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World Cup 2018

Brazil vs Mexico: Are There Better Options than a Half-Fit Neymar?

Some say that the hardest job in football is that of a manager. Irrespective of what has happened on the pitch, the buck for a result usually rests firmly at the feet of the man in the dugout and with that comes the immense pressure to make the right calls.

During his tenure as Brazil manager, Tite hasn’t shied away from making bold decisions if they benefit the team. He brought Paulinho into his set-up when he was still plying his trade in the Chinese Super League – a move that surprised many due to the usual hesitance of national team coaches to call up players that are not playing in Europe’s top five leagues.

In addition to this, he showed enormous faith in a Gabriel Jesus, who was still just a teenager, to lead their front line during World Cup qualification. Both these decisions went on to pay dividends as Brazil went on to become the first team to qualify for the 2018 World Cup by finishing top in the South American qualifiers and 10 points clear of Uruguay in second place.

However, with their last-16 match with Mexico on the horizon, it may be time for Tite to make the bravest decision of his managerial career yet by leaving out Neymar for the benefit of the team.

Trying too hard to be the Difference

One of the main reasons cited in the media for Neymar’s highly-publicised move from Barcelona to Paris Saint-Germain was his desire to step out of the shadow of Lionel Messi and become a star in his own right. No longer was he just another member of the supporting cast in the story of Messi, at the Parc des Princes he had finally become the main man; the crown jewel in Nasser Al-Khelaifi’s embarrassment of riches.

With his newfound status as the most marketable asset in world football came the added pressure to stamp his authority on Ligue 1. In his first season in the French capital, he rose to the occasion and finished 1st and 3rd in the assist and goal-scoring charts respectively, in a season that was curtailed by injury.

His success in Paris has gone a large way to silence his detractors, but may have also brought out the worst in him ahead of the World Cup. After watching his performances in the group stages, it appears as though he is too desperate to be the main attraction.

It is completely natural that a high-profile player wants to stand out on the world stage, and all players are guilty of sometimes over-playing the ball by taking a few extra touches, but the way Neymar has played has bordered on narcissistic. Some of his decision-making has been questionable, to say the least, and, frankly, his “I can do it all because I’m better than you” attitude is insulting to his teammates. The most damning statistic from his performance in the group stages is that he has lost possession of the ball 84 times in just 3 games, which is indicative of his desire to write the headlines rather than just be content to be a part of them.

A somewhat mitigating factor in all of this is that the expectation on him to turn in a match-winning performance every time he steps on the field is immense, but it is about time someone in the Brazil camp told him that he doesn’t have to shoulder the expectations of a nation alone.

Better Options than a Half-fit Neymar?

Neymar came into the tournament following a three-and-a-half-month lay-off due to a metatarsal injury he picked up whilst playing for PSG, and the general consensus amongst pundits is that he still doesn’t look completely fit.

So far in the tournament, the likes of Roberto Firmino, a vital cog in the Liverpool side that reached the Champions League final, and Fred, Manchester United’s latest superstar signing, have been routinely left on the substitute bench and you have to question why. Neymar will, like nearly all players, want to play every game he possibly can and there’s no doubting his dedication to the national team, but it’s the manager’s job to do what’s best for the team. At the moment, at least, it looks as though giving him a rest and allowing someone else to showcase their talents will be the most beneficial in the long run.

You could argue that Neymar shouldn’t be left out by simply pointing to the team’s humiliation at the hands of Germany during the 2014 World Cup, where a Neymar-less Brazil capitulated under the pressure of his absence. However, the circumstances are completely different this time. There had been talk of him not being completely fit far before this tournament had even started, so the other players have had time to, at the very least subconsciously, mentally prepare themselves to play without him.

After their clash with Mexico, it is likely that Brazil will have to contend with a much sterner test in the form of an undefeated Belgium team where they will need Neymar firing on all cylinders. With that in mind, it isn’t too outlandish to suggest that maybe he should be left out to further recuperate as they head into the latter stages of the competition. Overall, it’s clear that leaving out one of the best footballers of the modern era ahead of a World Cup knock-out match would be a largely unprecedented risk, but it may just be the difference between a victory and another embarrassing early exit.

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