Two decades have gone by since Brazil lifted the last of their World Cups in Japan and, back in Tokyo on Monday, the 2022 model underlined their credentials as a candidate to win Asia’s second World Cup this year.
The 1-0 win over Japan was not as eye-catching as last Thursday’s 5-1 destruction of South Korea, but it had its merits. Against an opponent who rolled over Paraguay 4-1 last week, Brazil were never seriously threatened and having to work for their breakthrough only made the encounter more interesting.
This was the first time that Coach Tite could count on all of his attacking talent together. In recent months someone has always been missing or not been fully fit, so Brazil lined up without an orthodox centre forward: Raphinha and Vinicius Junior wide and Neymar and Lucas Paqueta completing a front four.
The start was nearly explosive. Neymar and Vinicius Jr. instantly carved out an intricate exchange and the ball fell for Paqueta to spin on to his weaker right foot and watch his cross-shot come back off the post. It would have been a wonderful goal, but Tite probably had more to learn in a game that stayed goalless.
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Would his team be too open against a Japan side capable of moving the ball with fluidity? His midfield duo of Casemiro and Fred were once more in top form, doing the simple things, winning the ball and keeping it moving. Might the side get frustrated if they were held for long? This was more of a problem, especially as Japan were quite happy to halt Brazilian attacks with niggling fouls. There were times when Neymar fell into the trap of dropping deep and looking for fouls. Brazil are at their best when he seeks to move the ball quickly, bringing Vinicius Jr., Paqueta and Raphinha into the game.
Into the last 20 minutes, Tite looked at some variations: Thiago Silva came on for Daniel Alves, sending Eder Militao out to right-back, and Richarlison came on to play up front. The only way that he can be accommodated together with the front four is for Paqueta to drop deeper and replace Fred. This way Brazil lose midfield mobility and marking, but gain in creativity, and it paid off when Richarlison combined with Neymar in the game’s decisive moment.
Neymar’s shot was pushed out by the goalkeeper and Richarlison, sniffing for the rebound, was fouled in the box. With his customary dexterity from the spot, Neymar won the game for Brazil, who can fly home pleased with their work in these two Far East friendlies.
Argentina, too, have plenty of reasons to be cheerful. Last Wednesday’s comfortable win over Italy was followed by a 5-0 drubbing of Estonia in Pamplona. If Lionel Messi looked overeager to get on the scoresheet in the second half against the Italians, he must surely be satisfied by helping himself to all five goals. The first came from the penalty spot, the others as a consequence of the circuit of passing that Argentina have produced so well in this 33-game unbeaten run.
Other than Messi, coach Lionel Scaloni will have been impressed with the way that Alejandro Gomez is always ready to step into the side as an attacking midfield option. Alexis Mac Allister was tried out in the midfield anchor role — not a move to be tried against stronger teams, since defending is not his speciality, but one which helps the team play the first pass forward with quality. For the last few minutes he was replaced by the more defensively minded Juan Foyth, who then switched to the right in a three centre-back system. Scaloni, then, has managed to have a look at a number of variations which could come in useful in Qatar.
And much the same applies to Uruguay‘s Diego Alonso. Sunday’s 0-0 draw with the United States will not live as long in the memory as last week’s 3-0 win over Mexico, but Alonso sent out almost an entire reserve side to face Gregg Berhalter’s men.
Alonso had a look at a back three before a half-time switch to a line of four. Another clean sheet is good news; his midfield, with very little international experience, did well enough; and, right at the end, Edinson Cavani missed a golden chance to win the game. No goals conceded in two games makes this a satisfactory two-game trip to America for Uruguay, who have a game in front of their own fans against Jamaica scheduled for Saturday.
Ecuador will also complete their June programme on Saturday with a match against Cape Verde after their match against Mali was cancelled. They will face Senegal in the World Cup and have made a point of seeking African opposition. Last week they beat Nigeria 1-0 in New Jersey, but the overall performance in Chicago in Sunday’s 0-0 draw with Mexico was probably better.
It is Peru, though, who have the big game coming up. Next Monday they will play off for a place in the World Cup against either the United Arab Emirates or Australia. They warmed up in Spain on Sunday with a laboured 1-0 win over New Zealand, the only goal a blunder by the keeper which Italian-born striker Gianluca Lapadula punished with typical sharpness.
It might not have been great, but coaches are always pleased by clean sheets, and the South American World Cup sides have come up with plenty of them over the last few days.