Four years later, losing Neymar is not a tragedy anymore for Brazil
After watching his star player, on live TV, leave the Parc de Princes on a stretcher, Brazil manager Tite worried enough about Neymar's health to postpone the call-up announcement for Brazil's friendlies against Russia and Germany this month -- the last such squad before he picks the final 23 names that will represent the Selecao at the 2018 World Cup.
Make no mistake: Neymar's name will be on that list since the theoretical worst-case scenario for his return, according to Rodrigo Lasmar -- the doctor who will operate on the PSG forward's broken foot Saturday -- is that he will be ready to play at least three weeks before Brazil kick off their World Cup campaign against Switzerland on June 17. Nevertheless, Brazil needs a plan B.
The good news is that since Neymar became a regular in the yellow shirt, the Selecao have never looked in a better position to live without him. Four years ago, the striker's injury in a World Cup quarterfinal against Colombia was so traumatic that it left the team in tatters, emotionally exhausted before that mother of all drubbings at the hands of pretty much the same German team it will face in Berlin on March 28.
Nowadays, it's still a drag not to have Brazil's leading active top scorer, sure. But it's no tragedy at all. One of the main reasons is that if Neymar had to carry the Selecao on his shoulders during the last World Cup cycle, his gang is beefed up right now. Gone are Fred, Hulk and Bernard, who could not handle life without Neymar. In are Roberto Firmino, Phillipe Coutinho, Gabriel Jesus and Willian; the latter was in the 2014 team but has evolved immensely as a player since them. We can also mention Gabriel Jesus, who has registered 10 goals and four assists for Manchester City this season despite missing almost two months with a knee injury.
Yes, Neymar is Brazil's biggest star, but this team is still a strong one without him. The arrival of Tite in 2016 brought the organization and purpose they lacked in previous years; their newfound resilience showed in the way Brazil cruised through World Cup qualifying after a wobbly start.
The obvious change in a Neymar-less Brazil is moving Coutinho to the left side in order to occupy the PSG man's place, which would be a seamless switch to the Selecao's starting XI while keeping the 4-1-4-1 formation Tite fancies. However, Neymar's absence gives Tite less tactical flexibility. In recent games he used a 4-2-3-1 in which Willian would come in for a more defensive midfielder, Renato Augusto. Thus, the manager will need to test possible suitors.
In recent interviews, Tite said that only seven places in his 23-man squad are still up for grabs: all the players mentioned above are in, as a matter of fact, according to the coach. He mentioned specifically a quest to find a replacement for Dani Alves and an attacking midfielder. By the way, that was before Neymar's injury, though it is possible to speculate who could be tested out in the upcoming friendlies. One of the obvious candidates is Douglas Costa, who's been a regular for Juventus and only failed to get decent playing time with the national team due to a series of injuries. Shakhtar Donetsk's Taison is another name.
Nobody is suggesting that those guys can replace Neymar, and his importance for Brazil is clear when statistics come to the fore: with the PSG man on the pitch, the Selecao under Tite played 13 games and won 10, with no defeats. Without him, there were three wins and a defeat, against Argentina in a friendly. Brazil's top scorer in the qualifiers was Jesus, with seven goals, but the PSG man scored six and bagged seven assists.
"A great team will always depend on its best player," says Paulo Vinicius Coelho, one of the country's most followed analysts of the game. But the situation here is very different from previous years. In the run-up to the 1994 World Cup, for example, religious Brazilians made every kind of vow or offer to superior powers in order to have a fully fit Romario. Four years later, it was Ronaldo's turn, and we all remember what happened in that final at the Stade de France. Besides, Spain and Germany showed in the last two World Cups the bigger importance of having a balanced team over a central figure. The Germans also serve as a useful example because they arrived in Brazil in 2014 with fitness worries concerning some of their starting XI.
Psychologically, Neymar's absence could actually help the Selecao feel that they can work things out if their talisman is not around. In fact, the option for the surgery and a longer recovery can actually be beneficial for Brazil.
Neymar will be rested: at PSG this season, for example, he played 30 games before the injury and was never replaced. And he won't risk more serious injuries linked to the clattering he usually receives every game. But the most important rest could be for his mind, as he will be away from the limelight and the possible recriminations if PSG fail once again to land the Champions League this season.
This would be a similar situation to Ronaldo ahead of the 2002 World Cup, when he arrived at the Selecao training camp with only 10 Serie A games for Inter after a forced absence of 16 months. As we all saw, the boy did well...
Fernando Duarte is a U.K.-based Brazilian football expert who has reported on the Selecao for over a decade. Follow him on Twitter: @Fernando_Duarte.