The state of the Selecao
Whatever omen you might look for and whatever players you might be missing, the fact is Brazil will kick off their second home World Cup on Thursday looking for more than a record sixth crown. As anybody with a remote interest in the game will know, redemption is also a prize the Seleção is craving, thanks to their agonizing defeat by Uruguay in the 1950 decider, a heartbreaking moment that, ironically, helped propel Brazilian football to its hegemonic place.
With a squad marked by a majority of rookies -- 17 of the 23 men called up by Luiz Felipe "Big Phil" Scolari have only ever seen a World Cup on TV -- the Seleção arrives at the tournament with the most reshuffled pack since 1954, the first tournament after that fateful "Maracanazo."
They need to look forward. But how ready are the Seleção in this quest? Below, we identify some instrumental questions the players and Big Phil will have to address in the next month if they are to lift the trophy on July 13th in Rio.
1) Are Brazil Neymar-dependent?
Yes and no. Although one cannot underestimate Neymar's numbers for Brazil -- 31 goals and 20 assists in 48 games -- the Seleção is hardly built around him, unlike Lionel Messi's Argentina or Cristiano Ronaldo's Portugal. In fact, Scolari has been careful to avoid the double-edged sword of singling out a player. At the same time as he purrs while describing Neymar as a potential Ballon d'Or winner, the manager firmly believes the 22-year-old cannot and should not try to take matters onto his own feet.
Scolari is wise enough to know opponents will follow Neymar even more closely in the World Cup than they did in the Seleção's previous outings over the past four years, which is why the manager will need others to pitch in, especially Oscar and Paulinho.
2) What will be Brazil's first-choice XI?
Never a man for sudden changes, Scolari rewards loyalty, and that was reflected on his World Cup list, which had only Fernandinho, Maxwell, Henrique and Willian as players who did not take part in last year's Confederations Cup. Except for injury or a horrendous loss of form, Big Phil will stick to his main guns.
Brazil will line up for the Croatia game with Julio Cesar, Dani Alves, Thiago Silva, David Luiz, Marcelo, Luiz Gustavo, Paulinho, Oscar, Fred and Neymar. There are reserve players casting a shadow over the chosen XI, though. Willian has impressed in training and in the friendlies against Panama and Serbia; sectors of the Brazilian media have promoted his inclusion ahead of Oscar, but it's unlikely it will happen anytime soon.
3) Rusty millionaires at the back?
Thanks to Luiz's impending 50-million-pound transfer from Chelsea to Paris Saint-Germain, Brazil now boast the most expensive centre-back partnership in the world; Luiz broke the record sum paid for a defender, which was formerly owned by his Seleção teammate Thiago Silva. However, both players have reported to training camp struggling with niggles and some lost rhythm -- Silva thanks to a couple of injuries over the past few months, and Luiz out of touch thanks to José Mourinho's decision to deploy him as a midfielder for Chelsea. The former Stamford Bridge favourite has also complained about knee pain.
Both looked a bit rusty in the two warm-up friendlies, but they can rely on an amazing service record. With both men on the pitch, Brazil's goals conceded average gets cut in half.
4) Power or grace on the right flank?
In the country where Garrincha is regarded almost as a saint, it is no surprise that Brazilians last year were pestering Scolari about his decision to use Zenit St. Petersburg's Hulk on the right instead of deploying a natural winger such as Lucas Moura or Bernard. Hulk felt the lack of love when he was booed and heard the crowds asking for the PSG man. Moura didn't even make the squad, and Bernard's star faded a bit after his move from Atletico Mineiro to Shakhtar Donetsk, where playing time hasn't been abundant.
Above all, Scolari sees Hulk's physicality as a useful resource to open up both defences and space for Oscar and Alves. That left foot of his can also be quite useful. But just as Scolari did in that very difficult game against Uruguay last year, Bernard can be unleashed as somebody to give markers a run for their money. "That kid has happiness in his legs," the manager once boasted.
5) Julio Cesar's woes?
It could have been really ugly: A slip left Cesar stranded, and minnows Panama could have scored an embarrassing goal against Brazil last week. As it happened, the Seleção goalkeeper recovered quite remarkably and saved an almost point-blank header, but it did little to quell the doubts about his reliability.
The most experienced player in Scolari's squad, Cesar has played a little more than a handful of matches since the Confederations Cup, thanks to his tug-of-war with Harry Redknapp at QPR and a late move to Toronto FC that was an obvious -- and desperate -- solution for minutes and Scolari's approval. The fact that the goalie is also searching for redemption after a clumsy mistake that cost Brazil dearly in their South Africa 2010 quarterfinal with the Dutch makes his story even more dramatic. Only Neymar seems to be under more pressure within the Seleção's ranks.
6) Is "Daddy poacher" ready?
Brazil's much talked about centre-forward crisis has put former Lyon striker Fred under the spotlight. Although he has been instrumental for Brazil when it mattered the most -- Exhibit A: his brace against Spain in the 2013 Confederations Cup final -- the Fluminense man has been hampered by injuries over the past 12 months and didn't really face serious competition for a place in the squad, especially after Diego Costa turned the Seleção down to join Spain.
Scolari, however, is not fussed by criticism, and barring a fresh injury, Fred will be Brazil's number 9 throughout the World Cup. It would be silly to just ignore his poaching abilities, as his "lying down" goal against Serbia showed.