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 By Tim Vickery

Brazil cement contenders status in Germany, but sterner challenges await

Precisely eight years ago, Germany and Argentina faced each other in Berlin for a 2010 World Cup warm-up fixture. Argentina won 1-0. But when the sides met some three months later in the quarterfinals, when it really mattered, things were very different: Germany 4, Argentina 0.

The lesson is clear: It would be very foolish to attach too much importance Brazil's 1-0 friendly win. But for the Selecao, this visit to Berlin could never be just another friendly. It was their first meeting with Germany since perhaps the most astonishing result in the history of World Cups, that 7-1 capitulation on home soil in the 2014 World Cup semifinals.

That afternoon in Belo Horizonte left a stain on the carpet that can never be erased. But the success of the team since coach Tite took over in mid-2016 is placing the disaster in a different context. And in Berlin, Tite and his men were looking for a morale-boosting performance as a declaration of self-esteem and of progress.

It helps explain why Germany were happy to field an experimental side and to turn the second half into a parade of substitutions. Brazil, meanwhile, were at full strength -- with the obvious exception of the injured Neymar -- and using their more cautious formation, with Fernandinho coming into the starting lineup to aid Casemiro with the midfield marking duties. And Tite saved his sole, thoroughly pragmatic substitution for the last 20 minutes, with no room for experimentation.

In one sense, this reflects badly on Brazil. Germany have been busy developing new talents; they sent a second-string squad to last year's Confederations Cup, and still came home with the trophy. A new generation are knocking at the door.

Brazil, though, cannot boast anything similar. Only two of their side were not full internationals four years ago: keeper Alisson and forward Gabriel Jesus. The Under-20 World Cup is of huge important to the rebuilding process of South American national teams, and twice this decade Brazil have failed to qualify.

Gabriel Jesus celebrates his opening goal against Germany.
Brazil impressed in their friendly win in Germany, but there's plenty of work to be done before the World Cup.

But if Brazil are still parading many of the same old faces, they have come on in leaps and bounds in terms of concepts of play. One of the great virtues of Tite is his willingness and capacity to learn. Where some Brazilian coaches have come to Europe in search of taking selfies with well-known names, he has conducted a serious study of contemporary tactics, and has applied his knowledge to the considerable talent at his disposal.

Four years ago, the Germans had acres of space to put together their intricate passing patterns and walk their way through the Brazil defence. But now Brazil are compact; whether pressing high in search of the ball, or when forced to defend deep, the team are acting as a coherent unit.

In attack, there are times when the ball is flying, when the passes are being switched at speed in and around the opposition penalty area -- and then, invariably, Paulinho appears as an element of surprise.

In defence, they are working together; right winger Willian put in an especially impressive shift against the Germans. There are still vulnerable areas, though. The space behind attacking full-backs Dani Alves and Marcelo will always be a concern, and the defence was often at full strength dealing with dangerous crosses played into their box. But centre-backs Miranda and Thiago Silva, plus keeper Alisson, stood strong in difficult circumstances -- and ironically, Brazil won the match as a consequence of a badly defended cross.

When Willian played in from the right, left-back Marvin Plattenhardt was not tight, centre-back Jerome Boateng inexplicably failed to intercept, and keeper Kevin Trapp could have done better to block the header from Jesus.

Every time Brazil's young striker has scored -- he has nine goals in 15 matches now -- Brazil have won. The centre-forward position is another big difference from 2014. Ever since the demise of Ronaldo, Adriano and, to a lesser extent Luis Fabiano, this has been a problem position for Brazil. In the last World Cup, Fred, a target man of limited mobility, proved a hapless figure. Jesus, on the other hand, is bright and versatile, full of movement and offering different kinds of threats.

His winning goal against Berlin re-enforces the idea that Brazil are back as serious World Cup contenders. But they must be aware that if they meet Germany in Russia -- and it could happen as early as the second round -- things might prove a little tougher than they were in this warm-up friendly.

Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.


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