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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 October 2018

Fagner a symbol of Brazil's defensive depth ahead of World Cup quarter-final with Belgium

Corinthians player proves he belongs at this level having arrived in Russia as the third-choice right-back

Fagner will be tasked with containing Eden Hazard when Brazil face Belgium in the World Cup quarter-finals. EPA
Fagner will be tasked with containing Eden Hazard when Brazil face Belgium in the World Cup quarter-finals. EPA

On the night Brazil qualified for the 2018 World Cup, thanks a to 3-0 win against Paraguay, their 28-year-old right-back, Fagner Conserva Lemos, played his first competitive international match.

The Corinthians man had come in for the suspended Dani Alves. It turned out to be quite a day to make your debut. A clean sheet, a handsome win and because of a happy coincidence of results elsewhere in South America, a party. Brazil were the first country to book their ticket to Russia.

Fagner always knew he would be back-up choice to the experienced, hugely decorated Alves, and even when the Paris Saint-Germain dynamo suffered a cruciate ligament injury about a month before the World Cup started, Fagner sensed he was still touch-and-go to make the squad of 23.

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So, evidently, did his loved-ones. He posted a video online of the jubilant reaction of family and friends as they watched the official announcement of the squad on television, jumping for joy as his name was read out.

Brazil lost another right-back, Manchester City’s Danilo, with a muscular injury after their opening fixture against Switzerland. Which was when Fagner’s journey from remote outsider for a World Cup spot turned its corner.

He has played every game since, from the start. There have been one or more moments when he showed some nerves, and you detect that the more experienced players around him make an extra effort to congratulate him for a sound block or a strong clearance. But he belongs.

He could hardly have a better set of numbers to take into his confrontation with Eden Hazard in Kazan on Friday evening, either. Brazil take on Belgium, highest scorers at the tournament so far, on the back of three successive clean sheets.

Fagner has hopped on the train at just the right moment: he has played four competitive internationals now and never known what it is to concede a goal in a Brazil jersey.

Switzerland’s equaliser, in the tournament opener, when Danilo was at right-back and central defender Miranda complained he was pushed by the goalscorer, Steven Zuber, just before the Swiss striker headed past goalkeeper Alisson Becker, is the only stain on Brazil’s pristine defensive record.

When you come to think theirs is a backline much disrupted in terms of personnel in the past few weeks, the achievement is all the more impressive.

First there was the loss of Dani Alves. His admirers would argue that the absence of the former Barcelona and Juventus player cut not one but two players from manager Tite’s ideal starting XI. There is Alves the right-back and Alves the winger-cum-midfielder, all in one buzzing bundle of hyperactivity. So much ground does Alves cover that he truly is a right-back-and-a-half.

Then Danilo needed his period of recuperation, opening the door to Fagner. Then Marcelo, such a galvaniser on the left, pulled up early with back spasms in the 2-0 win over Serbia that confirmed Brazil’s stride into the knockout phase.

So Filipe Luis, the Atletico Madrid full-back, deputised for the Real Madrid one. They are not like for like, exactly, but, rather in the way that Fagner is a more discreet, more conservative player than the electric Alves, Brazil at left-back had a very solid deputy for Marcelo – who may be fit for Friday – even if Luis lacks some of Marcelo’s attacking verve.

In the centre, Miranda and Thiago Silva have been commanding, and the return of Silva to senior first-team status and to the captaincy – which Tite rotates – for two of the four fixtures so far, is its own redemption tale.

Earlier this year, the 33-year-old looked like he was down the hierarchy, behind Paris Saint-Germain colleague Marquinhos, and behind Inter Milan’s Miranda. But in Russia, his goal against Serbia and his generalship of Brazil’s defensive organisation have helped confirm him as Tite’s most trusted ally.

Miranda and Silva, who were born 15 days apart, 33 Septembers ago, will partner one another for the 17th time against Belgium. They have let in just the one goal, Zuber’s, in their last 10 internationals in tandem. They will have Fernandinho holding midfield in front of them, rather than Real Madrid’s Casemiro, who is suspended, although the disruption, Tite hopes, will be minimal.

“This is a team with a lot of options,” said Miranda after the 2-0 win over Mexico that rewarded Brazil with a quarter-final against Hazard’s quick feet, Romelu Lukaku’s strength and power, the precise delivery of Kevin de Bruyne and, perhaps later in the contest, some aerial battles with Marouane Fellaini.

“In this World Cup, we have seen teams that are well-organised defensively and very quick on the counter-attack. But we’ve held out very well, conceded very few goals and been defensively solid. And we have so many players further forward who can score goals.”

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