Brazil continues turnaround, faces Uruguay on cusp of World Cup qualification

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Wednesday March 22nd, 2017

SAO PAULO (AP) — The last time Brazil's national team won six World Cup qualifiers in a row, it went on to lift the trophy in 1970 in Mexico—its second of five titles.

Coach Tite's team is far from that level, and Neymar is not Pele. But a victory in Uruguay on Thursday could secure Brazil's place at next year's World Cup in Russia. If not, qualification should follow next week against Paraguay.

One thing is clear: after its biggest humiliation, Brazil is back.

The 7-1 loss to Germany in the 2014 World Cup semifinals has become an increasingly distant memory since Brazil beat top sides such as Argentina and Colombia. The emergence of new players like striker Gabriel Jesus has also helped to motivate the squad after its crushing defeat.

Under new coach Tite, Brazil is now so confident of its prospects that it has scheduled a friendly away to Germany next year.

Even teams that used to brag about having a positive record against Brazil now sound more concerned. That's the case with Uruguay and Paris Saint-Germain striker Edinson Cavani, who will face Brazil on Thursday in Montevideo.

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"The difficult moment that Brazil went through taught them lessons. They have a new way of playing and they made changes that brought more balance, more continuity to their national team," Cavani told reporters.

Brazilian players have the same feeling.

"Wherever I go with Inter Milan now they say good things about us, ask about our coach," defender Miranda said. "The opponents now feel that this is the Brazil of always. A team widely respected, strong and always a candidate to achieve big things."

Before September, many Brazilians feared their team would not qualify for the World Cup for the first time. Since then, a more intense and creative style has emerged. It has produced six wins in six matches and 17 goals in South American qualifiers. Fourteen of those came after assists, a sign that Brazilian teamwork has improved.

Brazil has also conceded just one goal in that stretch, an own-goal in a 2-1 victory over Colombia.

The old reliance on Neymar has vanished. Striker Jesus, who will miss the next matches because of a broken toe, scored five goals in World Cup qualifiers, one more than the Barcelona star. Midfielder Philippe Coutinho added another two goals, arriving from spaces opened up by the front duo. Six other players also scored.

The number of exchanged passes also points to a different Brazil in Russia next year.

Under former coach Dunga, the average was 431 passes per game, according to figures from Brazil's football confederation. Now it's 474. Scoring opportunities have also risen, from 12.5 to 14.5, and players have said the coach's 4-1-4-1 tactics allow them to create much higher-quality chances, and closer to goal.

Several national team coaches have praised Brazil's form, including Germany's Joachim Loew and Argentina's Edgardo Bauza. The most recent is Uruguay's Oscar Tabarez.

"Brazil leads the pack, they are playing great football," Tabarez told a news conference. "They have more than Neymar. They have midfielders that recover the ball and score. They will be in contention in Russia."

Brazil was much less impressive under Dunga, who was fired in June 2016. He took over from Luiz Felipe Scolari after the debacle against Germany in Belo Horizonte in 2014.

Brazil was languishing in sixth place in the 10-team qualifying standings for South America before September, following two wins, three draws and one loss. The team had scored 11 goals and conceded eight. Fans booed not only the bad results, but also the predictable game plan.

Now Brazil is top of the standings, with a four-point lead over second-place Uruguay.

Under Tite, the defense has become rock solid with Dani Alves, Marquinhos, Miranda and Marcelo, a back four that also has the protection of midfielder Casemiro.

However, goalkeeper Alisson, until recently a reserve at Roma, is still seen as a liability.

The rest of Tite's midfield is yet to be figured out, with Paulinho, Fernandinho and Renato Augusto fighting for two positons. Liverpool's Coutinho meanwhile faces competition from Chelsea's Willian.

But Brazil's quality of play and the string of victories in recent World Cup qualifier give Tite enormous latitude.

A World Cup winner with Brazil in 1994 and Scolari's assistant in the 7-1 German hammering, Carlos Alberto Parreira calls Tite "a magician or a wizard."

"We went from out of the World Cup to first place," he said in a recent interview with ESPN Brasil. "Brazil is now finishing these qualifiers as a favorite for the World Cup title."

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