Just four months ahead of the World Cup, Luiz Felipe Scolari is in a pretty good place. Confidence is high in the Brazil squad, with a number of in-form players – Willian, Fernandinho, Ramires – having replaced the dead wood that lurked amid the glory of last summer’s Confederations Cup win.
The fans are united. It could even be argued that the tangle of issues surrounding Brazil’s logistical preparations for the tournament are playing into his hands, deflecting the glare of public attention away from his charges.
He has just one problem. Unfortunately, it’s a fairly major one. He hasn’t got any strikers.
Fred, the Fluminense forward, is Scolari’s first choice, and understandably so. His performances last summer showed that, for all the doubts about his game, he can lead the line against the best sides. An instinctive plunderer with the physical presence to hold the ball up, he proved the ideal foil for Neymar, Oscar and Hulk, who seemed to relish roaming around a fixed point in attack.
But Fred got injured just after the Confederations Cup and didn’t play again for the rest of 2013. He is now making tentative steps for Flu, but form and fitness still look some way off; he hasn’t scored a goal at any level for six months. Scolari will wait for his talisman, of course, but the signs don’t look especially positive at the moment.
Former Manchester City flop Jô is likely to be in the squad, having shone for Atlético Mineiro over the past year and proven himself a capable back-up for Fred. But most would feel uneasy about heading into the World Cup with him as first choice, not least because he seems better suited to being a physical Plan B for when more direct football is required.
After those two, things drop off worryingly. Leandro Damião, once seen as the great white hope for the Brazil frontline, endured an underwhelming 2013 and hasn’t pulled up any trees since joining Santos in the off-season. Some are even calling for Scolari to consider Walter – a talented player but one who midway through last season weighed 96kg.
There is one name missing in all this, of course. Alexandre Pato, in Europe at least, has long been viewed as the natural heir to Brazil’s attacking throne, despite the injuries that marred his career in Europe. His reputation, until very recently, preceded him; when it became clear he was keen on a return to his homeland, Corinthians didn’t hesitate to stump up a staggering £12.4 million for his services.
But Pato has been woeful in the last year, going weeks and months at a time without scoring and otherwise running around like a lost boy. Increasingly, he is being seen as a charlatan – a player carried along by a global standing he did little to earn in the first place.
This was certainly the thrust of an opinion piece written by former Seleção forward Tostão last week, which described Pato as a “fragmented” footballer. “There’s a disconnect between his technical ability and his movement and positioning,” mused the Cruzeiro idol. “He’s divided in parts that never come together.”
A move to São Paulo may improve things; his toxic relationship with the Corinthians faithful can hardly have made him feel welcome there, after all. But the chances of him making a late charge for a World Cup spot look remote.
Scolari, then, is left with little option but to cross his fingers for Fred. If the former Lyon man doesn’t make it, he may feel forced to shunt Neymar further forward – a move that hasn’t proven especially successful in the past. With judgement day looming, it’s a headache the Seleção chief could do without.
Jack Lang - @snap_kaka_pop