Brazil looking to overcome latest obstacles
Brazil's Daniel Alves attends a training session in Teresopolis near Rio de Janeiro on Monday, July 7, 2014. (Marcelo Regua/Reuters)
To locals, Brazil enters Tuesday's World Cup semifinal against Germany without Neymar, the man they call "Professor X."
As one fan told me, speaking in superhero lingo no less, Brazil can't rely on Fred, the "Invisible Man."
And Givanildo Vieira de Souza, the "Hulk," has been subpar overall to round out Brazil's three-pronged attack.
It's no wonder most Brazilians -- and odds-makers -- have a fairly cynical view of a Brazil side that was a crossbar away from elimination two games ago.
But in mentioning what's superhuman, Brazilian captain Thiago Silva took things a step further Monday, saying Chile's extra time cross bar signaled a date with destiny.
Although they aren't favoured, the Brazilian team -- at times criticized for being too emotional and spiritual -- are convinced they've been touched by something outside the lines.
While their "Professor" is out with a back injury, Brazil has moved on, claiming it was just another step in the process to overcome.
"Obviously, in Neymar leaving us, he left a lot of himself with us," Brazil bench boss Luiz Felipe Scolari said.
"We've left it behind. The way (Neymar) spoke to the players made the players understand that he had done his share. Now, it's us that have to do ours."
Which means playing not only for themselves and a fallen comrade, but the entire country -- a nation that's beginning to doubt whether the hosts can top a German side that looked solid in a quarterfinal win over France.
The Brazilians don't know defeat. They haven't lost a competitive home fixture in 39 years.
Oddly enough, the last time Brazil fell at home -- a 3-1 Copa America loss to Peru in 1975 -- it occurred right here at the Mineirao Stadium, the same venue that saw the hosts blessed with good fortune in the second round.
"We have struggled a lot to get to the semifinals," Scolari said. "We have been growing. To get to the final we knew we would probably have to play a team that has been world champions.
"We will have to beat Germany tomorrow in order to reach our final objective."
While the Brazilians will be without Silva (accumulation) and Neymar, the Germans are 100% healthy after a virus swept through their camp late last week.
For how worrisome the illness was, German manager Joachim Low is concerned with a very different epidemic: The officiating at this World Cup.
He pleaded Monday that Mexico's Marco Rodriguez, the referee who watched over Italy-Uruguay, snuff out all of the extracurricular activity early and often.
He pointed to the Brazil-Colombia quarterfinal as an example -- a match that saw 54 combined fouls and a serious injury to one of the world's best players.
"I just hope the referee will clamp down on it," Low said. "Not 22 European players would have ended that match. These brutal and rude fouls need to be stopped."
Neither of these two sides are known for being overly aggressive. Both prefer to play. They prefer to go forward and dictate the opposition.
When Scolari was asked whether or not he'll alter his game plan to counteract anything Germany does, Brazil's coach offered a different approach.
"We can't respect them without also showing the way we play," Scolari said. "We're going to do the things the way we do them. In doing that, we're going to cause them some difficulties."
The hope for this soccer-crazy country is the outcome will be similar to what it witnessed in 2002, when Brazil topped Germany in the World Cup final in Japan.
Only this time Brazil has an X-factor separate from "Professor X."
The Mineirao Stadium is a loud and cavernous old-fashioned stadium. When the hosts met Chile here two weeks back, the venue rattled more than the crossbar when the visitors struck the post.
The support here Tuesday will be overwhelming at times. In certain moments, it's difficult to think. If Germany can't take the crowd out of this thing it will be difficult to play.
"Tomorrow, Brazil will unleash all of its emotions," Low said. "This has been easy to see. They have the passion. In this stadium, anything that comes close to our goal will be accompanied by shouts."
Luckily for the Germans, they have the best 'keeper in the tournament.
Manuel Neuer is the Rob Gronkowski of goalkeepers. He holds everything. He takes up the entire goal, a massive advantage when you consider pundits have asked a lot of questions of Julio Cesar at the opposite end.
"They have a very good team in defence, midfield and the strikers," Scolari said of Germany. "They have a good game plan. I don't think we can say we can feel OK. Germany has a very good team and we cannot forget, this German team has been organized for six years. They have a good balance. They have good teamwork. We must respect everything Germany has to give."
To sum it up: This is a German team without a weakness.
But betting against Brazil in Brazil just doesn't make sense. It's as sure a thing as Tom Brady in Foxboro.
In Brazil's favour is the fact it will get midfield linchpin Luis Gustavo back for the match. The Brazilians have excellent cover in Dante to replace Silva at the back.
What Scolari will decide to do up front remains to be seen. Prevailing wisdom says we can expect to see a one-for-one swap, Neymar for Willian. Oscar is another option.
"I'm not going to explain what our game plan is," Scolari said despite pleas from the press.
"I'm going to tell the Brazilian people: We are doing our best. We, the technical committee and the players are all doing it step by step. We are taking our steps forward. Going one more step we'll get to the level we wanted."
For that to happen, one of the aforementioned subpar superheroes will need to finally come to life. Nobody on this Brazil team has shown an ability to carry the side.
With "Professor X" broken, Brazil needs a new soccer genius to step up and carry the weight of a nation. Otherwise, this game is there for the taking.