Casemiro had a confession. “I sometimes feel sorry for our opponents,” Brazil’s Manchester United midfielder said. “We have so many good players.” Considering he was not boasting or exaggerating but merely being candid it may seems something of a surprise that Casemiro’s international manager, Tite, his teammate Marquinhos and Tite’s assistant César Sampaio devoted most of a 40-minute media briefing on Sunday to discussing a sidelined forward.
No prizes for guessing that man is Neymar, with question after question concentrating on how Brazil will cope without him against Switzerland on Monday, and how a Paris Saint-Germain striker with 75 goals in 122 games for his country could be replaced.
Tite used a lot of words to, engagingly and eruditely, avoid answering both inquiries. “We’ve already decided the starting players but we will only be communicating that right before the game,” said the manager, who could offer no timeframe on when Neymar may return from an ankle ligament injury but expressed confidence the player’s World Cup was not over.
“Football’s about context and sometimes we have to be strategic,” he said. ‘We have to think outside the box but we’re very confident we have the right replacement.”
Sitting alongside him, Marquinhos repeatedly referred to his manager as “the professor”. Tite, though, was keeping much of his wisdom to himself. He merely smiled when someone asked whether the versatile and richly gifted Newcastle midfielder Bruno Guimarães may fill Neymar’s No 10 role between Raphinha and Vinícius Júnior, and just behind Richarlison.
Tite was more forthcoming when asked whether referees should afford greater protection to Neymar, injured after a heavy challenge by Nikola Milenkovic during the opening Group G 2-0 win against Serbia. “If you want to celebrate the football you have to pay attention to the fouls,” the 61-year-old said. “They target specific players and this is the effect. It has to be stopped.”
Many Brazil fans want to see Real Madrid’s 21-year-old attacking prodigy Rodrygo fill the gap vacated by Neymar but others would advance Lucas Paquetá from midfield.
“We can’t stop talking about Neymar,” Casemiro said. “It’s just how important he is to us. He’s our biggest player, the difference for us, but we have a lot of other very good players too. Rodrygo, for example, lights up the eyes and delights everyone who sees him play.”
After selecting an extremely attacking starting XI against Serbia Tite may turn slightly more conservative at Stadium 974. Although Brazil remain strong favourites, Switzerland succeeded in holding the five-times World Cup winners to a 1-1 draw in the opening game of Russia 2018.
Their manager, Murat Yakin, possesses high-calibre talent of his own in, among others, the creative catalyst Xherdan Shaqiri, the midfield enforcer Granit Xhaka and the Yaoundé-born striker Breel Embolo, scorer in the 1-0 win against Cameroon on Thursday.
Although Embolo is not in Neymar’s league it is easy to find a player who runs his own charity foundation helping Swiss refugees and disadvantaged children in Cameroon infinitely more appealing than Brazil’s talisman. Many Brazilians have been outraged by Neymar’s very public support for the country’s far-right polarising and outgoing president Jair Bolsonaro.
The opinions of those who claim Tite’s team are often better balanced without Neymar, who has pledged to dedicate his first goal at Qatar 2022 to Bolsonaro, are frequently coloured as much by politics as tactics. “Neymar doesn’t deserve this,” Casemiro said. “He has a great heart.”
Tite, meanwhile, expressed regret that Danilo is also nursing an injured ankle. The manager declined to identify the Juventus defender’s replacement – although the 39-year-old Dani Alves is widely expected to return at right-back – and indicated a degree of caution could be called for against Switzerland. “They’re different from Serbia,” he said. “They have very intelligent midfield and forward players; we can still play offensively but in a different manner.”
Once Sampaio started speaking the narrative resumed a familiar theme. “Neymar’s an extraordinary talent, obviously,” said Tite’s assistant. “But we can rely on our other players; they really are a gift to football. Neymar has the leading role but often, as we see with the movies, someone who is not the protagonist steals the scene.”
Marquinhos agreed. “We wish we could have Neymar and Danilo with us,” the PSG defender said. “But the professor can confirm the talented players we have will maintain our level. Switzerland will give us a run for our money but we can still seal our place in the last 16.” – Guardian