Brazil are good enough to exorcise ghosts of 2014

SAO PAULO, BRAZIL - OCTOBER 10: Players of Brazil celebrate their victory after winning the match between Brazil and Chile for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia Qualifier at Allianz Parque Stadium on October 10, 2017 in Sao Paulo, Brazil. (Photo by Alexandre Schneider/Getty Images)
SAO PAULO, BRAZIL - OCTOBER 10: Players of Brazil celebrate their victory after winning the match between Brazil and Chile for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia Qualifier at Allianz Parque Stadium on October 10, 2017 in Sao Paulo, Brazil. (Photo by Alexandre Schneider/Getty Images) /

Brazil were humiliated in the semifinals of the last World Cup. Can the selecao put that disaster behind them and win it all in Russia?

Brazil 1-7 Germany. The most embarrassing night in the history of Brazilian sport, a result that has haunted an entire nation for four years and that will loom large over the selecao‘s bid for a sixth World Cup in Russia this summer. Anything less than another trophy will be deemed a failure; it was ever thus.

The good news for Brazil fans is that the current squad features very few players who started in the semifinal in Belo Horizonte in 2014. Of the starting XI that night, only Marcelo and Fernandinho will play key roles this year. Willian and Paulinho are the only other players in the 2018 squad that were available for selection that fateful day.

Brazil have also changed managers twice since 2014. After a poor showing the 2016 Copa American, the Brazilian FA replaced Dunga with Tite. Since then, the side have been transformed, losing only one competitive match in 19, with a plus-37 goal difference, and topping South America’s notoriously difficult qualifying group with ease.

The manager

Prior to taking over the national team, Tite made his name during multiple stints at Corinthians, and a title-winning campaign with Atletico Mineiro. He took over the national team after their disastrous run at the Copa America in 2016, when they managed only a single win in a group containing Peru, Ecuador and Haiti despite fielding many of the same players that will feature in Russia.

Under Tite’s charge, Brazil became the first team to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. They dominated CONMEBOL qualifying, scoring 41 goals in 18 matches and going undefeated in 17 straight games after a 2-0 loss to Chile to open the cycle. They also had the best defensive record in the group, conceding five goals fewer than the next best defensive side. A shellacking similar to the 2014 semis is highly unlikely.

Tite was known for his pragmatic approach during his early years, and was often criticized for his defensive tactics and blind loyalty to trusted players. After a particularly tough 2013 season with Corinthians, he went on a sabbatical, studied changes in tactics and players since his managerial start and, most importantly, learned from the experience. On his return to Corinthians in 2015, he led the side to the best season in the history of Brazil’s first division.

The squad

Keepers: Alisson, Ederson, Cassio
Defenders: Marcelo, Danilo, Fagner, Felipe Luiz, Marquinhos, Thiago Silva, Miranda, Pedro Geromel
Midfielders: Willian, Fernandinho, Paulinho, Renato Augusto, Casemiro, Philippe Coutinho, Fred
Attackers: Neymar, Roberto Firmino, Gabriel Jesus, Taison, Douglas Costa

Like most Brazil squads, this one is loaded with attacking talent, and that doesn’t just refer to the forwards. Marcelo and Danilo could start as a wide midfielders on most teams in Europe, and regularly contribute goals and assists for club and country.

Fernandinho has produced a few golazos from distance during his time at Manchester City, and Paulinho popped up with nine goals for Barcelona last season, not to mention his hat-trick against Uruguay in qualifying.

The forwards aren’t bad either. Neymar, Roberto Firmino, Gabriel Jesus, Douglas Costa, Willian and Philippe Coutinho combined for 121 goals and 67 assists in all competitions last season. That comes out to a fraction over 20 goals and 11 assists per player, and Neymar missed significant time with injury. Good luck, Group E.

Unlike squads of the past, however, this Brazil team are more adept at shutting down the opposition and have the ability to cling to a one-goal lead when necessary. They kept 10 clean sheets in 18 matches during qualifying, including four in their last five, and have kept Russia, Germany and Croatia scoreless in friendlies since then.

How will they line up?

Tite is, at heart, a pragmatic, even stubborn, manager, but he’s made an effort to learn and showed in qualification his willingness to use multiple formations and lineups. Even with all the tinkering, the selecao were far and away the best team in CONMEBOL qualifying.

Tite preferred a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1, with Marcelo at left-back, Thiago Silva with either Marquinhos or Miranda at center-back and Dani Alves on the right. Alves suffered in injury playing with Paris Saint-Germain that will rule him out of the World Cup. That’s a blow to Brazil, but Danilo, Felipe Luis and Fagner are all solid enough replacements.

In central midfield, Tite seems to favor defense and composure over flair. Casemiro, Paulinho, Fernandinho and Renato Augusto all have the ability to crowd out attackers in the middle, and make it extremely difficult to break them down.

In what was likely Brazil’s most comprehensive win in qualifying, a 4-1 thrashing of Uruguay, Tite sent out Casemiro, Paulinho and Augusto in a 4-3-3, which could be a sign of things to come in Russia. And, just in case Brazil’s attack wasn’t terrifying enough, Paulinho had three goals in that match.

That midfield allows gives arguably the most fearsome trio of forwards at the World Cup to attack freely without having to worry about what’s going on behind them. Neymar, Coutinho and Jesus form a terrifying combination of pace, skill, creativity and vision. That still leaves the likes of Willian, Fred, Douglas Costa and Roberto Firmino on the bench, just in case the world-beating trio aren’t getting it done on the day.

Next: Why you should watch every team at the 2018 World Cup

Brazil have the talent, managerial experience, pride and drive to win the World Cup. Their current squad have more depth and guile than the 2014 version, and aside from that injury to Alves, are fully healthy. Tite has the pragmatism to guide his team through rough stretches of play against the best sides in the tournament, and can also adjust his tactics to matchup with any of the other favorites.

It’s nearly unthinkable Brazil will finish anywhere other than first in Group E (in which they will face Switzerland, Serbia and Costa Rica). Provided Germany do the same, the only way the two sides could meet is if they both make it to the final. That’s a rematch the selecao have been dreaming of for four years. They’re good enough to realize it.