From crisis to cruise control: Tite has Brazil on course for 2018 World Cup
Nine months ago, a trip to the Estádio Centenário in Montevideo was hardly something the Brazilian Football Confederation would relish. At that point in World Cup qualifying, many believed the Selecao would be concerned about their prospects given their abysmal start on the road to Russia: as things stood at the time, they were outside the playoff zone and risked missing out.
Uruguay away still is a tough gig, mind you, despite the absence of the suspended Luis Suarez. But the weight on Brazil's shoulders is nowhere near what seemed to be. After a convincing run of six victories, 17 goals scored and only one conceded since Tite took over last September, the Selecao is virtually guaranteed to keep their impressive and unique 100 percent attendance record at football's greatest party.
In fact, according to Tite's calculations, a simple draw in the Uruguayan capital would secure their spot with five games to spare. The manager based his projection on historical results since the league format was adopted in 1996: a 28-point tally has historically been the threshold and Brazil currently top the CONMEBOL table with 27, four ahead of Edinson Cavani & Co.
"We have been playing well and the results show it. We need to seize the opportunities and get more points," explained Paulinho in Monday's press conference.
Paulinho, a flop at Tottenham, is himself a character in the Selecao's recent plot twist. Vilified after poor performances in the 2014 World Cup -- he actually lost his place in the squad way before the fateful semifinal with Germany -- Paulinho's international career seemed more dead and buried than Jim Morrison at Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris. From there, he seemed content to collect big paychecks in China. Nonetheless, he was rescued by Tite, the same manager under whom he flourished at Corinthians to earn a transfer to England in the first place back in 2013.
Another twist is that for the first time in ages, Neymar is not the team's main source of goals: both Gabriel Jesus and Phillipe Coutinho have netted more in this campaign with five each, albeit only one ahead of the Barcelona miracle man, who actually leads the Selecao in assists.
Jesus, as we all know, will be watching the game in England thanks to his broken foot, which is one of Tite's few reasons for real concern these days. In his absence, Roberto Firmino is likely to start and try to show Tite that Brazil won't miss the speed and predatorial instincts the City man has showed in his mercurial career so far.
The Uruguay game should also give Neymar an extra challenge: he's never scored against La Celeste and as a matter of fact, he's also failed to tally against Paraguay, Brazil's opponents in Sao Paulo next week.
The manager is also a bit wary of losing key players due to disciplinary reasons for the next game: Dani Alves, Miranda, Paulinho and Renato Augusto are first team players just a yellow card away from suspension. Three reserves, Fernandinho, Giuliano and Filipe Luis, could also sit out these two games. Not that there is any fear of depletion, mind you: it's just that Brazil's cruise control represents a great opportunity to gel a squad ahead of what promises to be a wide-open World Cup.
Above all, Tite just doesn't want to rock the boat. After taking over at a pretty dire time, he managed to steady the Selecao and earned some well-deserved patience from both fans and media. While a bad result in Montevideo will not be a tragedy, it could disturb the peace a little.
"We have to remember that we will play away from home and in front of crowd that will be behind their team. Uruguay beat Argentina and are second in the table. We need to respect Uruguay and their history and not lower our guard just because we are so close to qualifying," said Tite.
Apart from words, the manager has also found a more subtle way to rally his troops. Since taking over, he's adopted a rotating captaincy system in which five different players have worn the armband in six games (Alves, Miranda, Fernandinho, Augusto and Luis). It's part of the manager's philosophy to deal with egos and stimulate a sense of collective leadership. It will be interesting to see what happens if Thiago Silva ascends to the first XI: the PSG man was notably upset when former Selecao manager Dunga decided to strip him of the captaincy in favor of Neymar three years ago.
If Tite's men beat Uruguay, the Selecao will establish a new all-time winning streak in qualifiers. Currently, they share a six-game run with the Brazil side that would go on to dazzle the world at the 1970 World Cup. The historical context might be different (for example, there are more games to play than in previous tournament cycles) but one thing is clear: it's still quite an impressive mark for this squad, especially after the very bumpy ride in their first six games on the road to Russia 2018.
Fernando Duarte is a U.K.-based Brazilian football expert who has reported on the Selecao for over a decade. Follow him on Twitter: @Fernando_Duarte.