More than most other coaches in world soccer, Luiz Felipe Scolari, or “Big Phil” as he is often referred to, knows full well the complexities of assembling a World Cup winner.
In his second stint in charge of the Brazilian national soccer team, Scolari is once again lucky enough to be blessed with the kind of game-breaking talent that any championship side needs to be built around. Eleven years ago, in Japan and South Korea, it was Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Ronaldinho who did much of the damage as he led his country to a fifth World Cup title.
Next summer, at home in Brazil, a confident Scolari – “Brazil will be champions,” he said last Saturday after a 5-0 win over Honduras – is fully expecting to guide his charges to a sixth world crown. With the likes of Neymar, Hulk and Oscar along for the ride, his youthful side, ranked 11th in the FIFA world rankings before Tuesday’s 2-1 exhibition win over Chile in Toronto, is certainly shaping up to be one of the tournament’s genuine contenders.
But while Scolari said his side showed largely what he anticipated, he also chose to heap praise on Chile after the match, saying that FIFA’s 12th-ranked side is “going to be a very good contender in the World Cup.”
One of the disadvantages of playing host to the World Cup is the lack of a qualification process to steel players in the cauldron of intense competition. In its absence, Brazil has had to satisfy itself with a steady diet of exhibition matches, save for the Confederations Cup last summer that it won in convincing fashion.
On Tuesday night, in front of a crowd of 38,514, there were only five holdovers in both starting lineups from when these two sides met in the round of 16 at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, a game that ended in a 3-0 win for Brazil.
Alexis Sanchez, now as then, remained Chile’s chief inspiration, a player who had the ball at his feet for much of the 90 minutes but to little tangible effect, as Chile could only muster one shot on target – its equalizing second-half goal by Eduardo Vargas. That statistic will be particularly galling to Chilean coach Jorge Sampaoli, especially considering that Brazil’s starting goalkeeper, veteran Julio Cesar, can’t even command a regular starting gig for Queens Park Rangers in the second tier of English soccer.
Scolari, on the other hand, should have much to smile about. Despite the often-choppy conditions of the pitch – Sunday’s CFL East Division final at Rogers Centre prevented the natural grass from getting much more than 24 hours to bed in – Brazil stroked the ball around with customary aplomb.
It didn’t take long for Brazil to assume the ascendency, and for once in the game, Neymar, far and away the apple of the crowd’s eye, had nothing to do with it.
Oscar intercepted a pass from Chilean defender Marcos Gonzalez, and using the kind of vision rarely seen on the soccer fields of these shores, the Chelsea midfielder immediately picked out Hulk on the left-wing overlap.
The quick-thinking manoeuvre gave the burly striker both time and space, and he took full advantage off both, lashing a low, left-footed drive past Claudio Bravo in the opposition goal before saluting the crowd in celebration.
Surprisingly, given the norm in these kinds of international friendlies, wholesale changes weren’t made at halftime, but shortly after Scolari rolled the dice and made the decisive substitution in the 51st minute, bringing on Robinho in place of Jo.
The AC Milan forward, no stranger to Chile having scored against the South American rival in the last World Cup, proved a thorn in its side once again.
Having spurned an earlier chance to give Brazil a 2-0 lead after being played in by Neymar, Robinho made up for it 11 minutes from time.
Brazilian fullback Maicon, playing his second game in Canada this year after turning out for AS Roma against Toronto FC back in the summer, had been moved up to the wing late on in the game, and quickly showed it wasn’t just a makeweight manoeuvre, conjuring up an inviting cross from the right wing that Robinho gleefully headed it into the net to earn Brazil the victory.
But while Scolari was effusive over one of his star players, he seemed fairly ambivalent to the play of his match-winner, one who has only recently been brought back into the fold after two years in the international wilderness.
“I think Neymar played very very well,” he said. “He delivered the ball, he made good passes and also Robinho, what he did was what we expected from him.”