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 By Tim Vickery

Friendlies without Neymar give Brazil chance to explore substitute options

At the senior level, Neymar has only once been on the losing side in a competitive match for Brazil -- a 1-0 defeat to Colombia in the 2015 Copa America. (The more pedantic-minded might also recall the quarterfinal of the 2011 Copa, when Brazil were knocked out by Paraguay. But that came after a penalty shootout, and goes down in the records as a draw).

Neymar did not react well to losing to the Colombians. He jostled the referee after the final whistle and picked up a four-match suspension. This kept him out of the opening two rounds of the Russia 2018 qualifiers.

He was back for round three, and picked up yellow cards in rounds four and five that kept him out of round six. Further cards in rounds eight and nine forced him to miss round 10. Had there been a round 19 he would have missed that, too, having received more cards in rounds 15 and 18.

Brazil's star player picked up six yellow cards in 14 games in the qualification campaign. Project that into the tournament and it becomes a concern. The chances of being forced out of a key knockout game are difficult to ignore.

The evidence is re-enforced by his performance for Paris Saint-Germain against Real Madrid in the Champions League -- which, because of his injury, ended up being the only truly crunch game that Neymar played in the entire club season. Once more, he picked up a yellow card -- and come the end of the match he was not far away from a red.

This is a legitimate worry for Brazil as they prepare for the World Cup. Coach Tite is acknowledged as a magnificent man manager. One of his most important tasks will be to ensure that Neymar's sublime talents are placed at the disposition of the collective.

Tite will have to crack down on the sessions of showboating, when Neymar seems most concerned with drawing fouls. The emotional temperature of the game rises, and Neymar frequently becomes its victim, losing his head and lunging into crude fouls of his own.

Opponents will be well aware of this and will clearly be aiming to goad him into a loss of self-control. This has been the test of great players through the ages. They are more sinned against than sinners themselves, but can suffer stiff penalties when the red mist descends. For example, Diego Maradona was unable to cope with the pressure in the 1982 World Cup, but rose mightily to the challenge four years later.

Neymar's foot injury, along with his fiery temperament, make it crucial for Brazil to have solid backup options behind him.

Hopefully Neymar will do the same. The quality of the spectacle will certainly benefit. But there is no harm in Brazil planning for things to go wrong -- which is why the absence of Neymar from the coming matches against Russia and Germany is probably a bonus.

Tite would almost certainly prefer to have all of his best players together for the first time since November -- and the last time before he names his World Cup squad. But with Neymar recovering from surgery, Brazil's coach is forced to come up with an answer to that hanging "what if?" question. What if Neymar is forced out of the second-round tie, or the quarterfinal? Who would play wide on the left?

The two options -- the two that were tried in the World Cup qualifiers he missed and the ones that would seem obvious from the current squad -- are Phillippe Coutinho and Douglas Costa.

In the case of Coutinho, it merely means switching him to his natural position, cutting in from the left. The key question here is one of self-belief. In previous attempts to deputise for Neymar, such as the 2016 Confederations Cup, Coutinho looked somewhat overawed by the demands. A big-money move to Barcelona, plus a coach who fully believes in him, should have solved such issues.

Costa -- more of an out-and-out winger -- would be more of an attacking solution, with Coutinho filling one of the central midfield positions. This is a strong possibility for Friday's game against Russia -- but less likely for next Tuesday's visit to Germany, when Tite will surely be looking for more midfield protection.

Meanwhile, watching the games from back in Brazil, Neymar may well be asking for protection -- both against crude fouls from the opponents, and against his own tendency to snap and lose control.

Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.


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