By Tim Vickery
February 02, 2010

In a month's time comes the lone FIFA date for international fixtures before the end of the European season -- the only time teams preparing for the World Cup have the opportunity to be at full strength, with all their players available.

This, then, is an important call-up, a big chance to impress. Those who are left out have every reason to worry about their chances of going to South Africa.

Brazil will face Ireland at its second home: Arsenal's Emirates Stadium in London. Normally the coaching staff will announce its squad two weeks in advance, standard practice for teams with most of their players based abroad.

This time, though, Carnaval gets in the way. Coach Dunga is obliged to dance around the country's biggest party and name his list of players a week earlier than usual. So the countdown is on. And we're seven days away from knowing whether Ronaldinho will be recalled to face the Irish.

Four years ago, Brazil was full of speculation that in the course of the 2006 World Cup, Ronaldinho's performances would carry him to a place above Pelé in the pantheon of the game -- a view that, in hindsight, seems funny or, more accurately, sad. History tells us it didn't happen, and the player clearly suffered from the letdown. For three long years, Ronaldinho was out of shape and out of sorts, his mind clearly not 100 percent on his profession. Nevertheless, Dunga carried him around, always hoping the spark would return.

In the end, Brazil's coach lost patience, and Ronaldinho was dropped from the squad. But it always felt more like a motivational strategy than a definitive choice, the proverbial kick up the backside, an option for the stick after the continued failure of the carrot. Anyway, a new, succulent carrot had appeared: the chance for redemption in the 2010 World Cup. Perhaps fear of missing out on the party would at last force a reaction.

And it has. The Ronaldinho of 2009-10 is a different animal from the one who waddled his way through the previous campaigns. He is enjoying himself with AC Milan, scoring goals and setting them up. He may not have hit the extraordinary heights of his '03 to '05 peak with Barcelona -- very few ever have -- but he is far slimmer and sharper, his body better able to give a platform for him to show off his peerless natural ability. He clearly wants to go to the World Cup.

Dunga's strategy has worked. But there's a problem. His team has functioned better since Ronaldinho felt the axe. For a while, Brazil played with a line of Ronaldinho, Kaká and Robinho behind striker Luís Fabiano. The whole always seemed less than the sum of its parts. The three of them seemed to get in each other's way. Dunga had a rethink, the long-term ramifications of which were Ronaldinho out, replaced by a mixed-function midfielder on the right. Now, there was more space into which Kaká could launch the counterattack, and there was also added protection to free the powerful forward bursts of right back Maicon.

So what happens now? How could Ronaldinho be re-assimilated into the team? Perhaps, with time on the training field, the idea of the line of three could be resurrected. The easier solution, though, would be the straight replacement of Robinho with Ronaldinho. It may well be the case that Robinho has come to the same conclusion. Perhaps his loan move back to Santos, underpinned by the desperation for playing time in the run up to the World Cup, is at least partly a response to the rebirth of Ronaldinho.

This puts Dunga in a tricky position from a man management point of view. He is a great Robinho fan (though it's fascinating to speculate on how he would cope with the prima donnas on a weekly basis if he was their club coach), and will be aware that the Santos returnee may well be going through a vulnerable moment. Will a recall for Ronaldinho against the Irish put too much pressure on Robinho at a time when the latter would be better served by a gesture of support?

Then there might be other question marks in Dunga's mind. Is it a coincidence that Ronaldinho has flourished at Milan since the departure of Kaká? The two of them have rarely clicked together, and there is no doubt that, on the national team, Kaká is king of the hill.

Then there's the fact that Milan's Brazilian coach, Leonardo, has aided Ronaldinho's recovery by striving to recreate the 4-3-3 formation in which the player was so successful at Barcelona, in that role cutting in from the left flank. This isn't the way Brazil plays. Even at his peak, it was difficult for Ronaldinho to reproduce his Barcelona form for his country -- interestingly, Argentina is currently having similar problems with Lionel Messi, who stars for Barcelona in a similar role on the opposite flank.

So there's a lot of thinking that Dunga has to do before reading out a list of names. But he surely must be consoled by the realization that trying to work out what to do with a fit and motivated Ronaldinho is a nice problem to have.

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