As he was stretchered off the field clutching his back, Neymar yet again had an entire nation praying on his behalf. Just as they have done at every point of this World Cup, the Brazilian public set their gaze firmly and hopefully on the 22 year old attacker.
So central is Neymar to this Brazil team that many a Brazilian can be forgiven for being more visibly concerned about him staying on the ground after strong challenges than they have when Marcelo touched the ball into his own goal in the opening game or even when Mexico came close to snatching a victory in their second group fixture. In fact, throughout the tournament the Brazilian fans have feared an injury to Neymar almost as much as being knocked out itself. After all, the two seem to be inseparably linked.
While they digested the news of his tournament-ending injury in the hours following the victory over Colombia, Brazilians must have been horribly divided between the joy of a place in the last four of their home tournament and the dismay at losing their star man.
Willian currently looks favorite to come in to the attack in place of the injured number 10. However it will likely remain unclear where in that attack he will play until kick-off against Germany on Tuesday. He has also had an injury scare of his own when he cut short a training session after a collision with Hernanes left him nursing a slight knock. At this stage he is expected that to be fit to start in the semi-final.
Is he a good enough replacement for Neymar? The critics of this Brazil side will perhaps favor a team including Willian, a player who looks to run at defenders, commit them, draw fouls and create space for team mates as well possessing the skill to make something magical happen on his own. They would not favor his inclusion at the expense of Neymar, much rather their current attacking ‘spearhead’ and number 9 Fred.
In the aftermath of Friday’s game one joke circulating around social media was that an injury to Neymar’s back should be no surprise, for he had been carrying Fred all tournament. A slightly cruel joke perhaps given the severity of Neymar’s condition, but one with a dose of harsh truth at it’s core. For all the unwavering and admirable faith placed in him by Scolari, Fred has failed to deliver anything resembling a good performance. He has looked lethargic, even disinterested at times and surely against Germany it is time that he put in a performance which at least displayed some serious desire for victory.
Sadly Brazil lack a wealth of options in attack and Fred seems (at least from my seat on the sofa) as acutely aware of this fact as anybody watching the tournament. His only challenger is Jo, who has looked lively when introduced to games, yet hasn’t offered a great deal more than some spirited chasing of opposition and the odd tidy touch. Still in his limited appearances from the bench, he has — in many people’s view — managed more than Brazil’s number 9. Despite this, Fred looks set to start in the central attacking role. However, Scolari does have other options here.
As mentioned above, many critics of this Brazil team would rather have seen Neymar at the point of the attack supported by a trio includng Oscar, Hulk and either Willian or Bernard. With Neymar out of the picture, Scolari has a conundrum and one possible solution may be to reshuffle his attack to present a solid yet mobile German defense with a few more issues than a predictable, stationary and lumbering Fred.
By placing Hulk, an attacker more agile and pacey than Fred, yet equally as robust, at the point of the attack, Scolari would give the German defense the issue of pace to consider. Currently Brazil are severely lacking this quality. By the time the players out wide have got far enough forward in previous games, Fred is either lagging behind them or has been stopped still with his back to goal between a pair of quite comfortable centre backs and retreating midfielders as space in the final third is quickly and easily restricted. With Hulk, the ball threaded through the gaps in defense or even over the top of them becomes not only an enticing option but also a very valuable one allowing the entire team to make yards up the pitch and relieve pressure on their own defence. That would leave Oscar, Bernard and Willian more priceless space between the German midfield and defence to try and work some magic.
This is a tactic however, which is highly unlikely to be deployed by Scolari against Germany. He has faith in his players and his system and to his credit he keeps that faith, often regardless of individual form. Without Neymar, it seems Brazil will come to rely more on Fred and it remains to be seen how he deals with this added responsibility and of course, whether he has the ability to truly deliver at this level.
However, there is another noticeable absence which many would argue is at least of equal, if not superior, importance to the Selecao. Captain and rock at the heart of the defense Thiago Silva picked up a relatively innocuous yellow card against Colombia which sees him suspended for the semi-final.
Since Scolari returned to coach Brazil, Silva has formed a solid partnership with David Luiz and in that time the hosts have conceded an average of less than a goal a game with that pair at the back. For many it is the absence of Silva which will prove to be of greater significance to Brazil than that of Neymar for whom there are is a number of suitable replacements.
Luckily for Brazil, they have a ready made replacement in the form of Dante a player who has over 150 appearances in the Bundesliga under his belt. And let us not overlook the fact that Dante plays for Bayern, the team which provides the beating heart of this German national side. His defensive partner David Luiz has visibly grown into this tournament and since the beginning of the second reign of Scolari has been something of a lucky charm for Brazil helping them avoid defeat in every game in which he has completed a full 90 minutes. Dante should slot in fairly easily to partner Luiz, but he would do well to be wary of rustiness, having not yet kicked a ball in the tournament.
So, can Brazil beat Germany without both Thiago Silva and Neymar? The simple answer is yes, of course they can. It won’t be easy and it has undeniably been made a lot more difficult without the services of Silva and Neymar but, with the crowd behind them and their unwavering belief in their own destiny, this semi-final is definitely not as straightforward as Germany would like it.
Be warned, however, that the Germans are arguably equaly as desperate and equaly as spurred by their own sense of destiny as Brazil. Having made it to the semi-finals in each of the last four tournaments yet suffered defeat in each of the last three, this German side needs a victory not only to reward the likes of Schweinsteiger but also to justify a complete revolution in their nation’s approach to the sport since the turn of the millennium.