Brazil have taken the first steps on the long road to Qatar 2022. They have called up their squad for the opening two rounds of World Cup qualification.
There is a clear paradox here. South America's World Cup qualifiers are arguably the most competitive on the planet. There is no such thing as an easy away game, and yet they are not a true test for the real challenge that Brazil face in the World cup. Their past four campaigns have come to an end as soon as they came up against a top Western European side in the knockout stages. Coach Tite recalled that only once in a competitive match has his team conceded two goals: the fateful 2018 quarterfinal against Belgium that brought their Russia World Cup to a close.
The aim, then, is to prepare a team for that level of encounter.
And then there is another paradox. Tite's quest is a long-term project -- the next World Cup is two and a half years away -- but he is surrounded by an environment gripped by short-term considerations.
The toy of the moment, understandably enough, is the Flamengo team that have swept all before them in South America in the past few months, becoming domestic and continental champions. They have been used as a stick to beat Tite -- without any acknowledgement that their achievements have not come against opponents as tough and talented as Belgium and France. Three Flamengo players have come into the squad: left-footed playmaker Everton Ribeiro and the strike duo of Gabriel Barbosa and Bruno Henrique. Of the trio, only the latter made any impression on Liverpool in December's final of the Club World Cup. Time will tell if they are in for the long haul, or nothing more than a momentary flirt.
They and their new international teammates are unlikely to be tested too much in the opening game. Brazil host Bolivia on March 27. Bolivia are usually the home banker, the team that rarely pick up any points on their travels, and coach Cesar Farias seems inclined to bring an under-23 side to Brazil, leaving his first choices for the match at home to Paraguay a few days later. Brazil, then, should get off to a flying start, although the trip to Peru the following Tuesday would seem to be much more complicated.
Alisson is injured, and so Ederson will surely start in goal. Thiago Silva and Marquinhos are the centre-back pairing, with the eternal right-back Dani Alves constructing from deep, while Renan Lodi will have license to charge forward and cut into the attacking line from left-back. Casemiro, considered the competitive leader of the team, will anchor the midfield. And newcomer Bruno Guimaraes, recently signed by Lyon, is putting pressure on Arthur for the other central midfield slot.
The defensive shape of the team, then, looks settled. The same cannot be said of the attack.
Despite winning the Copa America last year, Brazil suffered a poor run of results in which their attacking play left much to be desired. After the World Cup, Tite was tortured by the sensation that he had persevered too long with Gabriel Jesus at centre-forward. The Manchester City striker, who will miss the Bolivia game through suspension, has not played centrally since, instead, attacking from wide.
The experiment with Roberto Firmino up front was a clear failure. The context was totally different from Liverpool, with their attacking full-backs and marauding strikers. With Brazil, Firmino lacked passing options -- fatal for someone who links the play so well. In Brazil's last game in November, a morale-boosting 3-0 win over South Korea, the Selecao looked better with Richarlison up top. Will he stay there or will Gabriel be given a chance?
Amid all the focus on Flamengo, these topics were not really touched upon in the news conference. The answers will be supplied later this month on the pitches of Recife and Lima.
One of the big losers of the call-up was AC Milan attacking midfielder Lucas Paqueta, who has been in the squad since the World Cup and started the past two games. He's been relegated to the under-23 squad, which is preparing for the Tokyo Olympics. Arsenal's Gabriel Martinelli is also part of that list, along with Vinicius Junior of Real Madrid. But the latter's teammate Rodrygo, who came off the bench in both of Brazil's matches in November, has been left out of both the senior and U23 lineups.