Brazil's Neymar celebrates scoring their first goal, against Croatia, with coach Tite, June 3 2018. Picture: REUTERS/ ANDREWS YATES
Brazil's Neymar celebrates scoring their first goal, against Croatia, with coach Tite, June 3 2018. Picture: REUTERS/ ANDREWS YATES

Few national teams have experienced the ups and downs of Brazil over the past five years but the good news for fans of the Selecao is that they are ascendant as Russia approaches.

Brazil won the 2013 Confederations Cup, hammering an all-conquering Spain side 3-0 in the final. A year later they were humiliated 7-1 at home by Germany in the World Cup semifinals and early exits at the Copa America in 2015 and 2016 deepened the gloom.

But the improvement since Tite took over as coach in June 2016 has been remarkable, and Brazil are now joint favourites to win a sixth World Cup. Much of the credit goes to the wily coach, who has instilled a sense of purpose in a team that looked lost under his predecessor, Dunga.

Tite has retained only seven of the 23 players who failed on home soil four years ago, with Neymar, Marcelo, Dani Alves, Fernandinho, Thiago Silva, Willian and Paulinho among those likely to make the final 23.

Any doubts the coach might have harboured over Neymar’s knee injury would have been put to rest after the striker returned to action last Sunday with a goal in a warm-up match against Croatia at Anfield.

Neymar said he was "very happy" to have made a goal-scoring comeback in the 2-0 victory over Croatia but insisted he was only firing at "80%".

"It’s been three months that I’ve been injured," said Neymar. "To come back and do what I love most, playing football, and furthermore to score a goal, is an immense joy. I’m very happy."

The Paris Saint-Germain forward appeared as a half-time replacement for Manchester City midfielder Fernandinho as the Selecao stepped up their World Cup preparations.

And Neymar needed just 23 minutes to prove how important he is to Brazil’s hopes of a sixth world title. Receiving a pass from Coutinho, Neymar cut into the area, beating Sime Vrsaljko and Duje Caleta-Car with impressive close control and dribbling before burying a shot into the roof of the goal from the edge of the six-yard area.

Up front, Tite has an embarrassment of riches, with Neymar, Gabriel Jesus and Coutinho the likely starters with able back-up on the bench from speedy wingers Willian and Douglas Costa. The central defence has been shored up with Marquinhos and Miranda. Brazil under Tite have conceded just five goals in 19 games.

The midfield has a balance of solid and creative, with Casemiro providing the backbone, Paulinho capable of going box-to-box, and Renato Augusto offering some spark.

Those players helped Brazil to become the first team to qualify for Russia with a record string of nine successive wins, but they must take care to rein in any euphoria.

Brazil have historically done better at World Cups when they fly off hated rather than feted by their own press and fans.

In 1970, 1994 and 2002, the Selecao left home under a cloud only to silence their doubters and lift the cup. In 1982 and 2006 it was the opposite, as teams headed to Europe expecting to canter to victory.

Tite is nothing if not pragmatic and he has worked overtime to ensure his players are focused on the task at hand.

Reuters

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