of cards when Sergio Aguero sent Messi's free kick against the crossbar. It dropped tantalizingly outside the goal line, teasing the Argentines before it was cleared away. In fact, Scaloni's crew had plenty of endeavor, but Tite had his game plan: a diamond in the middle of the park with Casemiro and Firmino top and bottom, Coutinho and Arthur either side. "It gave us the basis to limit Messi and control the midfield," Tite said afterwards. "The speedy guys on the flanks did the rest."
Tite described Messi as "extra-terrestrial" and you could see what he meant. The Barcelona star may have been limited, but it only takes him a second to do serious damage. A fierce shot hit the post to Alisson's right, moments later he sent a ball whizzing across the goalmouth, of the sort that the slightest touch turns into a goal or, if you're unlucky, an own goal. Moments later, one of his patented accelerate-and-swerve moves prompted a free kick from just outside the box: Alisson got two big paws to it as it headed for the top corner.
Then came the nail in the coffin in a classic reversal. Aguero ran into Alves as he cleared the ball and stayed down, perhaps claiming a foul. Argentina didn't quite stop, but they stuttered long enough for Brazil to engineer a devastating counterattack which saw Gabriel Jesus skin Nicolas Otamendi and square it for Firmino's tap-in. The Brazil bench emptied, the crowd rejoiced, Maracana-bound. Moments later, the chant would rise from the stands: "E-LI-MI-NA-DO! E-LI-MI-NA-DO!"
And, indeed, Argentina were, though they leave with their heads held high. Not because, in a game of tiny margins, they can point to the two times they hit the woodwork and to a penalty shout mysteriously not given by a VAR that seemed to take the night off. Rather, because they grew stronger as the tournament progressed, (mostly) held their nerve in difficult circumstances and looked like something other than Leo and 10 pick-n-mix footballers meeting for the first time. This was the first occasion since June 2016 that Argentina fielded the same XI in consecutive games. Who knew that it might actually improve chemistry?
"In terms of quality of play today we deserve to be playing in the final," Scaloni said afterward, overstating things just a little, before blaming the referee. "I don't like him." His contract is up and his future is in the balance, but he's right when he says that, despite some glaring weaknesses, there is a base from which to build.
Argentina's traveling supporters evidently agreed, furiously waving their flags like lassos at the final whistle, refusing to be drowned out by the green-and-gold jubilation all around them. Even after the longest night -- and it's now 26 years and counting since their last trophy -- comes the dawn.
As for Brazil, we're well past dawn and into High Noon territory on Sunday at the Maracana (live at 4 p.m. on ESPN+). From back to front, the pieces are in place and the mentality is right, too. There's a selflessness and a confidence about them that carries them through the bumpy patch. This isn't the most gifted Brazil squad in history -- though they're still oodles ahead of most other nations -- but it may be the most efficient, intelligent and single-minded Selecao we've seen in a long time.