Last night, a relatively small crowd at Derby County's Pride Park caught a glimpse of the new and emerging Brazil. Freed from the shackles of Dunga's stewardship, a new generation of Brazilian superstars are emerging under Mano Menezes. Jack Lang reports.
Monday night’s performance against the Ukraine at Derby County's ground may not have been a high point in Brazil’s footballing canon, but the result, a comfortable 2-0 victory, places coach Mano Menezes in esteemed company; he is the first seleção coach since Carlos Alberto Parreira to have won his first three games in charge of the national team. After the side’s woeful set of performances in the World Cup, Menezes has already gone some way to restoring the verve and excitement that has historically been central to the side’s (and indeed the country’s) identity.
Four days prior to meeting the Ukraine (at a half-empty Pride Park, a setting which itself provides an apt metaphor for how deep the seleção’s stock sunk during Dunga’s reign), Brazil strolled a routine win over Iran in Abu Dhabi, a game significant mainly for what it told us about Menezes’ selection policy. Despite being deprived of the two standout players from his opening win against the USA (Paulo Henrique Ganso is out until the new year with a knee injury, while Neymar was left out of the squad for disciplinary reasons), Menezes refused to reinstate senior players such as Lúcio, Maicon, and Luís Fabiano, preferring to keep faith with a largely inexperienced side.
Menezes’ squad can be divided into three rough groups. Firstly, there are the youngsters who have been drafted in, primarily to gain experience, but also to inject some daring and spontaneity into the team’s play. In the absence of the aforementioned Santos pair, 18-year-old midfielder Philippe Coutinho made his senior début, and there was a run out too for Giuliano, one of the stand-out players in Internacional’s Libertadores campaign. The former, in truth, flattered to deceive against Iran, but is widely expected to make himself a fixture in the national team. The latter, who has broken through with slightly less fanfare, also has the ability to go far. Even in defence, Menezes has shown faith with the centre-half pairing of David Luiz and Thiago Silva, who despite having impressive club CVs, are relative newcomers at this level.
A second group is comprised of players who have built a bond of trust with Menezes in domestic football. Elias, a surprise omission from the squad to face the USA, finally got his seleção career underway, impressing sufficiently off the bench against Iran to earn a starting spot in the Ukraine game. An all-action midfielder, Elias has long been one of the outstanding performers in the Brasileirão, and worked closely with Menezes at Corinthians. Jucilei, another midfield dynamo with the São Paulo giants, will also expect further chances. Lucas, a player often criticised in the UK, is also known to be trusted by Menezes, who will hope to inspire the midfielder to produce the form that made him such a prospect during his time at Grêmio. His midfield partnership with Chelsea’s Ramires is already showing signs of promise. Further forward, there was a starting place for Carlos Éduardo, a mercurial dribbler who also emerged during Menezes’ time in Porto Alegre.
The final group is perhaps the most intriguing; Menezes has harnessed the considerable ability of those who were mere bit-part players under Dunga. Daniel Alves, who has for the last few years been in the shadow of the explosive Maicon, has been a revelation at right-back, scoring a stunning free-kick against Iran and getting on the score sheet again on Monday. André Santos, left out of the World Cup squad despite having represented Brazil in the previous year’s Confederations Cup, has been similarly effective on the left, regularly getting to the byline and supplying dangerous crosses. Perhaps the most notable performer, though, has been Alexandre Pato. The Milan man may feel that he was never given a fair crack of the whip in the lead up to the World Cup, and was forced to watch from home as a toothless seleção struggled to break down their opponents. The three games since have shown Dunga what he missed out on; Pato has been in electrifying form, outwitting and outpacing defenders, and scoring in every match.
The buzz, then, from the Neymar-inspired win over the USA may have died down somewhat, but the Brazilian football public is still feeling rejuvenated by the Menezes project. It remains to be seen how long the 48-year-old will continue to snub some of the country’s more established stars, but for now he can rely on the support of the vast majority of fans. For while Kaká, Júlio César, Felipe Melo et al remain in international limbo, a new seed is taking root. With Menezes’ continued nurturing, this seleção could be the vibrant, carefree, proposition that everyone, be they from Brazil or Derby, clamours for.
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