Brazil survived by the finest of margins in the face of an almighty test against Chile in the Round of 16 and now faces another South American rival in a quarterfinal that promises to be every bit as strenuous an examination of the host's World cup credentials.
The woodwork twice came to Brazil’s rescue in one of the tightest matches of the tournament against Chile, first when Mauricio Pinilla’s strike in the dying embers of extra time pinged back off the cross bar and then when Gonzalo Jara’s penalty in the shootout bounced to safety off the post. It was yet another game in this World Cup where Brazil failed to impress, but in which they prevailed.
The team can certainly play better, but there is also a reality that if this Brazil team is to meet the most pressurized of expectations and lift the World Cup on home soil, it will not be particularly pretty. Having produced their most intense beginning to a match in the tournament, Brazil faded worryingly against Chile. Their inability to control the midfield left Luiz Felipe Scolari’s side reliant on physicality and direct balls forward. This 2014 team is a far cry from the victorious vintage of 1970 and, indeed, the 1982 side regarded by many as the best ever not to win the World Cup.
The failure to win the trophy in 1982 proved the final straw in Brazil turning away from the awe-inspiring stylists that wowed the world to a far more pragmatic approach. And the results have been laid bare in 2014. Most noticeably, Brazil have stopped producing quality passing midfielders, leaving them reliant on counter-attacking, out-running and over-powering.
There is, of course, one notable exception. Neymar is now the one player in the starting lineup who still adheres to the image of o jogo bonito, which explains why there is such immense pressure on his slight shoulders. The 22-year-old has coped remarkably well with that responsibility so far, but he faded against Chile, perhaps due to a knee injury that had initially raised fears about his ability to start against Colombia.
That Neymar, along with several of his teammates, greeted Brazil’s victorious penalty shootout against Chile with tears of relief rather than leaps of joy spoke to the weight of expectation on both him and the team. Couple that reaction with the intensity with which they all belt out the national anthem ahead of each game, and there have to be fears about the mental and emotional energy being expended by a squad which has three matches still to play in order to reach their goal.
Colombia look primed to take advantage and continue their own emotional journey. In the country’s first World Cup since their golden generation of the 1990s suffered tragedy and an ultimately disappointing end, Colombia have impressed more than any other team so far in Brazil. José Pékerman’s attacking side have thrilled with their combination of skill and pace, embodied by star men James Rodríguez and Juan Cuadrado.
For Pékerman, there will surely be a heavy sense of déjà vu heading into a quarterfinal with Brazil. Eight years ago he led his native Argentina into a quarterfinal against hosts Germany, having been the standout team of the tournament to date. Argentina were fulfilling that form, leading Germany 1-0 heading into the final 20 minutes. Then with 18 minutes remaining, Pékerman withdrew the player that made his side tick, playmaker Juan Román Riquelme, for a more defensively minded replacement. Eight minutes later Germany equalized before going onto win on penalties.
What will Pékerman do this time, if again faced with leading the hosts late on? In the Round of 16 against Uruguay, two goals from the World Cup’s standout player, Rodríguez -- the first a contender for goal of the tournament -- had Colombia in command. But the decision to sit back on that lead, aided by another defensive-minded substitution, invited late Uruguay pressure. Can Pékerman, along with his talented but inexperienced squad of players, hold his nerve this time around?
Pékerman’s desire to try and protect a lead is certainly understandable given his defense is clearly the weakness of this Colombia side. It is a backline -- featuring two adventurous full-backs and 38-year-old captain Mario Yepes -- that has held up surprisingly well so far, yet will surely receive by far its biggest test against Brazil. Hulk was Brazil’s best player for much of the contest with Chile and his pace out wide could really trouble Colombia.
The inclusion of Fernandinho also beefed up Brazil’s midfield somewhat, but, helped by Scolari’s determination to have Neymar playing through the middle rather than the more defensively capable Oscar, Colombia should still find the game plenty open enough for their attacking play to come to the fore. The suspension of Luiz Gustavo is a huge blow and means Brazil will struggle to restrict the influence of Rodríguez, while Cuadrado could tear have a field day going up against Marcelo. There is little doubt that Colombia has the ability to knock the hosts out.
Yet, as with Chile, while it may again require extra-time and even penalties, a combination of Brazil’s willpower on home soil and their historical superiority over their opponents may see Colombia just unable to complete the job.
Brazil 2-1 Colombia
Betting odds (bovada.lv)
In 90 minutes:
Brazil win: 4/5
Colombia win: 33/10
When and where: The 2014 World Cup quarterfinal will kick off from the Estadio Castelao in Fortaleza at 4 p.m. ET on Friday.