Group A has been rather kind for Brazil, although complacency could give them unnecessary problems as they try to top their group with minimal fuss and injuries to their key men. Out of the three, Croatia looks to be the biggest threat, with influential midfielders Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic supporting their lone frontman Mario Mandzukic. Mexico squad lacks any real quality and their stuttering qualification campaign further proves the lack of cohesion amongst their first eleven, whoever they may be. The Mexicans will rely on Hector Moreno to marshall the back four and Javier Hernandez to pop up with a goal or two, but the Seleçao will have little to worry about. Samuel Eto’o leads the line for Cameroon, but it is they will rely on their midfield duo of Stephane M’Bia and Alex Song to repel the Brazilians.
First off, Luis Felipe Scolari has done well to find a settled first team and more importantly, formation. Apart for one of the two holding midfielders and one of the three attacking midfield positions, the rest of the positions had been decided long ago.
The three players supporting the lone striker will probably be the key to Brazil’s success. Neymar, operating from the left, will be accompanied by hardworking playmaker Oscar as well as man mountain that is Hulk. The team shape seems to be perfectly built around Neymar’s preferences and abilities, such that he is not necessarily needed to track back and defend, giving him total focus on offensive and counter-attacking duties. Oscar might have suffered a loss of form towards the back end of the campaign for his club Chelsea, but his ability to press opponents high up the pitch as well as find key passes means he will still be an important asset for Scolari.
Brazil do have much depth in those three attacking midfield positions too, giving Scolari many options and ways to change his team’s offensive direction. Ramires can provide more hard running down the right as well as a more defensive option, while his Chelsea team-mate Willian has similar traits to Oscar, but Willian also has the pace and stamina to play on the wings. Shakhtar Donetsk’s Bernard is a somewhat unknown quantity, even though he has attracted much interest from the top European sides recently, and that unpredictability alone would be a worthy extra option for Scolari.
Though Brazil are the favourites and seem to have the strongest squad in the tournament, they still have a few weaknesses opposition managers will look to exploit. One is definitely David Luiz in central defence. His well-known lapses in concentration and tendency to step out unnecessarily may leave a gap that skipper Thiago Silva may not always be able to fill.
With Hulk and Neymar given the license the roam and little defensive responsibilities, Brazil’s full-backs Dani Alves and Marcelo may be left exposed to two-on-ones or even leave spaces behind when they – pretty offensive-minded as well – themselves bomb forward. Sure, Paulino and Fernandinho will be tasked to double up on the flanks when defending, but then the midfield area will be left free.
Then there’s Hulk. On his day, he is unstoppable; but those days are few and far between. If Hulk has his usual drift out of the game, opposing defenders will only have to focus their efforts on Neymar. Further, though Fred is currently the first-choice striker, he and his back-up Jô doesn’t possess the necessary quality that the rest of the team exude. Simply put, they are not goal scorers, thus leaving extra burden to Neymar and the other offensive midfielders.
Wild Card: Fernandinho
Having recently won the Premier League in his first season with Manchester City, Fernandinho is somewhat a late bloomer and this will be his first, and probably only, World Cup. He will team up alongside fellow Premier League midfielder Paulinho at the base of Brazil’s midfield, shielding the back four and shuffling across whenever the full-backs go forward. Whereas Paulinho will pick his moments to drift forward and get into the opposition’s box, Fernandinho’s task will seem rather simpler as he will be focused on sitting back and breaking up opponent’s advances.
However, Fernandinho’s role will be key to how Brazil function, as has always been of previous great Brazilian sides. Similar to Dunga’s role at the 1994 edition and Gilberto Silva at the 2002 tournament, Fernandinho has to be at the top of his game in order to give the likes of Neymar the freedom to express themselves without fear of being hit on the counter.
Scolari’s men will sail through the first round, where they will then meet either Netherlands or Chile. If their second round opponents are the Oranje, they should be able to dispense them with some ease. But if it comes to Chile, the Brazilians might find it more difficult since the Chileans are used to the South American climate as well and continue playing their high-octane attacking football.
Either way Brazil should definitely find their way to the quarters, where they will most likely meet the group D’s runner-up. As it could be any of Uruguay, Italy or England, this could be Brazil’s biggest test of the whole tournament. Assuming they pass this test, then it is safe to assume this will be the World Cup for the host’s taking.