Brazil cruise against Bolivia but need sterner tests going into the World Cup
Brazil's relationship with the World Cup is entirely binary. They have won five, lost the others — and there is nothing in between.
On Friday they set out on the road to what they hope will be World Cup win No. 6, and their first in 20 years, with a 5-0 win over Bolivia that was so comfortable that it serves more as a boost to morale than as a test of their virtues.
Bolivia coach Cesar Farias had talked up his side and their desire to meet any opponents on equal terms, but he is well aware of the reality. Bolivia's main aim is to pick up points at home, at the extreme altitude of La Paz. He left some of his best players at home to prepare for Tuesday's visit of Argentina, and set off to Brazil for an exercise in damage limitation.
The difference between the sides was a chasm. Brazil could easily have been two goals up in the first five minutes. After 14 minutes, Brazil had exchanged 118 passes, against Bolivia's three. It was attack versus defence, and goals were a mere question of time.
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By half-time, amid a downpour in Sao Paulo, Brazil were two up with goals that shed light on how coach Tite is building his side post Russia 2018. The first came from a short corner on the right, played back for Danilo to whip in a cross that was powerfully headed home by Marquinhos. And the second came down the other flank, with left-back Renan Lodi reaching the byeline after an exchange with Neymar and squaring low for Roberto Firmino to tap in at the far post.
Marquinhos was a fixture in the team during the last set of qualifiers, but come the World Cup he was cruelly and surely mistakenly left on the bench. Come the fateful quarterfinal defeat to Belgium, Brazil clearly missed their quickest centre-back, and now it is impossible to imagine a Brazil side without him.
The position of the crosses from the full-backs is also significant. Tite's idea is for a more defensive right back, constructing from deep and also offering cover. On the other flank, Lodi is given license to bomb forward, with Douglas Luiz, an extra defensive midfielder, to ensure that the space behind is not left as vacant as it was against Belgium. This also influences the position of the wingers. Everton on the right is expected to stay wide, while with Lodi overlapping, Neymar is free to wander infield.
And then there is Liverpool's forward Firmino. One of Tite's big Russia 2018 regrets is that he persevered with Gabriel Jesus as the striker. Since then the Manchester City striker, missing this time through injury, has been used in a wide role. Firmino's time in the position has been an overwhelming success, and Brazil won last year's Copa America on home ground.
That said, the structure of the Brazil side is very different from that of Liverpool, and there is a fear that Firmino and Philippe Coutinho seek to operate in the same space. But Firmino can look back at two centre-forward style goals in this game — he added the third just after half-time, arriving to turn home a low cross from Neymar. And Coutinho also got on the scoresheet, adding the last goal with a cute header after Brazil's left side worked well once more, Lodi slipping in Neymar for a well-flighted cross.
The right flank did not function as well; Everton looked uncomfortable in the role and gave way to Rodrygo of Real Madrid, who was heavily involved in the fourth goal, cutting in to feed Coutinho, continuing his run into the box and making contact with the cross, which was inadvertently turned past his own keeper by Bolivia centre-back Jose Maria Carrasco.
But with the outcome never in doubt it was all too easy. Is Firmino the right choice? Can he and Coutinho fire together? Can the absence of Richarlison from the starting lineup be justified?
On the road to Qatar, Brazil need these questions to be posed in a way that Bolivia were never able to do, and Tuesday promises a more rigorous examination. Brazil are away to Peru, the only clash in the opening rounds between teams who were both at the last World Cup. And of all the teams who played away from home in the opening round, Peru were the only one to avoid defeat. It looks like the one to watch.
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