As countries from every corner of the globe fought for their places at the 2014 World Cup this weekend, the hosts of next summer’s tournament had a rather more relaxed assignment. The Never-Ending Friendlies Tour (sounds like a Wedding Present album, that) took Brazil to the Far East, where they beat South Korea and Zambia.
Neither game was particularly alluring. The first, in Seoul’s imaginatively named World Cup Stadium, was a scruffy, niggly affair, lit up only by a Neymar free-kick and a typically assured finish from Oscar. From there, Luiz Felipe Scolari and his charges hopped over to Beijing to see off the Copper Bullets with a businesslike display.
The matches underlined plenty that we already knew. David Luiz, excellent against South Korea, is becoming a real on-pitch leader for the Seleção, organising the defence in the absence of the injured Thiago Silva.
Neymar, buoyed by his freshman success in Catalonia, is shouldering more and more responsibility in attack, giving the side a daring, vital thrust in the final third.
There was also evidence that Scolari will stick with the 4-2-3-1 formation that worked so well at the Confederations Cup. The 4-1-4-1 employed in the friendly wins over Australia and Portugal last month will be stored as a rainy-day option, to be wheeled out if – heaven forbid – Oscar gets injured.
Lucas Leiva – who made his first Brazil appearance since 2011 – and Ramires were both given time to impress. The former could prove the most able understudy to Luiz Gustavo in the coming months, with former Grêmio (and now Shakhtar Donetsk) powerhouse Fernando his main competition.
Ramires, meanwhile, seems to have been forgiven for the unfortunate misunderstanding that saw him left out of the Confederations Cup squad. The midfielder was missing when the squad convened in Geneva for the friendly against Italy in March, having decided to stay in London for treatment on a knock.
The ever-truculent Scolari took it personally and wielded the axe, prompting the player’s wife to take to the internet and brand the CFB a “mafia” (which, in truth, is far more accurate than many would care to admit).
That seemed unlikely to help Ramires’s cause, but his athleticism and versatility have proven too useful to ignore on a long-term basis. He could even wrestle a starting spot away from Hulk before the big kick-off next summer (although he should be careful; no one likes Hulk when he’s angry).
But it wasn’t all sunshine and smiles this week, with some fringe players fluffing their lines. Such was the case with Lucas Moura and Alexandre Pato, both of whom flattered to deceive against Zambia. The former’s stock has fallen markedly in Brazil over the last few months, with some suggesting that he may even slip out of Scolari’s plans.
Pato, meanwhile, is really only in contention due to the paucity of other options available in attack. He has contributed very little since returning to Brazil with Corinthians and must be aware that past glories won’t prop him up for ever, even if he does stay injury-free.
These, though, are only minor concerns for Scolari. Eight months before the World Cup, he already has 17 or 18 players he knows he can count on, a system that clearly suits his best players, and a side capable of winning in second gear, as they did this week.
Misplaced confidence can be a harbinger of doom, but you have to say that things are looking up.
Jack Lang writes about Brazilian football for the Guardian, ESPN FC, When Saturday Comes and WhoScored, among others.
Follow him on Twitter: @snap_kaka_pop