By Daniel Edwards in Cordoba
If Brazil's Dani Alves engages with the press in the coming days, you can be certain that platitudes about football being a team game, and that Copa America titles being won with a squad not individuals, will be soon to follow. Inside, however, the Barcelona full-back must have watched the Ecuador game with an ever-increasing sense of dread as he sensed a lengthy spell on the Selecao bench could be on the horizon.
An automatic choice for Mano Menezes since the ex-Corinthians boss took charge, Alves must have thought that his perpetual battle for ownership of the right flank with Maicon had come to an end. Two poor performances in Argentina, however, forced Mano to withdraw Alves for the decider with Ecuador, and the Inter man did not so much grab his chance as secure it in a vice-like grip.
The headlines will speak of Pato and Neymar both grabbing well-taken doubles in the 4-2 win over Ecuador, securing Brazil's place at the head of Group B; but the architect of the triumph and the best player on the pitch was Maicon. Bombing up and down the right touchline almost at will, he provided the attacking thrust that an out-of-sorts Dani could not against Paraguay and Venezuela. He left the Estadio Mario Kempes with one glorious assist to his name, but there could have been many more had it not been for less-than-exemplary finishing at times from the frontmen.
But his contribution went much further than mere statistics. To put it simply, Brazil looked a more dangerous, decisive team with Maicon in the line-up, particularly in a second half where Ecuador were punished for their inattentive marking. As Goal.com's Paul Macdonald pointed out before the match, Alves had failed to add an attacking edge to the team as a result of his poor form, meaning that instead of pressing the defence with purpose and impetus down the flanks, approach play had been stilted. The attack as a result lacked urgency, relying on individual inspiration from players such as Ganso and Neymar.
With Maicon back in the team and in form, however, the Selecao rediscovered its width. Ecuador were stretched across the park and, given that this was a defence that shut out Paraguay's forward stars, were uncharacteristically ragged. The presence of Maicon out wide overwhelmed their back four and as the game went on, their elimination looked more and more likely thanks to the Samba stars' much-improved form.
Give me 10 | Pato is congratulated by team-mate Ganso after hitting home
Of course, credit must be given to the goalscorers, who showed after a slow start that they can co-exist on the same pitch and work together. Pato nodded in a terrific header to open the scoring and calm frayed nerves in the first-half, before showing his poaching instincts in the second to somehow turn in a loose ball and restore Brazil's advantage at 3-2. He was guilty of missing a few glorious opportunities, but his strikes could prove to be vital at the end of the tournament.
Neymar, as well, looked a different player from the one who had seemed bemused and overwhelmed by his South American markers so far. The over-theatrical falls are still there, of course, as are the sometimes ill-advised solo forays, but on the evidence of Wednesday's display he can also couple them with intelligent play and close co-operation with his colleagues.
Nobody more so than 'Irmaozinho' Ganso, with whom he shares an almost telepathic understanding. A delightful pass from the No. 10 sent Neymar on his way to hit the second, with the teenager seemingly knowing exactly where the pass was going and when to arrive. Similarly with his second, the icing on the cake for Brazil, when the confident youngster heeled home an inch-perfect cross from Maicon. Doubts remain over his attitude, but there should be none over his ability.
Still, it was Maicon's night above anybody else, and the right-back should be the first name on the teamsheet this Sunday when Brazil look for revenge against Paraguay - whose tricky left midfielder Marcelo Estigarribia, of course, gave Alves one of the worst afternoons of his career in the group stages.
Mano Menezes' side are still far from Joga Bonito, but if the Inter man can repeat an inspired performance in the quarter-finals they can continue to go from strength to strength.