The second phase of the 2014 World Cup gets underway on Saturday with arguably the pick of the Round of 16 matches. Hosts Brazil, who have largely underwhelmed so far in their quest to deliver the trophy to an expectant nation, take on South American rivals Chile, responsible for eliminating holders Spain in the group phase.
It is the second successive World Cup in which the two countries will be meeting at this stage and the third time since 1998. On both previous occasions, Brazil ran out comfortable winners by three-goal margins. Few would expect the result to be so emphatic this time around.
After winning the Confederations Cup so impressively 12 months ago, there was plenty of justification in Brazi’s listing as favorites to lift the World Cup. But, while collecting seven points and topping their group, Brazil weren’t as convincing as coach Luiz Felipe Scolari would surely have been hoping or expecting. Unlike in the Confederations Cup, the rousing a cappella renditions of the national anthem failed to inspire high-intensity starts from the players to blow away the opposition.
A 3-1 win over Croatia was garnered by the aid of a highly fortunate penalty award, while, in Brazil’s next game, Mexico were well deserving of their point, despite goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa’s heroics. A Cameroon side which had previously offered precious little in the tournament then caused Brazil plenty of problems in the opening half.
Undoubtedly the key issue for Brazil thus far has been the midfield. Scolari has been remarkably consistent in going into the World Cup with the same starting lineup that did so well in the Confederations Cup. However, he has made one slight, but crucial change to the previous winning formula. That has been to switch the positions of Oscar and Neymar, so that it is the latter, Brazil’s poster boy for this World Cup, who occupies the role that matches the number 10 on his back.
The pair, Brazil’s two best creative players, excelled a year ago, with Neymar cutting in from his more familiar position on the left and combining with Oscar in his more customary role in the center of a line of three behind a striker. Now there appears to be a desire to have Neymar more involved through the middle and Oscar shunted off to either flank. It has led to an unbalancing of the side and particularly a weakening of the midfield. While Neymar is given almost a free role when occupying the No. 10 berth, Oscar is far more of a complete midfielder, capable of getting back and helping out without the ball.
Brazil’s midfield has been further weakened by the loss of form of Paulinho. The 25-year-old appears to have taken a difficult first season at Tottenham in the English Premier League with him to Brazil. Less decisive in what is his trademark of getting forward and arriving in the box at just the right time to score, Paulinho has been a virtual passenger as all too often Brazil’s midfield has just been passed around, leaving far too much onus on holder Luiz Gustavo.
The good news for Brazil is that in the second half against Cameroon there were signs that Scolari had realized what has gone wrong. Fernandinho replaced Paulinho at half-time and gave a much more assured performance. The Manchester City midfielder has more defensive nous than the man whose place he took, while, although not quite as effectively, he also has the dynamism to get forward, as he showed when getting the final goal in a 4-1 win. By that point, Neymar and Oscar had also reverted largely to their Confederation Cup roles, giving the team a far more solid look.
That will be needed against Chile. Jorge Sampaoli’s side produced one of the performances of the competition so far in beating Spain 2-0. Their characteristic pressing was relentlessly intense and failed to allow Spain’s midfield any time to settle on the ball. When they did get the ball they showed occasional flashes of their devastatingly quick attacking play in transition. Alexis Sanchez has been a star so far, with his attacking movement in combination with Eduardo Vargas not allowing defenders a moment to relax. The unorthodox front two, in combination with midfielders prepared to break through from deep, will ensure it isn’t an easy day for Brazil’s defenders.
The win over Spain was also a display of a more mature Chile. It is the same attacking, high-octane philosophy that occasionally wowed in South Africa four years ago before eventually crashing out 3-0 to Brazil, but more caution is applied when necessary. The three center-backs and wing-backs now sit deeper on occasion making the team less vulnerable to being crudely exposed by any opposition which plays out of the initial pressing.
Prediction This is a particularly dangerous match for Brazil. If they are as open as they were for large spells of their group matches then Chile are certainly capable of exploiting the space and causing a famous and, for Brazil, devastating upset. Scolari must surely start with the lineup that began the second-half against Cameroon to strengthen the midfield. Do that and his side has the pace in attack, with Neymar, Oscar and Hulk, to punish Chile in transition.
It also remains to be seen whether Chile truly believe they can beat Brazil. Chile have been beaten in their last seven competitive matches against the continental superpower and at the same stage of the 1998 and 2010 World Cups entered with high expectations but faded rather limply to defeat. That shouldn’t be the case this time around, with the win over Spain surely fuelling belief, but Brazil may still have enough on home soil to progress in what has the potential to be a thrilling encounter.
Brazil 3-2 Chile
Betting Odds (bovada.lv)
Brazil win: 4/7
Chile win: 9/2
Where to watch: The 2014 World Cup Round of 16 will kick off from the Estadio Mineirao in Belo Horizonte at noon ET on Saturday. Coverage will be provided by ABC.