COMMENT: Two of South America's biggest stars will clash in London on Sunday in the latest Brasil Global Tour friendly ahead of this summer's Copa America in ChileBy Rupert Fryer
On Sunday at the Emirates Stadium, Brazil 'host' Chile in a showdown between two favourites for this year’s Copa America and two of the world’s most potent and flamboyant forwards: Neymar and Alexis Sanchez.
“It will be great to see Neymar and Alexis going up against one another. Both players are supremely talented and it will be a joy to watch for the fans and spectators,” former Brazil and Arsenal midfielder Edu said this month.
The pair have become talismans for their nations despite each country’s very different post-World Cup trajectory.
Brazil were left reeling by their shock 7-1 semi-final drubbing at the hands of eventual winners Germany – a defeat that led Brazilian football into a period of mourning and soul searching.
A complete overhaul of the national game was demanded by local commentators but Jose Maria Marin, the president of the Brazilian Football Confederation, turned to an old hand to resurrect the fortunes of a wounded Selecao as Dunga was handed his second chance to coach the national team.
His first major decision was to install Neymar as captain. The Barcelona forward has repaid his faith by leading a more youthful, fluid frontline to six consecutive Chevrolet Brasil Global Tour victories, scoring seven goals in the process.
For Chile, the World Cup was seen as a success despite the penalty shootout defeat suffered to Neymar and Brazil. Had Mauricio Pinilla’s late strike dipped under the bar instead of cannoning back of the woodwork, la Roja would have made the quarter-finals for the first time in half a century. Regardless, the tournament was another major step on the road to what the country hopes will be a golden period.
Coach Jorge Sampaoli has continued the work carried out by his predecessor, Marcelo Bielsa, who former international Waldo Ponce claims finally gave Chilean football its own identity with the brand of high-tempo, frenetic attacking football he developed for the World Cup in 2010.
Samapoli has further improved what many Chileans already believe to be the country’s greatest-ever team, masterminding a famous 2-0 victory over then-world champions Spain in Brazil last summer. Alexis’ emergence at Udinese, from where he earned a move to Barcelona before joining Arsenal, coincided with Bielsa’s reign with the national team and he became the poster boy of contemporary Chilean football. Like Neymar, he is in fine form, having found the net in Chile’s November friendlies against Venezuela and Uruguay.
“Alexis can be a killer in front of the goal and a nightmare for defenders but Neymar is also doing really well, he is very skilful and can make a difference with every single attack," another former Brazil and Arsenal midfielder, Gilberto Silva, said ahead of the game.
“It is really good when you have a game where both sides have these great players that go against each other, they are very attractive and can produce the football people want to watch.”
And the duo, still friends after spending last season together at Camp Nou, have aspirations beyond putting on the inevitable festival of attacking football.
With a staggering 42 goals in 60 internationals, Neymar is now fifth on the list of Brazil’s all-time top scorers, with former great Romario suggesting he will surpass Pele’s record of 77. Alexis, meanwhile, sits just 11 behind Marcelo Salas and at age 26 is well placed to become his country’s most prolific player.
They begin their quests for immortality in what certainly won’t be played out as a meaningless friendly. There are not only World Cup scores to settle, but important times ahead for two of South America’s best.
Dunga and Neymar are now looking towards qualification for the World Cup, with the coach insisting a safe passage to Russia 2018 must take precedence over a potential ninth South American crown. For Chile and Alexis, however, hosting the tournament this year presents their best chance to finally break their Copa America duck.
The weight of new-found expectation has led Sampaoli to compare the sense of anticipation in Chile with the pressure Brazil faced ahead of the World Cup. So concerned is he by what happened to the Selecao that he will take his side to Spain to prepare for the finals, far away from any potential hysteria that could engulf fans and the local media.
This is a huge year for Brazil and Chile, and Neymar and Alexis. It starts in earnest on Sunday at the Emirates Stadium and there will be no better show in town.