It's been a strange World Cup so far in Russia: smiles for also-rans and tears for big guns.
Three of the strong contenders-- Germany, Argentina and Spain --havegone home, and one traditional favourite, Italy, are watching the football fiesta from home. That should make the race easier for others-- Brazil, France, England and Uruguay--who have won World Cups. But that seems not to be!
Last night, Brazil were favourites yet not secured when the five-time world champions took on Mexico, their bogey team for decades. The scoreline may read 2-0, but the match was a hotly contested affair.
No team has been able to get under the skin of Brazilians as regularly as Mexico.Brazil never lost a World Cup match against their oldest of enemies (winning three out of four matches and drawing others) but suffered six defeats against five wins in their 13 meetings since 2010.
Mexico, on the other hand, failed to go beyond the round of 16 in their last six World Cup attempts. One of the sub-plots of last-night's exciting match was that they had a Colombian coach who knows Brazil and their manager Tite very well.
Juan Carlos Osorio coached Brazilian club Sao Paulo prior to taking over Mexico. And, as far as tactics go, he drew with Tite, who was coach of Corinthians at that time, in one-off match between the two teams. Osorio considered Brazil the best team in the world at that moment yet declined to back things in and play the defensive game.
So, as expected it was a high-octane affair, with Tite letting his wolves loose, a favourite metaphor he often uses to mean players hungry for goals. For his part, Osorio stuck to his guns with Mexico also mounting several attacks and testing the improved Brazil defence.
Brazil are born again under Tite. A 7-1 drubbing by Germany was a slap across the face of a country that won more World Cups than any other football-playing nation.The mauling in the last World Cup was just gross and little more than a public flogging.
But Tite has already scored a huge A-plus in helping the Selecao rise from the ashes. This Brazil team look like one that can go all the way and win the cup. Unlike the team under Philippe Scholari, Tite's men play like a single unit, where one of at least half a dozen players win match for Brazil.
Biggest Brazilian ace Neymar is still limbering up in the tournament and yet to hit the right groove. Still, the world's most expensive player of the world notched up one goal and set up another for substitute striker Roberto Firmino to tap in. But that brought no frowns on Tite's face, as he has a pack of wolves with him.
With Philippe Coutinho already becoming the tournament's most beguiling No 11, youngsters in his pack have already showed opponents how hungry they are. Gangling winger Willian, who was not that piercing in group matches, transformed himself into the heart of Brazil last night, tormenting the Mexican defence with his sheer pace, skill and intelligent passes. Unfortunately for him, he went goalless, thanks to excellent goalkeeping by Guillermo Ochoa.
In Willian, Tite's new wolf emerges. There will be a lot more wolves to emerge, for sure!
The writer is former Sports Editor of The Daily Star
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