Brazil and Belgium have avoided each other since that night at Kobe’s Misaki Park in World Cup 2002, when the Selecao rode strikes from Ronaldo and Rivaldo to beat the Red Devils.
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A lot has changed since, as two new generations are about to contest for a semifinal spot at the Kazan Arena on Friday. In Belgium, Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku and goalkeeper Thibout Courtois define the most promising group since the days of Enzo Scifo, and are attempting to improve on their 2014 quarterfinal exit.
The comeback win against Japan in the Last-16 stage has given Roberto Martinez’s side a typical rallying point against the Selecao who are improving with every game, and so is their striker Neymar Junior.
Statistically, Belgium have been more Brazilian in their goal-scoring prowess in Russia, topping the chart with 12, five more than their impending rivals. In contrast, the revelation for the Tite-trained yellow shirts has been their parsimonious defence, which has conceded just one in four games. Astounding performances by Thiago Silva and Joao Miranda have earned them the honour to lead the team.
Grabbing as much attention in debates as Neymar’s theatrics, the pairing of Silva and Miranda has created an aura of impregnability, even though Tite was forced to experiment with two defensive flank men, Fagner and Felipe Luis. The wing backs have offered no room for complain so far and have grown into the confidence while going forward.
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However, Tite said on the eve of the game that Marcelo is going to reclaim his position on the left, “even though Felipe has been tremendous in the last two games”. With the wealth of talent at his disposal, Tite can tweak the formation as and when he wants.
Back from hell against Japan, Belgium’s three-man defence of Toby Alderweireld, Vincent Kompany and Jan Vertoghen will be put to severe test by Brazil’s attacking trio of Neymar, Gabriel Jesus and Willian with occasional forward thrusts from Paulinho.
Jesus has gone four games without a goal, which may prompt Tite to start with Firmino, who scored within minutes of his introduction against Mexico. Still, Tite heaped praise on the young Manchester City striker for his defensive work, calling him a ‘truck’ while referring to his inexhaustible physical abilities.
Having had a restrained game by his lofty standards against Mexico, Coutinho is going to be the orchestrator with his sublime vision that creates space for his attackers where none exists. Serbia felt the tremor of his pass and crumbled.
“When you play against Brazil, you need to understand they are the best team in the competition, I think you have to accept that,” Martinez had said after Belgium came back from the dead against Japan.
Brazil will be missing the suspended Casemiro, their midfield insurance, and Fernandinho will be a straight fit. Douglas Costa and Marcelo are also fit to resume their duties, giving Tite options if the ‘balance’ gets disturbed. It seems to be the favourite word of The Professor and his assistant Silvinho, the former Barcelona left back.
Apparently, Silvinho’s signature is seen in the current Brazilian way of defending. The other day, Tite kept nodding in agreement when his assistant explained how he had learnt from the Juventus template. “Napoli are a better attacking side but Juventus have won the Serie A seven times without a break. It is all about balance and not conceding. But it doesn’t make us defensive,” Silvinho had said.
There will be a reunion of sorts in Kazan where Kompany will challenge Jesus while Hazard will start against Willian. Fernandinho might be given the task to mark Hazard.