Minus Neymar, Brazil adjust, break down defensive Russia in second half
It was an important half-time break for Brazil in Moscow -- one which they trust will help them return to the same venue to contest the World Cup final.
Under coach Tite Brazil breezed through qualification for Russia 2018 -- against, however, hardly a vintage crop of South American teams. A doubt was left hanging. How would they fare against European opposition? And come half-time of the match against Russia, that doubt was nagging away like a bad toothache.
Last November, Brazil had been held to a stale goalless draw against England at Wembley. And it was happening once again in Moscow.
Both times Brazil were the away side. But, in front of their own fans, the opposition played as if they were the road side; cautiously pulling nearly everyone behind the ball, denying the Brazilians attacking space, inviting Brazil to try to break them down and overcommit to attack in the process.
Worryingly, Brazil were not looking especially threatening -- either with Neymar against England, or without him against Russia. Even more worryingly, as the game wore on, the opposition would grow in confidence. England nearly snatched victory at the end of the match at Wembley. And the longer the first half wore, on, the more dangerous Russia were starting to look when they launched their occasional attacks.
The Russians found that they could isolate Casemiro, Brazil's holding midfielder, and beat him. And they were finding space behind Dani Alves and Marcelo, Brazil's attack-minded full-backs. If the second half followed a similar pattern, then there was a real danger of Brazil leaving Moscow with their confidence dented -- hardly ideal preparation for a trip to Germany on Tuesday, let alone the return to Russia when it really matters in June.
A final score of 3-0, then, is a significant morale boost. The game was decided with three goals in the first 21 minutes of the second half, and turned into a victory parade. And a slight piece of tinkering at half-time made all the difference.
Preparing themselves to meet defensive opponents in the World Cup, for this match Brazil tried an attacking experiment. Normally the substitute for the absent Neymar would be Phillippe Coutinho switching wings to the left, with Willian coming into the team wide on the right. This time, though, Douglas Costa of Juventus was introduced on the left wing, with Willian on the right and Coutinho playing a central midfield role, taking the place of Renato Augusto.
In the first half, this failed to spark because Coutinho was receiving the ball in deep positions, and was unable to establish a relationship with centre-forward Gabriel Jesus. At the interval Tite moved Douglas Costa wider, looking for him to get chalk on his boots down the left touchline. Behind him, left-back Marcelo now had a channel to cut inside, in turn forcing Coutinho up into the space around the penalty area where he could make things happen. And then the show kicked off. The ball started to fly, the Russian defence started to become stretched and the chances started to appear.
Brazil were almost in trouble once more in the space behind Marcelo, but a quick break involving Douglas Costa out wide, with a switch to Willian almost produced a goal, and ended up producing a corner. Brazil took it short, changed the angle, and then both centre-backs showed their penalty area prowess, Thiago Silva's header forcing a save, Miranda forcing home the rebound.
And once Tite men were in front, Russia had to commit men forward and Paulinho managed to show off his speciality -- finding space in the penalty area. He got on the end of a quick, well-constructed move to win a penalty, tucked home by Coutinho, and then he was in the right place to meet an excellent Willian cross with a close-range header to complete the scoring.
Brazil, then, managed to come through the challenge of an opponent looking to sit deep and launch sporadic breaks -- as so many of their World Cup adversaries will try to do this summer. Germany on Tuesday will supply a different kind of test. Tite will surely re-enforce his midfield, with Fernandinho probably coming in to operate alongside Casemiro. But that space behind the full-backs will almost certainly be an issue. It will be fascinating to see how this potential weakness is probed by the reigning world champions.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.