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Feb 4, 2013

Brazil well short of being special

Jose Mourinho was here. If rumours are correct, Stamford Bridge might be hearing more from him soon. Rafa Benitez was here too, though not with Mourinho, funnily enough. Somewhere in the United States, Roman Abramovich was also watching, though not enjoying the hospitality of the FBI as had been rumoured.

Two elder statesmen of the game who have accepted the Roman rouble brought their teams to his footballing homestead while its owner enjoyed the match in glorious HD.

Fabio Capello and Luiz Felipe Scolari are the ones who got away from England. Whereas Capello fled on a point of principle related to John Terry, Scolari turned down the England role before he had even started, suggesting the press had cost their country his services. Two proven winners were in London, the scene of their careers' most public reverses.

Scolari must guide his country through the footballing purgatory of being expectant hosts. And hosts don't often enjoy a good run ahead of tournaments. A build-up can only be frustrating when there is little reward but expectation. Brazil hardly lifted expectations higher, though Scolari might remind that his 2002 winners entered the finals in no sort of form.

Unlike a certain successor, Scolari always seemed to enjoy life at Chelsea. "I loved living in London and I feel at home here," he said in the aftermath of a match that can hardly have been too satisfying.

Capello, now of Russia's national team - funded by Abramovich - will have been similarly well-acquainted with his surroundings. He always preferred taking in a London game when coaching England. He lived round the corner.

Indeed, this was a game played like it was a stroll in the park. Two teams played out a glorified training session miles away from their respective homes in front of a tepid atmosphere. Camera phones were out in force and moments of excitement always dripped in the high-pitched voices of confirmed tourists.

Goals were exchanged that neither team had ever looked like scoring. Russia's came when pressure was finally sustained. Victor Fazuylin's was the last of four consecutive attempts on goal. Brazil just could not clear their lines. David Luiz cut a familiarly forlorn figure at his domestic home. Fred's equaliser, barely deserved, though Russia had hardly warranted victory either, came when Marcelo showed off Real Madrid overlapping finery to set up a tap-in for the former Lyon striker.

Scolari stood throughout, Capello rose only when it was time to bark instructions. A wry smile between the two was exchanged on occasion to suggest that all was not being taken wholly seriously.

Capello's Russia are hailed as a step forward from the talented but lax outfit that slipped out of Euro 2012 with a shrug to the Greeks. Their performances in the current qualifying campaign would countenance that view.

Flighty types like Andrei Arshavin and Yuri Zhirkov are out of favour. Though the former Chelsea wing-back was on the bench, Arshavin was nowhere to be seen, omitted by fellow art connoissieur Capello, who has probably seen enough of Arshavin's Arsenal career to know that he is a faded force.

Speaking near-perfect English and visibly more relaxed than when last seen on these shores, Capello was happy and cracking jokes too.

"Is not my problem," he said of England's current campaign. "Tomorrow I will watch France-Spain. It's a different job. It's the same but different. For two reasons. First because the Premier League stops for three months in winter and secondly the language is difficult."

The latter point was delivered with a knowing glint. "Felipao" is still yet to win a game on his return to the job he quit as world champion. Brazil, the factory of world talent, is producing defective goods. The cupboard of credible strikers looks bare.

Fred has always been a good finisher, and has scored in his last four Brazil games, but looks too bulky a type to properly lead the line. However, he is still a fine poacher. Though not in the class of Careca, Romario or primetime Luiz Ronaldo to offset his lack of productivity, at least he is reliable.

"I think we are on the right path," said Scolari cheerily enough. "Everybody knows there are no shortcuts for success. You need to win in stages. In each stage we are trying to make improvements."

Neymar is the expected face of Brazil 2014. He needs to fare better on home soil than he usually has in Europe. There were flashes in last summer's Olympics but the final saw him fall flat against the determined skill of Mexico. Wembley last month saw him flatter to deceive in defeat to England. This was another poor dress rehearsal performance. After setting up two of Brazil's goals against Italy in Geneva, he was a disappointment once more.

An early run was stopped in its tracks when he headed straight into traffic. He blew the best chance of the first half for Brazil when slashing horribly wide. Next, over-deliberation and an attempt to trick his way through when pace would have done the job was pointedly unimpressive. European football never offer him the time to show off his wares. Only an 85th minute slalom past three defenders was analogous to his sky-high reputation.

At Wembley, the dying of the light of a former genius in Ronaldinho was on pathetic show. Kaka is not yet so decrepit, but not the player who could lay claim to being the world's best five years ago. A wrecked knee has robbed him of his devastating surge. Brazilians most probably could not care less about the £56 million that Real Madrid paid for him, but they need the player once worth that money back, and badly too.

Kaka could never be anything but a good footballer, but he is no longer special. His lack of distinction is shared by his team 15 months ahead of a tournament where anything less than victory is total failure. Such failure looks highly possible.

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