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Jun 11, 2014

32 Teams in 32 Days: Brazil

Neymar has dazzled the world with his immense pace and trickery on the club and international level, but can this young superstar lift Brazil to a sixth World Cup title?

Group A | Croatia | Mexico | Cameroon


Team DNA

When Luiz Felipe Scolari was ushered back to the managerial job he so successfully occupied between 2001 and 2002, Brazil were in disarray. Under Mano Menezes, who had taken over in July 2010, the Selecao struggled with the pressures of squad rebuilding and the failure to obtain immediate results to win the trust of the media and public.

Although Menezes deserves credit for bringing in names such as David Luiz (then largely unknown in Brazil), it was Scolari who finally managed to get this group to jell by devising a brand of football in which the plan to win games didn't rely solely on the brilliance of Neymar.

- 32 Teams in 32 Days: Country-by-country previews

- 50-50: Brazil-Croatia preview (4 p.m. ET on ESPN)

- #WorldCupRank: No. 6 ... Neymar

- World Cup blog: Brazil updates

Inspired by Bayern Munich's success in Europe in 2012-13, the former Chelsea manager made the Selecao work harder than they had in many years, pressuring high on the pitch and using players like Neymar and Oscar as conduits to hound the opposition box or hit them hard on the break.

It's still Brazil: full-backs Dani Alves and Marcelo push forward, and defensive midfielder Paulinho also enjoys the gung-ho action, but this team also boasts Wolfsburg's Luiz Gustavo, a player happy to sit in front of the defence and act as sweeper, if needed.

Starting scenarios

History

Brazil have never missed a World Cup, making this their 20th overall appearance. They have won it five times (1958, 1962, 1970, 1994, 2002), but have failed to advance past the quarterfinals in the past two tournaments. This is the second time Brazil will serve as host; they last had the home field in 1950, when they lost in the final to Uruguay.

How they reached the World Cup

Awarded an automatic World Cup berth due to their role as host, Brazil actually wished they hadn't. The absence of qualifiers during the past four years meant that the Selecao schedule was dominated by friendlies, keeping a squad largely formed by rookies from getting more substantial competitive experience.

The managerial change in November 2012 also could have gone awfully wrong, and things looked scary after Brazil lost their first game under Scolari against England and were flattered by a 2-2 draw against the Italians in Geneva.

But by the time they reached the 2013 Confederations Cup, the outcome could not have been more different. Neymar found his groove and former Lyon striker Fred poached goals even when lying on the grass, as Brazil won all five games in the tournament, scored 14 goals, conceded only three and capped the title with a 3-0 win against mighty Spain in Rio.

Since Scolari took over, they have lost only two of 20 games, winning 14. Oscar, despite not having the extroverted personality of some of his teammates, has excelled in sharing the creative burden with Neymar.

The numbers never lie

Key battles

The cliché about not choosing opponents applies here, but the Selecao would certainly like to avoid Uruguay -- not only because of the ghosts of Cups past, but also because they have been the only team to give Brazil a proper scare under Scolari in the Confederations Cup semifinals (Brazil were lucky to win 2-1).

Although the draw has been kind to Brazil for group play -- Croatia, Mexico and Cameroon should hardly trouble them -- the remaining table is tricky, with first opponents in the round of 16 coming from Group B (the Spain and Netherlands group). A match against the Dutch would present a chance for Brazil to avenge their 2010 Cup quarterfinal defeat.

After that, Brazil could face a world champion-calibre nation all the way through to the final, where they could meet Lionel Messi and Argentina.

Former Brazil International Denilson believes that Brazil may struggle at the World Cup as he believes Kaka should have been included in Scolari's 23 man squad.

Most important player

Neymar is more than a great money magnet. In 47 games for Brazil, he has netted 30 goals and was the top scorer for the Selecao in the previous World Cup cycle. Although Brazil have not set up their team around Neymar in the same way Argentina did with Messi, he is instrumental for Brazil's chances in the tournament.

It is true he did not have an incendiary season at Barcelona, but Neymar has been the main man with Brazil, perhaps due to the fact that he is not surrounded by as many established players. Brazil will struggle if Neymar is properly closed down, which makes co-stars like Oscar and Paulinho even more important.

Definition of success

Make no mistake, unless the Selecao win the World Cup, Brazilians will consider any campaign a failure.

Given the country's achievements in the game, the fans and media always expect Brazil to win, and it will not be different this time, especially because they are at home. The traumatic defeat in the World Cup final against Uruguay when Brazil last hosted in 1950 is still a thorn in the nation's side -- and the country expects redemption this time.

Another heartbreak will not have the same impact as it did 64 years ago, when the loss was described as Brazil's biggest national tragedy. The protests around dissatisfaction with World Cup expenditures suggest Brazilians are not hypnotized by rolling footballs anymore, but this is still a nation that cares a lot about this sport.

How far will Brazil go?

It's title or bust for the Selecao.

ESPN FC Analyst's take: Mario Kempes

With so many world-class players already up and down this Brazil squad, no one believed Scolari could successfully insert Neymar as the key man. Scolari's tactics of pressuring opponents from all sides of the pitch allow the new No. 10 space up top to roam, with teammates from defence, midfield and both wings sending him through.

The main weakness for Brazil could end up being the actual country itself. If things don't work well in the beginning, playing at home could become a disadvantage. The pressure is there, both internally and from the fans.

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