MOSCOW, Russian Federation, Mar 22 – Training between mounds of snow without Neymar, Brazil may be forgiven for feeling out of their element as they prepare to face hosts Russia in their penultimate World Cup warmup.
The most expensive football player on the planet is back home, celebrating his sister’s birthday with his famous right foot recovering from surgery in a protective boot.
But things are deadly serious in Moscow, where the Selecao play on Friday at the Luzhniki Stadium in which they will hope to lift a record sixth World Cup trophy on July 15.
Coach Tite will try to make sure his superstars have learned from the unmitigated disaster of their 7-1 drubbing by Germany, whom Brazil play on Tuesday, on home soil back in 2014.
That fateful World Cup semi-final four years ago was played without the injured Neymar or suspended centre-back Thiago Silva.
Now, as then, Brazil are looking vulnerable in defence and missing their 26-year-old hero.
Paris Saint-Germain forward Neymar “is a different player. He is one of the top three in the world,” said Tite.
“But a strong team should not depend on specific names.”
– Fighting for a spot –
Without Neymar, Tite is entrusting the left wing to Juventus’s in-form Douglas Costa.
The 27-year-old is in the prime of his career after spending much of it tucked away in Ukraine playing for Shakhtar Donetsk.
Costa has only found the net three times in 22 appearances in a yellow jersey but this is his time to shine, and he does not seem phased by the occasion.
“Replacing Neymar is an enormous challenge, but we have a lot of class acts on the team who have big potential,” said Costa.
“Neymar’s absence gives the other players a chance to show themselves, to show their best side.”
Costa will be paired up front with Chelsea’s graceful winger Willian and Gabriel Jesus, who has scored 11 times for Manchester City this season.
It is a dizzying array of stars and Real Madrid midfielder Casemiro may have put it most succinctly when contemplating the effect of such strong internal competition.
“I do not want to lose my place to anyone,” said Casemiro.
“I want to play for my country, play in all the matches, and I am ready to show my best at training to do it.”
If Tite is spending any sleepless nights, it might not be because of Neymar’s absence but due to his defence.
Despite boasting a trio of Neymar’s PSG teammates: Silva, Marquinhos and Dani Alves, Brazil have a weakness at left-back should something happen to Real Madrid’s Marcelo.
His regular replacement Filipe Luis suffered a broken leg playing for Atletico Madrid last week and is expected to be out for two months.
Third choice Alex Sandro of Italian champions Juventus was injured during the first training session in Moscow.
As a result, Tite had to call up the uncapped 28-year-old Ismaily — named after an obscure 1956 British film called “Smiley”.
He is a complete unknown in his homeland and his selection was perhaps more due to his geographic proximity — he plays for Shakhtar Donetsk in Ukraine — than anything else.
Rio’s Globo Esporte newspaper pointed out incredulously that Ismaily was the 10th left-back called up by Tite since he took over in 2014.
Despite the problems, and temperatures due to drop to -9 Celsius (16 Fahrenheit) in Moscow, Brazil are hoping to leave a legacy.
“We will be playing in the stadium that will host the final, and we want to leave a wish,” said Casemiro.
“We want to come back here in the summer and try to win the title.”