Brazil is back

Brazil served notice today that it’s more than ready to compete for the World Cup next year, as it handily defeated the current World and European champion 3-0. Spain can take no comfort from the fact that Brazil had the home field advantage; the World Cup will also be played in Brazil.

But perhaps it can take some comfort from the fact that the team was playing with just two days of rest. Spain seemed unable to overcome the combination of tired legs and persistent Brazilian fouling.

Most of Brazil’s best moves involved Neymar, now confirmed as a genuine superstar, who played on the left today until late in the match. But Hulk on the right flank showed his worth as well. He supplied the ball that led to Fred’s opening goal, as Jordi Alba, widely considered the best left back in the world, continued to struggle (he was also victimized to some extent on Neymar’s goal).

Jordi Alba’s Brazilian counterpart Marcelo was better today than against Uruguay. But he would have been responsible for allowing two goals, had not David Luiz miraculously cleared a shot by Pedro and had Sergio Ramos not missed a penalty kick awarded when Marcelo fouled Navas.

Brazil’s biggest advantage today was up the middle, in the form of prolific striker Fred, the central midfield duo of Paulinho and Luis Gustavo, and the inspired goalkeeping of Julio Cesar. Given the lack of contribution from its striker, Fernando Torres, Spain might as well have played its so-called 4-6 formation.

So where does this leave the two sides? Having knocked off both Spain and reigning South American champion Uruguay, Brazil is back. The most important thing is that manager Felipe Scolari now has identified a strong starting 11. Its composition could change some between now and the World Cup, but already Brazil knows it can field a team capable of winning the competition. Before this tournament, Scolari couldn’t be sure.

If there’s a question mark, I think it’s whether Marcelo and David Luiz can display the discipline and positional sense necessary to make Brazil hard to score against. Italy scored twice against Brazil, Uruguay once, and Spain easily could have had two or three today.

I believe that David Luiz is making good progress; I’m less sure about Marcelo.

As for Spain, there’s no need to panic. But Vicente del Bosque does need to identify a central forward who can score against top opposition. The absence of such a player is the one failing in today’s match that, given the persistence of the problem, can’t possibly be attributed to fatigue.

Del Bosque will have to perform a trickier analysis when it comes to central midfield. Busquets and Xavi were completely overrun today. Was it due to fatigue or is more steel required?

Xavi will be at 34 when the World Cup rolls around. For many years, he’s been the key to Spain’s phenomenal passing game. And considering the success Italy and Brazil had pressing Spain, del Bosque will be reluctant to replace the master of the killer pass.

But against top opposition, the Spanish back four may need more cover than it receives these days from a Busquets-Xavi combo. So I expect to see Javi Martinez of Bayern Munich come into the starting line-up. Xabi Alonso, who missed this tournament due to injury, might also be restored (though he will be 32 next year). This would leave Xavi to compete for a role further up the field with the likes of Fabregas and Mata.

In any event, today’s result, while disappointing to those of us who wanted a great spectacle, was ideal in terms of building drama for the World Cup where, I hope, we will see a rematch deep in the knock-out stage.

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