Copa America: Neymar's absence could be a blessing in disguise for hosts Brazil

Neymar
With Neymar gone, there will be less of a circus atmosphere around the Brazilian squad and the focus will be firmly on the pitch. File photo: Reuters
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Sao Paulo: Brazil expect to win every tournament they play, especially at home, but they go into this weekend’s Copa America without their talisman Neymar and lacking some of the sparkle that has long been their stock in trade.

They have not lost since Belgium dumped them out of the 2018 World Cup in the quarterfinals, but their 10-game unbeaten run – with the exception of last week’s 7-0 drubbing of 10-man Honduras - has come largely without the usual flair.

Brazil's preparations for the Copa have been overshadowed by Neymar -- firstly the rape allegations against the striker, which he has denied, and then the ankle injury that ruled him out of the tournament last week.

Tite's squad is as good as any in the tournament, but the coach is trying to manage a generational change and said that choosing his squad of 23 players was the "most difficult" task he had faced since taking over three years ago.

Brazil have included only 14 of the squad that went to the World Cup in Russia a year ago, with Everton’s Richarlison, David Neres of Ajax Amsterdam and midfielders Artur of Barcelona and Luca Paqueta of AC Milan among the young recruits.

Apart from home advantage, they are fortunate to be in one of the easier groups with Bolivia, Peru and Venezuela.

The big question will be how they cope without Neymar, but his absence could be a blessing in disguise. With the Paris St-Germain forward gone, there will be less of a circus atmosphere around the squad and the focus will be firmly on the pitch.

His teammates will want to show they can do it without their undisputed leader and they may also take the opportunity to show their solidarity and try to win the trophy for Neymar.

The win over Honduras in their last warm-up game, with Philippe Coutinho resurgent and six different players getting their names on the scoresheet, was an encouraging sign.

Brazil have won the Copa America eight times, but not since 2007 and that trophy drought – compounded by a failure to win the World Cup since 2002 - is a long one by Brazilian standards.

Fans expect a home triumph and, even though the president of the Brazilian Football Confederation last week said Tite’s job was safe no matter what happens, fans will not spare him unless Brazil win, or lose playing beautiful football.

But the coach was his usual inscrutable self when asked what he hoped to achieve over the next three weeks.

"We are playing in our own country, and expectations are high that we win," he said. "But the expectation corresponds to how we perform. Are we going to win? I don’t know. But I want us to do the best we can."

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