Brazil and Italy played to a breathtaking 2-2 draw in Thursday's friendly in Geneva, Switzerland that conjured up memories of their memorable match at the 1982 World Cup where Italy emerged the winner as a result of Paolo Rossi's famous hat-trick despite all of the attacking initiatives of the likes of Socrates, Zico, Eder and Falcao. On this occasion, Brazil leaped to a 2-0 lead at halftime thanks to goals by Fred and Oscar in the first half. Italy roared out of the gates in the second half and equalized thanks to a flick by Daniele De Rossi and a screamer of a goal by Mario Balotelli from 25 yards to level the match. Italy's fightback was largely attributable to Coach Prandelli's decision to bring on Stephan El Shaarawy for Pablo Osvaldo in a move that added additional steel to the Azzurri's attack and freed up Balotelli, in particular, to find the space to take more chances against a Brazilian defense that still needs to fine-tune its positioning. Despite their second-half goals, Italy played sustained attacking football throughout the game and can consider themselves denied of a win only by the acrobatics of Brazil's goalkeeper, Julio Cesar, who once again demonstrated why many regard him as the best goalkeeper in the modern game.
Some quick thoughts on the game, with a focus on Brazil, are as follows:
- Today's game was played at an electric pace, with end to end football for the first 60 minutes. Both Italy and Brazil demonstrated that they are serious contenders for the World Cup 2014 championship despite some dubious recent performances from both teams. Both teams transitioned well from defense to offense and created more chances than they were able to convert. Judging by today's game, fans who find Spain's possession play boring will discover refreshing alternatives in Italy and Brazil as they tweak their lineups and positioning for World Cup 2014.
- Brazil's Ronaldinho, who was left out of the Brazil squad, would likely have struggled in a game marked by this kind of pace and sheer velocity. The same holds true for Kaká, who looked fresh, but was unable to impose his presence on the game after entering as a second half substitute for Oscar.
- Hernanes delivered a solid performance in a deep playmaker role that is likely to earn him a start against Russia on March 25. Brazil has struggled to find a deep lying playmaker since the days of Falcao and Cerezo from Telê Santana's legendary 1982 squad, and Hernanes may well be just the man to anchor the transition to attack and orchestrate attacks on both flanks and down the center as well.
- Neymar, again, showed that he plays best when he withdraws deep into midfield and runs at the center of defenses as evinced by the sublime run he made to set up Oscar for Brazil's second goal. The Neymar and Oscar pairing continues to develop and coalesce as a fixture in the Brazilian attacking formation and their partnership may well end up being the stage on which Brazil launches its case for World Cup 2014 in ways analogous to the pairings of Romário and Bebeto, or, more pertinently, Ronaldo and Rivaldo.
- Hulk delivered a disappointing performance, and this may partly be Scolari's fault because he switched Hulk to the left flank and opted to let Dani Alves and Oscar own the right side of the field. Nevertheless, Lucas Moura is the obvious alternative selection and could well end up partnering more effectively with Neymar, Oscar and Fred than the burly Zenit striker.
In just two matches in charge, Scolari has overhauled the Brazil team and given it new life and a more balanced feel in terms of age, experience and skill. Scolari still has lots of work to do in terms of finding the right balance in central defense and midfield, but he clearly has his pulse on Brazilian football around the world in a way not shared by his predecessor Mano Menezes, whose vision was closer to Brazil-based players that he knew well. Like Menezes, Scolari has begun by tinkering with the Brazilian midfield. Thus far, he has avoided the temptation to opt for a defensive stopper qua Lucas Leiva and stayed true to Telê Santana's vision of having four creative midfielders in deep and attacking positions. That said, Scolari is notoriously difficult to predict as a coach though what does seem to be the case is that the pieces of the Brazilian footballing puzzle are gradually starting to fall together after close to three years of experimentation.
Brazil: Fred (33), Oscar (42)
Italy: De Rossi (54), Balotelli (57)
Brazil: Julio Cesar(GK), Dani Alves, David Luiz, Dante, Filipe Luis (Marcelo, 77), Fernando, Oscar (Kaká, 60), Hernanes, Neymar, Fred (Diego Costa, 69), Hulk (Jean, 85)
Italy: Buffon (GK), Maggio, De Sciglio (Antonelli, 73), Barzagli, Bonucci, De Rossi (Diamanti, 80), Pirlo (Cerci, 45), Montolivo, Giaccherini (Poli, 67), Balotelli (Gilardino, 82), Osvaldo (El Shaarawy, 45).
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