Brazil cruise to victory vs. Panama
No meltdowns and no injuries. After a week of training at the Granja Comary complex in Rio de Janeiro state, those were the basic requirements for Brazil ahead of their penultimate friendly against Panama before the World Cup.
Sure enough, the Seleção came through unscathed, scoring four times in what amounted to little more than a leisurely Tuesday evening stroll at the cavernous Serra Dourada stadium.
That, in truth, is perhaps a little harsh on Panama. Handpicked by Luiz Felipe Scolari due to their tactical similarities with Brazil's Group A opponent Mexico, Los Canaleros were the better side for the first quarter of the game. Compact and comfortable on the ball, they initially blunted the home attack. Oscar, Neymar and Hulk swapped positions frequently but to little avail, while Fred was marshaled well.
On Monday, Scolari had voiced some early concerns about the way his side had been training, warning his players about letting their "attitude slip a week before the World Cup" and losing "the identity which we forged at the Confederations Cup." Indeed, he didn't look too pleased with what he saw in the opening stages Tuesday, huffing and puffing enigmatically from his position on the bench.
That frustration did not last long. Not for the first time, Neymar changed the mood of a game with a moment of individual brilliance. The Barcelona star won a free kick just outside the area and guided a pinpoint shot over the wall to make it 1-0 on 26 minutes. That seemed to steady Brazil, which doubled their advantage just before the interval as Dani Alves sneaked into space and fired a shot into the far corner.
Scolari shuffled his pack, throwing on Maxwell, Hernanes and Maicon at the start of the second half. Hulk added a second following an inspired flick by Neymar before Willian, another substitute, polished off an incisive attacking move to complete the rout.
The fans in Goiânia -- a place that did not make the cut for the World Cup despite having more football pedigree than two or three of the host cities -- gave their heroes a warm reception at the final whistle. They could take away a few positives, including the performance of Luiz Gustavo, who reprised the role of auxiliary centre-back when Brazil had possession, allowing David Luiz the freedom to start attacks. The Wolfsburg man is likely to keep his place even when Fernandinho returns to full fitness.
On the negative side, Oscar once more looked like a player weary from having played over 100 games since the start of 2013. He failed to produce anything of note before being hooked just after the hour mark and could find his starting spot under threat from Chelsea teammate Willian.
The slow start, meanwhile, will be of concern to Felipão, for so much of the momentum built up in 2013 came from the Seleção's ability to fly out of the blocks and set the tone of matches early. Uncertain starts lead to disquiet in the stands, which the players then sense. Brazil managed to avoid that vicious cycle during the Confederations Cup and will be keen to do so again when the pressure is ramped up even further this summer.
These are fairly minor quibbles, but Scolari will not take them lightly. After all, he encouraged the players ahead of the game to "be serious and play each match as if it were the last." If there is one thing the 65-year-old detests, it is complacency.
Deep down, even Felipão would likely admit that fitness and match practice were more important than the result in this instance. One fence down, one to go before the big kickoff. Next up: Serbia under the Friday night lights.