Recent Champions League games have whetted the appetite for this year’s World Cup – an edition where the top players will not be suffering from end-of-season summer burnout but instead will be close to peak fitness once the tournament starts in November.
That is a worrying thought for defenders – perhaps especially those who are coming up against France. Four years ago in Russia, France won the title without the services of Karim Benzema. The Real Madrid centre-forward has since been welcomed back to the national team and seems to be in the form of his life.
Brazil will be taking note. They sailed through South America’s World Cup qualifiers, but are well aware that the real tests in Qatar will likely come from Europe.
Since they last won the World Cup in 2002, every Brazil campaign has come to an end as soon as they ran up against a European side in the knockout stages. In 2006, it was France who brought the party to a close — just as it had been in the final of the 1998 tournament. Les Bleus are likely to present a major threat in Qatar – as Benzema has been busy reminding Brazilian defenders.
For a while, it was common in Brazil to hear that World Cup qualification was more difficult than the tournament. In 17 qualifying matches — the home match against Argentina has still to be played – Brazil conceded just five goals. Argentina’s statistics are also impressive as the emergence of goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez and Cristian Romero at centre-back saw La Albiceleste allow just two goals in the last 10 rounds. But there is a difference. Argentina have needed occasional heroics from Martinez. Brazil, meanwhile, have not even looked like conceding goals.
Benzema in the Champions League, therefore, has come as a timely warning. In the round of 16 tie of this year’s Champions League against Paris Saint-Germain, Benzema managed to ruffle the usually unflappable Marquinhos into some uncharacteristic mistakes. Brazil coach Tite would have watched with some interest and a little alarm as his top-choice centre-back was flustered by Benzema’s magic.
There seems little doubt that Marquinhos will be Tite’s first choice in Qatar. When the team qualified for Russia 2018 in such impressive style, the centre-back partnership was Marquinhos and the more rugged Miranda.
Come the tournament, Tite felt that he had to find space for Thiago Silva and Marquinhos, very unfairly, was the man to drop out. It is a decision that still plays on the mind of the coach.
Miranda and Silva did well together. But a price was clearly paid for leaving out the fastest defender, and the bill came in the quarterfinal, when Belgium went hunting for Brazil in the first half and built up a lead that O Seleçaõ was just unable to pull back after the interval.
This time, then, Marquinhos plays. But who will be his partner? Silva is the front-runner. But if Benzema hustled Marquinhos, he did worse to Silva in the epic quarterfinal tie against Chelsea. Now 37, Silva has inevitably lost some pace. Chelsea coach Thomas Tuchel, who knows Silva well from their time together at PSG, came up with a solution — Silva in the middle of the back three, where his defensive class could be displayed in reduced space.
But in the first leg at Stamford Bridge, Real Madrid imposed their game. The speed of Vinicius Junior took care of Andreas Christensen – to such an extent that Reece James had to fulfil the function in the return game. And, crucially, the lung-busting power of Federico Valverde on the other flank drew out Antonio Rudiger, the key man in the Chelsea defence.
Silva was left isolated against Benzema, and there were no doubts about the winner of that duel. After half-time Chelsea tightened up – but the closing stages of the second leg provided more food for thought for Brazil’s coach. He was taken out once more by a cross for Real’s first goal – but so perfect was the ball from Luka Modric that it would be harsh to apportion blame.
The decisive second goal, though, is more problematic. Naturally worried by the pace of his compatriot Vinicius, Silva stood off a little too far – in the penalty area, where real estate matters. He was not close enough to hurry the winger or block the little dink into the box which was gleefully headed home by Benzema to send Madrid into the semifinals. It was a goal that must surely have given Tite flashbacks to the loss to Belgium and the importance of defensive speed in a team looking to play high up the field.
Tite is frank about the choice ahead of him. Does he go with Silva, or with Eder Militao – who has the good fortune to play alongside Benzema in Madrid and only has to face the French striker in training. Militao was suspended for the second leg – and he was badly missed.
In the Bernabeu, many of Chelsea’s inroads came through the right side of the Madrid defence – and it also seemed at one point that Chelsea’s superiority in the air would carry the day. The yellow card that forced him out of the game came early at Stamford Bridge, when he slipped in possession. Perhaps the outstanding point was the speed of his recovery. He managed to hurl himself goal-side – illegally, as the referee judged.
But the very capacity to recover is precisely what makes him such an interesting option. Certainly, Brazil have managed to defend higher up the field most effectively when Militao has been partnering Marquinhos.
In the six World Cup qualifiers where they played together, Brazil did not concede a single goal. Might that be the partnership best equipped to repel the best that the rest of the planet can throw at them in Qatar?
Note: This article is written by Tim Vickery and has been published at ESPN FC