By Robbie Blakeley, Senior Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – The Seleção Brasileira (Brazil’s national team) is set to play its final two international friendlies of 2013 as coach Luiz Felipe Scolari continues his on-field efforts to find the winning formula for next year’s World Cup. This Saturday, November 16th, Brazil will take on Honduras at the Sun Life Stadium in Miami, Florida.
Three days later on November 19th, the Seleção faces fellow South Americans Chile at the Rogers Centre in Toronto, Canada. They might be friendlies, but the games will be hugely important for national coach Luiz Felipe Scolari as he whittles down the possibilities for his final 23-man squad to be named at the end of May.
Scolari admitted last month he has “six or seven places to fill” in the cast that simply must deliver a sixth World Cup title to the nation. The pressure on the players and coaching staff ahead of Brazil’s first home World Cup since the devastating defeat in the final of 1950 will be a huge obstacle to overcome, making squad selection crucial.
As a result there are some experimental names on the team-sheets as players use the friendlies as auditions for the grand finale. The squad’s core will feature those who helped Brazil to a third successive Confederations Cup crown in June, but Scolari must still fill in the potentially tournament-changing blanks.
One of those positions is the third goalkeeper. Scolari has confirmed QPR stopper Júlio César will be his first-choice as the unsettled 33-year-old begins the hunt for a new club in January. Botafogo’s Jefferson looks likely to be his understudy and Scolari has called up Atlético-MG goalkeeper Victor for the friendlies, giving him the edge over Fluminense’s Diego Cavalieri.
The full-back positions look closed; Dani Alves and Marcelo will be starters with Maicon and Maxwell in reserve after Marcelo pulled out of the squad through injury.
Scolari does, however, need to find a fourth center-back to make his defense complete. Having already tried several names, this time it is the turn of Paris Saint-Germain’s nineteen-year-old Marquinhos to stake a claim. The teenager is highly rated in Europe and should get an opportunity to show that he is ready to make the step up to the international stage.
Another clue is the recall of Chelsea’s Willian to the midfield. The 25-year-old playmaker hasn’t worn the yellow jersey in over two years but his strong form for the West London side has given him a late chance of a place in Scolari’s World Cup squad.
The imposing Hulk, who has occupied the right side of a three-pronged attack behind a lone centre forward, has not performed convincingly for his country and, yet to score under Scolari, his place looks in jeopardy.
It is in that attack where the coach’s biggest problems lie. His first choice, Fred, is out injured with no confirmed return date, a major blow after he top-scored with five goals at the Confederations Cup. Brazil-born Diego Costa, last week opted to play for his adopted Spain, leaving Scolari with a headache as the likes of Pato and Atlético MG’s Jô remain unproven at the top level. The latter has scored in games against Australia and Portugal, however, and could be seen as a decent like-for-like replacement for Fred.
The next two friendlies are set to provide the young hopefuls with a huge opportunity to show that they can make the grade on the most demanding of stages; the 2014 World Cup, as the period of experimenting draws to an end and the serious business of lifting the cup takes over.
Brazil’s friendlies squad in full:
Goalkeepers: Júlio César (QPR), Victor (Atlético-MG)
Defenders: Dani Alves (Barcelona), Maicon (Roma), Thiago Silva (PSG), David Luiz (Chelsea), Dante (Bayern Munich), Marquinhos (PSG), Maxwell (PSG)
Midfielders: Ramires (Chelsea), Oscar (Chelsea), Paulinho (Tottenham), Hernanes (Lazio), Lucas Leiva (Liverpool), Luiz Gustavo (Wolfsburg), Bernard (Shakhtar Donetsk), Willian (Chelsea)
Forwards: Robinho (AC Milan), Neymar (Barcelona), Hulk (Zenit St. Petersburg), Jô (Atlético-MG)