Why Brazil and relaxed Neymar are to be feared (again) at 2018 World Cup
So Brazil have made it to Russia 2018 in style, mathematically securing a place with four games to spare in one of the fiercest qualifying tournaments in living memory. They got the job done with a 3-0 home win over Paraguay, their first triumph against their South American neighbours since 2009, combined with Peru's surprising 2-1 victory over Uruguay.
After a rocky start to the qualifying campaign, in which the Selecao's perfect attendance record looked under threat and resulted in the dismissal of manager and World Cup-winning capitain Dunga, Brazil have cruised into next year's edition of the tournament under first-timer Tite and they are not looking back.
After eight consecutive wins in official matches, Brazil have climbed to the top of the FIFA World Ranking for the first time in nine years, capping a streak that many will see as a strong statement of intentions for Russia.
Surely Brazil are contenders again, less than three years after the traumatic 7-1 home drubbing against Germany, which also resulted in their worst-ever footballing defeat. Or are they?
Here are reasons to cheer and fear for the Selecao:
Reasons to cheer
1. Tite's philosophy
A favourite candidate to take the Selecao job after Brazil's collapse in the final stage of the 2014 World Cup sealed Luiz Felipe Scolari's fate, Tite was among the many people who were shocked by the Brazilian Football Confederation's decision to resuscitate their Jurgen Klinsmann-esque project and give legend Dunga another go.
The warning signs that something wasn't right came when Brazil crashed and burned out of two Copa Americas, one of them in the group stages. The lacklustre performance in the first third of the gruesome South American qualifiers broke the camel's back and in came Tite with an even steeper hill to climb. But all it took for the mood to change were six matches and, of course, a philosophy of work that mixed seriousness on the pitch with an informal way of approaching players. Even Whatsapp became a way for Tite to stay in touch with his squad, including reserves.
So Tite has the respect and admiration of his players. Above all, he has made them believe in his system. When you don't hear even out-of-favour stars like Thiago Silva moaning, something is very, very right.
2. It's the defence, dude
Brazil's scoring prowess has not gone unnoticed in the Tite era. In eight games, the team netted 24 times in comparison to 11 in six matches under Dunga. This obviously steals some thunder for another statistic that is no less impressive: Brazil have only conceded twice during this poach fest. From starting as only the fifth-best defence in qualifiers, the Selecao now boast the best defensive record in the tournament.
These impressive results have come with a pair of centre-backs who are pretty much untested in international football: Inter Milan's Miranda and Paris Saint-Germain's Marquinhos. Credit must also go to the midfield trio of Casemiro, Paulinho and Renato Augusto, who have helped goalkeeper Alison to work much less this time around; under Dunga, the Selecao had conceded eight times in six games.
3. Unlikely hand from Scolari
In interviews after the Paraguay match, Paulinho made sure to say a big thank you to Scolari, the former Selecao coach under whom he currently plays his club football at Chinese side Guanghzou Evergrande. According to Paulinho, Scolari and his technical staff have kept him on his toes.
"A lot of people scratched their heads when I moved to China, but I knew I had to work hard in my fitness," said Paulinho, who scored three times in the 4-1 victory against Uruguay. "I have had a lot of support from Felipao and I am grateful to him and his staff, because the extra work is paying off."
4. Neymar can enjoy himself
Let's be clear: The devout catholic Tite is probably praying every day for Neymar's fitness, especially after that Barcelona game. But it's not like the old days anymore, in which a simple cold would inevitably give Brazil the feeling they were naked. Deprived of the captaincy and the responsibility of doing everything on the pitch, Neymar is a much more relaxed player and the results are there for all to see. He has scored six goals in qualifying, more than any of his teammates, and even the absence of the injured Gabriel Jesus has not made the whole game revolve around the Barcelona man. That can only be a good sign.
Reasons to fear
1. Too early to call?
A year is an eternity in football, which is why Tite jokingly says these days that he wishes the World Cup started next week. The Selecao are full of momentum now, but that must also be the case in summer 2018.
In the past three World Cup cycles, Brazil peaked too early. What's worse, they took the Confederations Cup as evidence that the next step was closer than it seemed. Wrong. Which is why the Brazilian Football Confederation is trying to schedule friendlies with a plethora of European teams, including world champions Germany, as a means of testing the waters.
Make no mistake: Brazil need to be respected again. But this doesn't mean they will win their sixth World Cup. Yet.
2. Pieces in the back
With the exception of Thiago Silva, Brazil look pretty short of cover for Miranda and Marquinhos, especially the 30-something Inter Milan man. China-based Gil might have earned the trust of Tite in his time under the manager at Corinthians, but remains pretty untested. The unthinkable might have to happen: Tite might have to bring David Luiz back to the fold to give more mileage to the side.
3. Very superstitious
With the sweet exception of 1970, when Brazil arrived in Mexico after winning six qualifying games, all of the Selecao's other post-qualification titles took place following gritty campaigns -- a place in 1994 and 2002 were only guaranteed at the last match -- so superstitious people will be forgiven if they feel some jitters now that Brazil made no prisoners in South America.
Although, they certainly would take being in Russia.
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.