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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 September 2018

Brazil face Germany for first time since 2014 disaster 'much stronger' even in Neymar's absence

A 7-1 thrashing in the World Cup semi-final exposed major flaws, but nearly four years on, Tite has transformed the side into genuine contenders again

Philippe Coutinho, right, is part of a more potent forward line for Brazil alongside Gabriel Jesus and the currently injured Neymar. Yuri Kochetkov / EPA
Philippe Coutinho, right, is part of a more potent forward line for Brazil alongside Gabriel Jesus and the currently injured Neymar. Yuri Kochetkov / EPA

Masters of tournament strategy that they are, Germany planned their pre-match press conferences to carry a particular message ahead of Tuesday night’s meeting with Brazil.

It may be only a friendly, but it cannot help being a highly-charged one. The teams, at least at senior level, have not played each other since the notorious semi-final of the 2014 World Cup.

The German Football Federation picked players who were not involved in that historic 7-1 defeat of the hosts by the soon-to-be champions to talk to reporters 48 hours before the Berlin reunion. That allowed Ilkay Gundogan, who missed the last World Cup with injury, and Leroy Sane, who was only 18 then, to recount how it felt to be among the hundreds of millions watching on television as a surreal scoreline unfolded.

By presenting Gundogan and Sane to the media, Germany made another point: these two footballers, about to become Premier League champions with Manchester City, are proof that there is talent that was unused in 2014 now available to a stronger, perhaps better Germany as they plan their defence of the World Cup title in Russia.

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Brazil, Germany know, are shaping up as a key rival in that quest. “They are much stronger now than they were in 2014,” said Sane, whose City include key members of a Brazil squad – Ederson, Fernandinho and Gabriel Jesus – who feel they have put the trauma of the 7-1 behind them.

This Brazil have a new manager, Tite, who emerged from the South American qualifying for Russia in charge of a team who lost just once in their 18 fixtures and looked down from a long distance on the rest in the 10-nation group.

This Brazil, 3-0 winners over Russia in Moscow last week, have very deliberately cultivated a balance to their play and to their dressing-room that ought to vaccinate them against the sort of brittle collapse they suffered in Belo Horizonte.

That night, Brazil felt the pressure of hosting the tournament, the expectation they should win it, and they went into the game liable to panic without their injured superstar, Neymar, wounded in the back in the previous round’s win over Colombia. There was much talk of achieving the place in the final for their absent forward. The talk was empty.

Brazil will be without the injured Neymar, with the Paris Saint-Germain player recovering from a foot injury, on Tuesday night, too, and Sane was stating a consensus view when he said: “Brazil have learned a lot since then [2014]. They are not as dependent on Neymar, although they have even better options when he is available.”

Neymarless, as on the night of July 8 2014, Tite’s Brazil are also much altered in defence, where the pair of central defenders who endured such a sustained nightmare against a Germany who went 5-0 up within the opening half hour were Chelsea’s David Luiz and Nice’s Dante.

Unless Tite has a sudden change of mind, or injuries mount, neither can expect to go Russia, and even the first-choice status of PSG’s Thiago Silva, who missed the Belo Horizonte battering with a suspension, is doubtful. A back four with Dani Alves and Marcelo flanking Inter Milan’s Miranda and PSG’s Marquinhos seems the preferred choice while Roma goalkeeper Alisson tends to keep City’s Ederson on the bench.

Four years ago against Germany, Brazil’s ineffective attack consisted of Oscar, Bernard, Fred and Hulk. Tite’s choices now, even without Neymar, who should be fully fit for June, circle around Jesus, Barcelona’s Philippe Coutinho, Juventus’s Douglas Costa and the in-form Willian, of Chelsea and Roberto Firmino, of Liverpool. Brazil are potent. They have struck three goals or more in five of their 10 fixtures in the last 12 months.

But Germany will confidently argue they have progressed, too, since they lifted the World Cup and thrashed the favourites to reach the final. Senior men – like Philipp Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Miroslave Klose – have retired, but the strength in depth shown off at last summer’s Confederations Cup, when a ‘weakened’ Germany won the gold medal, is genuine.

Sane is one thrilling representative of a new generation, eyeing a position on the left of the forward line which manager Joachim Low wants to inject speed into.

Gundogan, meanwhile, competes for a place in central midfield with the likes of Juventus’s Sami Khedira and Liverpool’s Emre Can, among others. He remembers vividly how watching the famous 7-1 felt. “I could hardly believe what I was seeing on the television,” recalled Gundogan.

While he was pleased for his countrymen, he felt some sympathy for the losers. “With Brazil, football is in the soul, something spiritual for them. That gives them the capacity to always come back.”

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