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Jun 2, 2014

Oscar is the real key for Brazil

Oscar's creativity will be instrumental in the host nations' bid for a record sixth World Cup title.

A recent survey of Brazilian social media showed that Neymar was getting many more mentions on the Twitter-sphere than all of the rest of the Brazil team put together, including high-profile, charismatic coach Luiz Felipe Scolari.

Of total mentions, Neymar had something like 65 percent. The rest were all reduced to scraps, tiny percentages -- and well down the list of these also-rans was midfielder Oscar, which seems like a tremendous injustice.

Neymar, of course, is the undoubted poster boy of the 2014 World Cup, the young man whose individual brilliance is supposed to carry his country to victory. He is the team's most potent weapon in the last 30 metres of the field. Oscar, meanwhile, has an equally important role to play over a much wider area of the pitch. The slender build and sloping shoulders of the Chelsea youngster belie the fact that this is a player who is important to Brazil over a broad, vital range.

The Chelsea midfielder is three in one. He can drop back to pick up possession from the centre-backs and orchestrate play from deep. Higher up the field he can slip his passes through the opposing defence and put the strikers through on goal, and he can also run beyond the strikers and score the goals himself. It is this versatility that makes him so important.

Tostao, the great from Brazil's 1970 team and perhaps the brightest man ever to pull on the famous yellow shirt, laments the separation of functions that has taken place in the Brazilian midfield over the past 25 years. Much of this had to do with the premature elimination of Brazil's wonderful 1982 World Cup side, with one of the most ball-playing midfields ever assembled on a football pitch. In response, future Selecao sides decided to protect themselves, and, as Tostao wrote recently, "the midfield in Brazil was divided into the 'volantes' (defensive midfielders) who mark and the 'meias' who attack," with a consequent loss of fluidity. The ball has never moved through the team as smoothly as it did in 1982.

Oscar helped Brazil claim the 2013 Confederations Cup. Can he now help them claim the cup that really matters?
Oscar helped Brazil claim the 2013 Confederations Cup. Can he now help them claim the cup that really matters?

The organic unity of the team has been affected by this separation of midfield functions. Oscar's capacity to skip all over the pitch offers a solution to this problem, one that is likely to be especially important in a World Cup on home soil. In recent times Brazil have developed an obsession with the counter-attack. This June and July, though, most of the opponents will seek to pull men behind the ball, making it hard for Brazil to launch their favourite weapon. Passing fluidity will be vital, and Oscar is the man to supply it. Providing, of course, he is fit to do so. Oscar's late season form has been questioned, not least by his own club manager, Jose Mourinho.

Scolari has made it abundantly clear that he could hardly care less about the form of his players at club level. If the likes of Oscar, Paulinho and Neymar are being criticized, this is a concern for Chelsea, Tottenham and Barcelona, respectively. He does not have the slightest worry about the ability of these players to carry out their functions in the different, collective context of the Brazil side. But, at the end of the draining European club season, he is very concerned about the players' fitness. Will they physically be capable of operating at the level required? Oscar is a specific fear here because he has been playing so much football.

In the 2011 close season he made his name for Brazil in the Under-20 World Cup in Colombia, scoring all three goals in the final against Portugal. A year later he played in the Olympics in England, moving straight on to Chelsea without a break. And there was no opportunity to rest last year because of the Confederations Cup. Might Oscar be too jaded to perform well now that the World Cup has come around?

When the squad meet up in the hills outside Rio on May 26th, the most important man present will be Paulo Paixao, Brazil's physical preparation specialist. Twelve years ago Ronaldo was not making progress recovering from his injury with Inter Milan. Barcelona said that Rivaldo would also not be able to play in the World Cup. Paixao and his staff got them both fit. And while players from other teams who had played the European season were running on empty, the likes of Cafu and Roberto Carlos were charging up and down the flanks like men possessed.

Paixao -- and Brazil's culture of physical preparation -- played an absolutely vital role in Brazil's fifth World Cup win. The biggest contribution he can make to win number six to ensure that Oscar is firing on all cylinders between June 12th and July 13th.

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