England v Brazil: Big Phil hopes to produce a more rugged Brazil on his return
The Brazil team to face against England tonight will be Luiz Felipe Scolari's first since taking over in December and fans can expect him to turn out a characteristically rugged side with a dash of true Brazilian flair.
Scolari, usually known as Felipao (Big Phil) in Brazil, is back in charge for the first time since he guided Brazil to World Cup glory in 2002 and his task is to do the same when they host the tournament next year. The game will offer our first taste of which direction Scolari will look to take Brazil under his management. Staged as part of English FA’s 150th anniversary celebrations, a visit to Wembley also provides a starter’s pistol shot on the final 16 months of epic-scale preparation for Brazil’s first home World Cup since 1950.
For the first match of his second stint with the Selecao, Scolari could find no space in a 20-man squad for stars including Real Madrid midfielder Kaka. If England is to be strong contender at the 2014 World Cup, Hodgson knows he needs to be in a position where top talent can’t fit in his squad. The former Portugal and Chelsea coach included several veterans in the squad to face England in the belief that Brazil’s youngsters will require experienced heads around them when the World Cup rolls around. Misleadingly ranked 18th in the world, they still have a galaxy of stars and a manager who has done it before.
Neymar of Brazil and Santos is the most prominent young Brazilian to pass on the riches of an early-career European move in favour of the promise of a booming domestic league. As Scolari prepares to let loose on England’s defence a squad containing Ronaldinho, Neymar, Lucas Moura and Oscar it is hard to think of a host nation that has approached a World Cup finals under such concerted and enormous pressure.
Ronaldinho is the headline act, recalled to the squad a year after being dropped by Mano Menezes and returning aged 31 as the incumbent Brazilian footballer of the year. Beyond this there are familiar faces – Júlio César, David Luiz, Ramires and Oscar – and an appealing blend of steel and flair to be styled into Scolari's favoured template of stiff defensive midfield behind a roving front-line. Lucas Moura, currently settling in at Paris Saint-Germain, is a genuine dribbler, while Neymar, still only 20 and still with Santos, provides the most intriguing presence among other players. All are expected to feature against England tonight. If the football team can reinvigorate itself Brazil might be able to contemplate its "coming-out" tournament as a first-world economic power with genuine optimism.
On this front there is some uncertainty as to the depth of the problems. There have been notable past lulls in Brazil's footballing fortunes, most recently the mid-1980s when a more muscular style seemed to be emerging, only to be cast off by the emergence of the brilliant Rivaldo-Ronaldo generation. Lately there has been a sense of tactical drift, the old Brazilian style of 4-2-3-1, with two burly defensive screeners to protect the traditional flying full-backs, seeming to be outflanked by the more fluid midfield angles of the best international teams.
With Brazil in 2002, Scolari famously went with a 3-4-1-2 setup, designed to get the best out of world-class full-backs Cafu and Roberto Carlos, as well as reinforcing a creaking defence. However, our most recent indication of Felipao's mindset comes from his recent spell at Palmeiras. It was the same 3-4-1-2 setup that saw a return as Palmeiras won the 2012 Copa do Brasil, but also slumped to a shock relegation. If his past teams are any guide, Scolari will also focus on making Brazil hard to break down. His most successful sides, the Gremio and Palmeiras teams of the 1990s, and the Portugal team he took to the final of the 2004 European Championship and the semi-final of the 2006 World Cup, all had a solid spine and a stand-out midfielder or goalscorer. He will now work to sort out a defence that has been prone to lapses in concentration, and make it as formidable as his midfield, which rivals any in the world thanks to the speed and power of players like Ramires and Paulinho. One thing is for sure that selection dilemma Brazil coach faces ahead of tonights friendly at Wembley are ones English counterpart Roy Hodgson would love to have.
Fans expect nothing less than victory and the pressure is enormous. "Let's acknowledge one thing," Scolari said at his first news conference. "We have to win the World Cup."
The pressure of a home tournament is something else altogether, but it comes as Brazil is once again in bloom. On Wednesday night the countdown to the 2014 World Cup begins with the samba boys ready to light up Wembley against England.