Brazil's path to gold medal game hides a set of growing problems
For Brazil, the 3-0 win over South Korea in the Olympic mens' soccer semifinals was a victory with as many negatives as positives. Yes, it won through to the gold medal game for the third time. Yes, it played attractive football in patches. Yes, it scored three goals for the fifth consecutive game. Yes, after all the near misses, all the frustration, it is an overwhelming favorite to win its first gold in Olympic football. But as majestic as it looked at times, this was another game to raise serious questions about the balance of the side and its capacity to defend.
The back was a shambles and for the first 20 minutes as South Korea emerged as the better team early. Brazilian goalkeeper Gabriel looked as shaky as he was at last year's Under-20 World Cup in Colombia, panicking at Old Trafford under every high ball. Had Ji Dong-Won not got in Kim Hyun-Sung's way at the back post after 12 minutes, Gabriel's flapping would have seen Brazil behind.
Indeed, goal-keeping is a major worry for Brazil ahead of the World Cup in 2014. Julio Cesar had a disappointing season last year and may be past his best (he will be 34 at the time of the tournament), but after a couple of decades of good keepers, there seems little depth to replace him. "If you ask me who is the best goalkeeper in Brazil," Emerson Leao, Brazil's keeper in the 1974 and '78 World Cups, said earlier this year, "I cannot tell you because there is nobody outstanding."
On Tuesday South Korea's mobile twin strike-force posed Brazil constant problems. With two forwards pushing on the two center-backs, Brazil's fullbacks were wary of advancing too far. As a result, Brazil remained very narrow, something that wasn't helped by its weirdly unbalanced front four. In previous rounds, Brazil had used Leandro Damiao as a lone forward, with Neymar cutting in from the left, Hulk from the right and Oscar creating in the center. Here, though, Neymar played more more of a central role, but drifted left, where he got in the way of Marcelo and Alex Sandro. Oscar, meanwhile, had to shuffle into an unconvincing inside-right position. The rhythm Brazil had earlier in the tournament was lost, and in the early stages of the semifinal, pass after pass was misplaced.
There was an extraordinary sloppiness about Brazil, a mental laziness that threatened to develop into panic. Two minutes after Ji had inadvertently put off Kim, he dinked a clever ball to the same player. Gabriel came careering out, got nowhere near the ball and when Kim nodded back across goal, Ji would have nodded in but for a high foot from Juan. Referee Pavel Kralovec mystifyingly didn't see it as a foul. He let Brazil off again four minutes into the second half when Sandro clearly fouled Kim Bo-Kyung in the box.
At the other end, when it does click, Brazil is too good to be granted that sort of reprieve. The transition from back to front wasn't smooth, but Oscar and Neymar still showed a wonderful ability to pick holes in a defense, whether with a smart pass or a sudden dart, while Leandro Damiao continued a superb run of finishing form. While he was unable to capitalize on a sumptuous curved pass down the line from Neymar after 20 minutes, the play seemed to restore a little confidence to Brazil.
Still, though, Brazil needed a large slice of luck. A poor back pass released Leandro Damiao. Lee Beom-Young charged out to block, which he did, but was stepped on -- inadvertently -- by Leandro Damiao. Lee was left in some pain and seemed to move uncertainly after the play, and had South Korea's other keeper, Jung Sung-Ryong, not suffered a shoulder injury against Great Britain, he probably would have gone off.
Whether the apparent injury made a huge difference is difficult to say, but South Korea's keeper seemed sluggish just before halftime as Oscar, allowed to run from deep, found Romulo, who scored with a less-than-fierce shot at the near post. Lee was all but defenseless on Brazil's second score, which came off a deflection to Leandro Damiao, who thumped in his fifth goal of the tournament. His sixth arrived soon after when an attempted one-two between Neymar and Oscar was foiled only to see the ball again find Leandro Damiao, who poked the ball past Lee, who again seemed slow to react.
So Brazil did enough, and it remains the best side in this Olympic tournament. But it would be wrong to read too much into that. Brazil, because of its Olympic history and the lack of World Cup qualifiers, has taken this tournament extremely seriously. Other sides have taken a range of attitudes, and for various reasons, have not selected their strongest squads. The quality has not been especially high and yet Brazil has still leaked avoidable goals.
If weaknesses are exposed and can be addressed before the World Cup -- when players such as David Luiz, Lucas and Ramires can be restored to the squad -- then this could be the perfect preparation for Brazil. The danger, though, would be to assume that a gold medal mean all's well.