At last, the Copa America was in reach. Tite prowled his technical area. Behind him, players in yellow shirts and orange bibs lined up. In the stands, a teeming sea of yellow fans sang and danced. Peru were on their knees. At the final whistle, Tite pumped his fists, spun around and akin to his local counterpart Vanderlei Luxemburgo ran off to the dressing room.
Brazil were home again: at the Maracana and under the watchful gaze of Cristo Redentor. Yet, the homecoming turned out bumpy. In the 89th minute, Richarlison delivered the title-winning goal from the penalty spot, a fittingly mundane finale to a slow-burning and underwhelming tournament. The Copa America failed to ignite and so did Brazil, even in the final when the hosts never looked like repeating the fluent display of a 5-0 first-round rout against the same opponents.
Peru had learned their lesson, following Paraguay and Venezuela’s lead in sitting deep against the hosts. Those teams had pushed Brazil to the brink, but Ricardo Gareca’s team stubbornly refused to stick to the script. In a copy of the group stage game, they went toe-to-toe with Brazil from the onset, pressing high and streaming forward in numbers. Brazil exposed that brave if naive strategy again early on.
A long pass from Daniel Alves over the top released Gabriel Jesus, whose nifty footwork took out Peruvian left back Miguel Trauco, and an unmarked Cebolinha met his cross with cool a finish.
Peru were in danger of drowning. Brazil generated a volume of passing that would bamboozle the best of teams. It is what Tite’s Brazil excels at: dragging opponents out of position by endless sequences of passing. Quick ball retention and high marking – often in the shape of Barcelona midfielder Arthur against Peru – leave the opponent with precious little time on the ball. Ultimately, it wears the other team down and sooner or later cracks begin to appear. Philippe Coutinho nipped in at the near post and Alex Sandro overlapped with dazzling speed on the left.
Peru readjusted. The idea of playing on the front foot was wisely dispensed with. They dropped deep, lurked on the counterattack and on a rare foray forward forced a penalty when Chilean referee Roberto Vargas harshly adjudged Thiago Silva to be handling the ball inside the penalty box. Paulo Guerreiro converted the spot kick. Peru’s joy, however, was short-lived as Brazil carved through Peru’s defence like a knife through butter on the brink of half-time. Gabriel Jesus was at the end of the attack, but Roberto Firmino’s hard work created the goal. He spilled possession, chased back immediately and played in Arthur.
Jesus should have liberated Brazil, but, again, the moment of ignition never arrived in the second half. Instead, a temperamental Jesus was sent off with a silly second booking. Tite had been urging the Manchester City striker to calm down as he prepared to bring on Richarlison, but to little avail. On his way off Jesus smashed a water bottle, punched the VAR cabin and shoved a CONMEBOL pole. In the tunnel, Brazil’s number nine burst into tears.
Tite remained unperturbed and introduced Eder Militao at right back, signaling his intent to defend the result. Alves moved a line higher up the pitch. The defensive move summed up the impossible conundrum Tite has faced this tournament: Brazil had to win at all costs or he would be out of the door. At the same time, the fan base demanded his team play expansive football.
That obligation to win meant Tite was conservative in his squad selection, relying on veterans like Alves, Thiago Silva and Willian, and that his game plan was imbued with realism. This Copa America was as much about balancing expectations with renewal as it was about self-preservation for Tite. One - balance - enabled the other - self-preservation, but as a result, the football on display was often perceived to be dire and out of sync with the rich tradition of Brazilian football.
The job of Brazil coach is at the best of times a pressure cooker and during the tournament, the criticism leveled at his address intensified. After a year of introspection, Brazil struggled to rekindle the fluency that had so marked the first two years of Tite’s reign when Brazil eased through the World Cup qualifiers before falling to Belgium in Russia. That defeat has haunted Tite – admittedly in his sleep, but also on the pitch: he wants his team to play with more solidity and steel. The last three weeks he has stood accused of playing cautious and defensive football in line with the Gaucho school of coaching.
Yet this win also highlighted that Tite is Brazil’s standout progressive coach. He is miles ahead of Luiz Felipe Scolari, Renato Augusto and even Mano Menezes. Firmino chasing back for the second goal was a case in point. Tite demands his team win back the ball immediately. Arthur, arguably man of the match, was another example. He marked aggressively up the pitch and possesses a fine vision and passing range His emergence will be vital to Brazil’s development in the future.
With the win, Brazil retain their record of winning every Copa on home soil. The catch is obvious: winning the continental championship as well as the Confederations Cup and the Olympic Games in your own backyard count for little when you falter at the World Cup.
Brazil have long dominated South America. In fact, they are, with the notable exception of Uruguay in recent times, a synonym for South American football. This was their third Copa America win in 15 years and they were by far the best-organised and modern side in the tournament. In 2002, they were the last World Cup winners from the continent as well. Their regional dominance is dangerous: competition is too feeble and so when it matters, every four years, they can no longer contend with Europe’s top teams.
The Copa America triumph allows Tite a few months of stability to think about rebuilding his team. At 36, Alves is an evergreen, but father time waits for no one. The same applies to Silva. Tite also needs to find attacking solutions. That will go a long way in rediscovering the joy Brazil played with during the World Cup qualifiers and readying the team for the main event in Qatar.
Updated Date: Jul 08, 2019 09:49:51 IST