As Brazil took on Japan in their last friendly before the men’s Olympic football we got a rare glimpse into the future, both the immediate one and a future slightly further away. On the one hand we saw the team that are odds on to win the Olympic men’s football tournament, on the other we saw a team of players that could make up a substantial swathe of the Seleção’s senior side for several years to come.
The starting line-up that took to the field in on Saturday was close to the one that most would expect to see for Brazil’s first match against Iraq on Thursday and is one that would strike fear into almost any senior side in international football.
A much vaunted front three of Neymar, Gabriel Jesus and Gabriel Barbosa is a truly terrifying prospect for the assembled opposition. Not that one should overlook other departments. A defence including Marquinhos of PSG and great young full-backs in Douglas Santos and Zeca, and a midfield containing Thiago Maia and Rafinha are no laughing matter.
The formation, a very clear 4-3-3, was also a look at what we might come to expect from Brazil in years to come. It is only a slight change on the 4-2-3-1 that has been popular with coaches of the Seleção for at least the past decade but it seems to suit the new generation of players much better and will fit Tite’s preference for playing with only one specialist holding midfielder. The new manager was at the game and would have been watching carefully.
In Goiânia on Saturday this young team was easily strong enough to overcome a Japan side that had simply come to contain the threat as best they could.
After a slow first five minutes the boys in the famous yellow shirt took control of ball and space, starting to toy with Japan like a cat with a slowly dying mouse. Ten minutes in, midfielder Felipe Anderson burst into the area and was brought down by the Japanese centre half, a clear penalty in the minds of everyone apart from the man with the whistle who pointed defiantly to the edge of the six-yard box for a goal kick.
The pressure continued to grow and Felipe Anderson again popped up in the opposition area, crashing a shot towards goal only to be thwarted by a fine Nakamura stop, low to his right. Half chances followed for Gabriel Barbosa and Neymar as well as clear heading opportunity for Barcelona’s Rafinha Alcântara, after some fine work from Neymar, which slid agonisingly wide of the upright.
The breakthrough finally came just after the half-hour mark; Barbosa accelerating through the middle like a greyhound out of the traps before seeing his deflected shot curl beyond Nakamura and into the goal. It was nothing less than the Brazilians deserved.
Moments later Thiago Maia, ostensibly the most defensive of Brazil’s midfield three, proceeded to curl a shot beyond the despairing dive of Nakamura, only to see his effort shake the crossbar and bounce high into the sky.
Brazil were continuing to threaten and Neymar shook the woodwork once more with a delightful free-kick before the second goal arrived. Five minutes before the interval Marquinhos rose the highest to powerfully head a Neymar corner into the net and take the game beyond the reach of the Japanese youngsters.
Renato Augusto and Luan of Grêmio entered during half-time, taking the places of Rafinha and Felipe Anderson, and effectively making the formation a 2-4-4, with the full-backs pushed into midfield, defence deemed entirely unnecessary.
With the changes the game lost a bit of its impetus and rhythm; the Japan team were even able to put their feet on the ball a little at the start of the second half. Uilson, who had been a spectator in the Brazil goal, was even forced into his first save after 53 minutes.
As is the way in international friendlies several more substitutions followed for both sides and the game died long before the referee blew his whistle. Brazil did create some more chances in the closing stages, and could easily have had another, but the cut and thrust they had shown in the first period was lost.
They had, however, already shown enough to convince all in attendance that this is a team completely capable of taking home the coveted gold medal, the only international award missing from Brazil’s sparkling trophy cabinet.
Additionally, the team had perhaps done a little to convince some in attendance that the future for the senior Seleção is not a bleak as has recently been made out. There are some fine young players coming through and a new style is perhaps starting to emerge to counter the turgid football seen under Dunga. There is still a long way to go to repair the damage done in the past two years but a home Olympic gold medal with a potential-filled squad would be a very good start.