Hosts yet to find top form at World Cup
28 June ~ For Brazil the World Cup effectively starts this evening against Chile in the last 16 game in Belo Horizonte. Many saw the group phase as an extended warm-up period with the hosts drawn in a group only rated marginally more challenging than those faced by Argentina and France. Relieved but unimpressed sums up Brazilian reaction to Luiz Felipe Scolari's team to date. From Marcelo's nervy own goal against a weakened Croatia in the opening game to making heavy weather of the first half against Cameroon, Brazil have yet to sparkle.
This despite the management's recognition of status as favourites, with Scolari's assistant Carlos Alberto Parreira claiming Brazil had "one hand on the trophy" even before a ball was kicked.
Brazil's passage as group winners has been almost wholly ascribed to Barcelona's star striker: Powered by Neymar was the verdict of Brazil's O Globo newspaper after the 4-1 win over Cameroon. As with Argentina and Portugal the dependence on a star player is considered a mixed blessing. While Neymar's finishing ability – four goals so far – is reckoned to be the factor most likely to deliver the title, there has been little sign of the pressing game that underpinned last year's Confederations Cup success.
At least one change is anticipated for tonight with Manchester City's Fernandinho expected to take over from Paulinho after he impressed as a scoring second-half substitute against Cameroon. There is also speculation that Dani Alves could make way for Maicon, while Ramires could be drafted in to shore up the right flank more effectively than Hulk. Brazilian commentators point out that Scolari changed his team at the same stage in the 2002 World Cup, with the introduction of Kleberson in place of Juninho Paulista bolstering the defensive qualities of midfield.
The 2014 draw always meant that Brazil would face a sequence of tough knockout games with the qualification of Chile, Colombia and Uruguay transforming this into a mini Copa América. Scolari would have preferred either Spain or Holland, describing La Roja as a team that "has everything". Much of this can be attributed to Chile's Argentinian coach Jorge Sampaoli, widely feted previously for his work in transforming Universidad de Chile.
While Brazilians do not tend to classify Arturo Vidal, Alexis Sánchez or Eduardo Vargas in the same bracket as previous Chilean stars such as Iván Zamorano or Marcelo Salas, the team's attacking approach with two dynamic full-backs is considered a threat, while the team's boisterous following are also expected to make their presence felt.
Chile's efficient elimination of Spain impressed many, although Brazilians are hoping that history repeats itself with the three World Cup encounters between the teams all ending in Brazilian victories. Brazil has won 48 out of the 67 encounters between the teams, with the most recent of Chile's seven victories coming in a World Cup qualifier in 2000. For the sake of this World Cup, FIFA executives may also hope that Brazil come up trumps in the Estádio Mineirão. Elimination of the hosts at this stage is just not in the script. Robert Shaw