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North Korea could stifle Brazil by sitting back and guarding counter


Three of them have since returned home, Robinho on a short term loan to Santos, but for the first time ever the entire Brazil World Cup squad has European club experience. All 23 players are familiar to the global soccer audience. Their opening opponents on Tuesday, on the other hand, are "the mystery men" of North Korea -- and the meeting of the known and the unknown could be one of the most fascinating clashes of the first few days in South Africa.

First, because the North Koreans are not as unfamiliar with tournament soccer as their reputation might lead people to believe.

Nearly five years ago I was in Peru to see some of their current team produce some pleasing displays in the World Under-17 Cup. In particular there was a 3-0 win over Ivory Coast -- and a tight second round tie against Brazil, including the likes of Anderson and Denilson, now respectively of Manchester United and Arsenal. The North Koreans only went down after extra time.

Three years ago, in the World Youth Cup in Canada, the North Koreans were in the same group as the two teams who went on to contest the final. They drew 2-2 with the Czech Republic, and only went down 1-0 to eventual champions Argentina, with Sergio Aguero, Angel Di Maria and current senior goalkeeper Sergio Romero. These are not the results of total no hopers. The 2010 World Cup has come before this generation reaches its peak, and might be seen as a stepping stone on the way to 2014. It is hard to see North Korea making it way out of Group G -- but it might inconvenience its illustrious rivals.

Can it really inconvenience Brazil on Tuesday? Styles, as they say, make fights, and this match offers an intriguing contrast. The Koreans will surely be cautious, pulling men behind the ball and only sporadically launching quick breaks -- just the kind of style which has most troubled the current Brazil side.

Coach Dunga's men go to South Africa as many peoples' tournament favorites, mine included. They have enjoyed two years of almost unbroken success. No Brazil side had ever won a serious competitive match away to Uruguay. Dunga's team won 4-0. Brazil had never beaten Argentina away from home in a World Cup qualifier. Last September they won 3-1.

But in the course of the qualifying campaign, four times they were held to a goalless draw at home. Against Argentina this is not unusual. It is a bit more so against Colombia, and extraordinary against Venezuela and Bolivia. The Bolivians, for example, are awful on the road. They lost all 8 of their other away games. Yet they held Brazil with relative comfort, despite spending much of the game with 10 men. In its way, that 0-0 draw in Rio is a scoreline just as historic as Brazil's wins in Uruguay and Argentina -- and it came just days after Brazil had swiped Chile aside 3-0 in Santiago.

How can the apparent schizophrenia of these results be explained? Here I must disagree with my esteemed colleague Jonathan Wilson, who suggested that the secret of success of Dunga's Brazil is "stealth pressing."

Pressing -- a concerted push to win possession in the opponent's half of the field -- is not a characteristic of the current team, a point repeatedly made by former great Tostao in his excellent writings. In fact, in the game against England last year from which Wilson draws his conclusions, Brazil frequently did the opposite. Several times during the match striker Luis Fabiano dropped deep, luring the England centre backs up field and thus creating space for the long ball played forward for the rapid Nilmar to run on to. It was the move that won that match.

This creation of space is vital, because more than anything else Brazil is a counter-attacking side. It can move the length of the field at astonishing pace, with extraordinary technique and deadly directness. But without the space in which to launch it, there is no counter-attack. For this reason Brazil have been most effective against teams who come at them -- in that 4-0 win in Montevideo the corner count was 16-4 in Uruguay's favour.

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But what if the opponents sit back? Then there is no opportunity to unleash the counter-attack. It was what the Bolivians did in Rio. It was what South Africa did last year in the Confederations Cup semifinal. Wily Brazilian coach Joel Santana, then in charge of the Bafana Bafana, knew exactly what he was doing. His team stifled the Brazil counter-attack and were only undone by an 88th-minute free kick. North Korea will surely attempt something similar.

Brazil, of course, is aware of this. Its opponents would be mad, or extremely naïve, if they pile forward and leave themselves open. In order to win this World Cup Brazil will have to break down some stubborn defences.

Dunga's favoured posture is to have his side sitting deep, with little space between the defensive line and the midfield block of Gilberto Silva and Felipe Melo -- and plenty of space in front, for Kaka or Robinho or Maicon from right back to lead the charge.

(Indeed this helps explain the exclusion of Ronaldinho. He had featured behind Fabiano alongside Kaka and Robinho. But the three of them tended to get in each other's way. The side worked better once he had been replaced by Elano on the right of midfield, a versatile player, excellent from free kicks and also, crucially, able to slot back to cover the forward bursts of Maicon.)

Acknowledging the need to work out a gameplan for cautious rivals, Dunga has been working in South Africa on bringing his team further forward -- and it was fascinating to see the results in the recent friendlies against Zimbabwe and Tanzania.

Now, if the history of the World Cup teaches anything, it is that the evidence of warmup friendlies should not be taken too seriously. They are a million miles away from the real thing. No one wants to get hurt -- Brazil, in particular, traipsed around gingerly as if they had written 'please don't kick me' on their shirts.

Nevertheless, tentative conclusions can be drawn -- especially on the number of times Brazil's goalkeeper was called into action.

Against Zimbabwe the whole team was positioned higher -- and Brazil struggled for pace when the ball was played behind its defensive line. In particular there is a problem on the left side of its defense. The midfield is pulled over to the right -- Elano to cover Maicon, Gilberto Silva often dropping almost as a third centre back and Melo moving across to the center. Left back Michel Bastos can be isolated. Keeper Julio Cesar picked up a minor injury making a save when Zimbabwe were able to penetrate in this zone.

Against Tanzania the defensive line dropped deeper, but Gilberto Silva and Melo stayed higher up. There was space between the lines -- which proved to be a problem. At 33, Gilberto Silva can be exposed in wide open spaces, and Melo's tackling can be reckless. Tanzania caused some problems in this space, and, in the first half especially, Gomes was a busy man in the Brazilian goal.

The point needs reiterating -- it would be unwise to read too much into warmups. But there must be a little beam of hope for North Korea. If they can keep Brazil at bay for a while then the clock will start working in its favor.

Of course, the likely scenario is that Brazil will win comfortably. In addition to their technical advantage, Dunga's men should have too much sheer physical power for their opponents. And, in a group tight enough to be settled by goal difference, it is in Brazil's interests to show no mercy.

A big Brazil win would give a thrill to fans all over the world. But imagine if that opening goal doesn't come, and the North Koreans are able to stifle Brazil as the Bolivians did in Rio de Janeiro. Paradoxically, the duller this game is in terms of goal action, the more fascinating it is likely to be.