While everyone waits for Brazil’s players to make public their position on taking part in the Copa America, they are doing their talking with their feet. On Friday night, Brazil maintained their 100% record in World Cup qualifying with a 2-0 win at home to Ecuador.
It was not easy against an Ecuador team lying third in the table, who showed once more why Argentine coach Gustavo Alfaro is a good fit. He is a highly competent organiser of compact teams who seek to mark on the front foot and then launch rapid counter attacks. That said, there were few signs of the counter-attack in Porto Alegre as Brazil’s defence enjoyed an untroubled night. But Ecuador made them work hard and think deeply in search of their victory. And with Ecuador’s main rivals for qualification failing to win on Thursday, they return home with confidence intact.
It was not only Ecuador’s defensive discipline that made life hard for Brazil. This was their first match since November and with very little time on the training ground, it was hardly a surprise that the moves did not flow. Twenty-four hours earlier both Argentina and Uruguay had the same problem in their home matches. The long pause between rounds four and five has clearly made things easier for the defensive sides. And Brazil added to their lack of collective understanding with a team that showed an astonishing eight changes from the side that beat Uruguay in Montevideo almost seven months ago.
Some of those changes were welcome, such as the return of goalkeeper Alisson, of central midfielder Casemiro and of Neymar, the main attacking talent. Some were enforced. With Thiago Silva and Douglas Luiz both unavailable, there were chances for Eder Militao and Fred. Lucas Paqueta filled the slot that has usually belonged to Philippe Coutinho. There was one surprise, Alex Sandro replacing Renan Lodi at left-back. And one interesting experiment, with local hero Gabriel “Gabigol” Barbosa recalled after five years in the problem centre-forward position.
Brazil started the game with Gabigol ahead of Neymar on the left, Paqueta central and Richarlison on the right and endured a frustrating half hour when they made little impression. Coach Tite shuffled his pack. Searching for more of the ball, Neymar drifted infield, with Richarlison switching flanks and Paqueta sent out to the right, where he did not look entirely comfortable.
Chances began to appear as space opened up, but it was another tweak just after the hour that broke the deadlock. Tite was ready to bring on Gabriel Jesus, almost certainly for Paqueta, but as the substitution was being prepared, Fred committed a foul. He was already on a yellow card, and the Ecuador players surrounded the referee and appealed for a red. There was no justice in their case, but Tite was not taking chances. Off came Fred, Jesus went to the right wing and Paqueta dropped to central midfield.
It’s one of many roles that Paqueta played when he was at Flamengo. Tite does not trust the Lyon midfielder’s defensive discipline but this was a game where creativity was far more important than marking in the middle of the field. Soon afterwards, as Xavier Arreaga tried to bring the ball out of defence Paqueta stopped him, Neymar came in to take the ball away and passed left to Richarlison, whose shot beat keeper Alexander Dominguez at his near post.
Ecuador were forced to make attacking changes, and as space began to open up a second Brazil goal looked likely. Gabigol moved well across the attacking line and came close to scoring before giving way to Roberto Firmino.
The game was drifting towards a 1-0 Brazil win until a late VAR show. First the video referee found a penalty after a goalmouth melee. After studying the evidence, match official Alexis Herrera agreed that Jesus had been fouled and pointed to the spot. After a lengthy delay, up stepped Neymar, whose shot was well saved by Dominguez diving to his right. On went the game, by now into stoppage time, until the action was halted two minutes later as the VAR decided that Dominguez moved off his line when making the save. It was marginal and possibly over-officious. It led to another long delay until Neymar stepped up once more, kept his cool and scored with a clever chip to the keeper’s left.
Reigning South American champions, well on the way to Qatar with five wins out of five, Brazil should be buzzing as they make their way to Paraguay for Tuesday’s sixth round. Instead, there is internal chaos. Players and coach are clearly unhappy with the idea of playing the Copa America, and are at loggerheads with the FA president Rodrigo Caboclo.
The players aim to wait until after the Paraguay game to make their position clear on the Copa America. History was not made on Friday night, as Brazil have still yet to lose a World Cup qualifier at home. But history could be made on Tuesday night when Brazil’s players have their say on the controversial Copa.