The unsung heroes behind Brazil’s route to the Copa America final
In a routine night of football, Brazil beat Peru 1-0 to qualify for their second straight Copa America final.
Brazil took the lead on the half hour mark and then never looked like surrendering their advantage against a Peru side solidly missing star striker Paolo Guerrero. The win puts them back into the Copa America final as they look to retain their title for the first time since 2007.
Obviously everyone knows Neymar is the star of the side and yet again the Brazilian took centre-stage with an absolutely ludicrous assist to set-up the match-winning goal. The way he nutmegged Alexander Callens so ruthlessly was a testament to his genius as he has well and truly re-established how essential he is to Brazil after many had questioned that status following Brazil’s 2019 Copa America triumph without him.
But who, besides Neymar, has been helping Brazil back to the Copa America final? Obviously big names like Casemiro, Thiago Silva, Alisson and Marquinhos, but who else? Who are the unsung heroes behind Brazil’s success?
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It’s hard to imagine that Lucas Paqueta will get the credit he deserves even as he has scored the two goals that have taken Brazil to the Copa America final. He notched seconds after coming on against Chile in the quarter-final and scored from the start against Peru tonight. However because of the glorious assists from Neymar on both goals, and the hard-fought nature of the wins, the sheer impact of the goals themselves will be overlooked in favour of hyping up the Neymar vs. Messi narrative.
Paqueta isn’t the most fashionable name in football; a failed stint at AC Milan has led him Lyon, who are basically fine. He’s not blowing anyone’s mind but his ability to get forward into key attacking areas and finish off chances is massive for Brazil. Neymar is so often in need of someone to link with in the final third and Paqueta is fast becoming his go-to man.
Neymar and Paqueta have linked up for two goals in two games and the midfielder has the decisive quarter and semi-final strikes. He also plays well beyond the goal, offering some truly penetrative passing in behind the opponents; he cut Peru open on more than one occasion and Brazil should have scored from his balls. Now he’s in the final, and if he can deliver a third consecutive goal for Brazil he just might make the jump from unsung to having a chorus of fans loudly proclaiming his genius wherever he goes.
While Casemiro is easily the second-biggest “name” in this Brazil team after Neymar and will always draw praise and appreciation for his contribution, his midfield partner Fred is not afforded the same generous appraisal of his contribution. Now on the face of it that makes perfect sense: Casemiro is amazing and has won countless trophies with Real Madrid, while Fred is basically sort of alright and has been to a bunch of semi-finals with Manchester United.
But Fred is a hugely important part of Tite’s Brazil. His partnership with Casemiro at the base of midfield is fundamental in providing a defensive shield to protect the defence from pressure. Fred covers so much ground in the middle, hustling and harrying opponents into making mistakes and turning the ball over. He’s a huge part of why Brazil have conceded just one goal in the five games he has played (the squad was mass-rotated for the 1-1 draw with Ecuador) at the 2021 Copa America.
Fred is a pure energy guy, covering the gaps left in Neymar’s wake on that left half-space as the main man can’t bring himself to do things like track back and defend. Fred has Neymar’s back, and while his progressive passing is nothing special he is well versed in the simple art of “pass it to Neymar” which is Brazil’s primary mode of attack anyway.
When Neymar won the 2011 Copa Libertadores, he wasn’t alone out there in terms of elite prospects. There were four young “cracks” in that Santos side and one of them was Danilo, the versatile full-back who actually scored in the second-leg of the final.
Fast-forward a decade and Danilo never quite reached the potential that tie against Penarol promised, but he’s had a solid career and has now sort of quietly slipped into the gargantuan shoes of Dani Alves. And sure, Danilo is no Dani Alves – that’s why he’s unsung, he can’t possibly match-up to the world-defining genius that came before him. That doesn’t mean he isn’t just really solid though.
Danilo can defend, and he’s useful in attack as well. He can hold width but is no slouch in the passing game. He just quietly goes about his business and helps Brazil constantly be better.
Yeah, no seriously. With his bleached blonde hair and ridiculous catalogue of misses it’d be easy to dismiss Richarlison as some Copa America oddity but honestly he is a massive part of the way Brazil play. With Neymar dominating on the ball, the Selecao are desperate for someone to keep running in behind and stretch defences that way; Richarlison does that.
The Everton striker doesn’t mind running into brick walls or down blind alleys if that will benefit the team. He doesn’t mind not always getting the ball, he’ll play wide on either flank if he has to and do a decent job there. He’s an absolute workhorse who will run himself into the ground for the team however long he’s on the field; there’s a reason Tite starts him all the time even though his goal output is inconsistent. He’s essential to the energy that drive’s Tite-ball.