Gustavo, not Willian, is the right man to replace Neymar
Willian doesn't have the steel to stop Germany's midfield, says our man in Brazil
BRAZIL v GERMANY
(Tomorrow, 4am, SingTel mio TV Ch 141, StarHub TV Ch 223 & MediaCorp okto)
Conspiracy theorists are foaming at the mouth.
Willian was spotted playing in Neymar's position during a final training session in Rio de Janeiro this morning (Singapore time) before Brazil headed to Belo Horizonte.
As the Chelsea midfielder pulled on his training bib and headed out to the right, eagle-eyed observers joined the dots.
He's the new Neymar. He will be tasked with taking down those Teutonic titans tomorrow morning (Singapore time). Willian is waiting on the wing.
But Willian is not an adequate replacement for Neymar. A keen, honest performer, he is a drama undergraduate replacing Daniel Day Lewis. He can learn his lines, but the range is limited.
He lacks the gravitas for such a grand occasion. Both Neymar and Willian are slight in physical stature, but Neymar is a colossus on the biggest stage.
The Germans are not likely to fear Willian.
In their pivotal performance against France, Germany successfully fused the formidable values of traditional Die Mannschaft sides with Joachim Loew's insistence on aesthetically pleasing football.
Representing their disillusioned readers back home, the German media had grown tired of being all dressed up with nowhere to go.
They had flattered in three consecutive tournaments, but deceived in the semi-finals. A fourth anti-climactic exit would not be tolerated. The World Cup had to come before the wizardry.
Loew finally listened. He pushed Philipp Lahm into his usual right-back role and bolstered central midfield with Toni Kroos, Sami Khedira and Bastian Schweinsteiger.
The lackadaisical Mario Goetze was sacrificed to accommodate the more industrious Thomas Mueller and Miroslav Klose. Even Mesut Oezil tracked back when the mood took him.
Loew's changes reinvigorated the Germans. Brazil face a daunting barricade of human resilience.
Only Neymar possessed the stonemasonry skills to pick away at the Teutonic wall, probing for weak spots and hairline cracks. The injured winger boasted the ingenuity to potentially bring down the entire edifice.
In comparison, Willian could resemble a desperate Cold War protester in the 1960s, trying to take down the Berlin Wall with a toothpick.
Rather than fixate on a like-for-like replacement for the irreplaceable Neymar, Brazil should perhaps focus on a like-for-like match-up between the two teams.
The Selecao's superior showing against Colombia was also the one closest in style and tone to Scolari's typical template.
Midfield aggression was fuelled by a punishing approach that skirted the fringes of sportsmanship and occasionally went over the line with studs raised.
Scolari loved the performance. He praised the passion and found positives in Brazil's new-found forcefulness.
Samba was replaced with suffocating soccer. Even Neymar drifted to the game's periphery, a lone aesthete watching on as his teammates went about asphyxiating their opponents.
Scolari always indulged Neymar; the arch pragmatist acknowledging that genius usually overcomes the imperfections of its own inconsistency.
But that same pragmatism should recognise Germany's midfield superiority. Willian's tricks, inferior or otherwise, are swiftly rendered redundant if he doesn't have access to a magic box.
Like the war of attrition against the Colombians, whoever wins the battle around the centre circle wins a ticket to Rio.
Lost in the white noise surrounding Willian is the Selecao's silent saviour.
He says little and is recoginsed even less - a local variety TV programme here showed his photo to Rio residents who all failed to identity him - but Luiz Gustavo plugs more leaks than a compulsive plumber.
The Willian debate neatly encapsulates Gustavo's relative anonymity, but also undermines his value. He stubbornly shuns fame, but never a tackle.
Suspended for the Colombia game, one of Scolari's favourite players will be welcomed back, fit, rested and ready to throw a spanner in Germany's efficient works.
Scolari's slightly cautious template depends on Gustavo's heavy industry.
In his 390 minutes on World Cup pitches, he has covered 46.1 kilometres, a distance bettered only by Marcelo, Neymar and Oscar, who have all played more minutes.
In four games, Gustavo has recovered the ball 34 times - surpassing every other Brazilian, despite playing a game less.
More pertinently, he was schooled in the Bundesliga. Beginning with Hoffenheim and winning the title and the Champions League with Bayern Munich before moving on to Wolfsburg, he is intimately acquainted with almost every German in Loew's squad.
Gustavo can bring down the house that Kroos, Khedira and Schweinsteiger built against France. Alongside Fernandinho and Paulinho, who both excelled against Colombia, Gustavo completes a tenacious triumvirate.
Scolari's preferred 4-3-3 solidifies central midfield and masks the defensive shortcomings of Fred, Oscar and Hulk. There is even the option of swopping Willian for the ineffective Fred and pushing Hulk through the middle.
Either way, Brazil's road to Rio rests not with the Chelsea winger, but with a quiet, mustachioed midfielder.
Brazilians fail to recognise Luiz Gustavo now. But they might after tomorrow morning.
You can’t compare Neymar to any other player, he has a lot of quality. I have a different style. He is more of a striker, scores more goals, while my strong suit is to set up my teammates. I am ready and, if I am chosen, I will do my very best.
— Brazil’s Willian, ready to step into Neymar’s boots
Scolari: Win it for Neymar
Brazil coach Luiz Felipe Scolari has urged his squad to use star striker Neymar's loss as motivation when they face Germany in the semi-finals of the World Cup tomorrow morning (Singapore time).
The 22-year-old will miss the remainder of the tournament after suffering a broken vertebra towards the end of his side's 2-1 quarter-final win against Colombia.
"I think the additional motivation we must have in every match is going up another step and getting closer to our objective of the final," Scolari said this morning.
"The way Neymar spoke to the players made them understand that he had done his share and now we need to do our share.
"Myself, the other players, all the Brazilian people. This match is very important, it could take us to the final.
"We are playing for our country, it is everything we imagined and dreamed of, and also for Neymar."
Scolari's roughhouse tactics in getting his side into the last four have been heavily criticised as they committed a tournament-high 31 fouls in overcoming Colombia.
And the former Chelsea boss admitted that they haven't gone about their business in the most attractive style on home soil.
"We are doing everything step-by-step, not always in the most beautiful way but we are getting closer to playing the final at home and so everything is as scheduled."
Meanwhile, Brazil captain Thiago Silva, who is suspended for the semi-final, has backed his likely replacement, Bayern Munich's Dante, to do well.
As the captain left the pitch after the Colombia match, he embraced Dante and spoke to him.
Said Silva: "I said 'This might be your moment to go out there and show all your skills'.
"He was one of the first players to greet me, and I said 'Look, the opportunity will arise'.
"But it's up to the coach to select him. Dante's definitely ready.
"He's someone who works very hard. He's one of the first to get to training and one of the last to leave." - Wire Services.
“The way Neymar spoke to the players made them understand that he had done his share and now we need to do our share.”
- Brazil coach Luiz Felipe Scolari