Even Hernanes could not have seen what was coming.
“The Prophet” returned to Brazilian football earlier this year, rejoining former club Sao Paulo who found themselves in full-blown crisis.
The appointment of former club idol Rogerio Ceni had been a disaster, and the three-time Copa Libertadores winners found themselves in a relegation dogfight.
One of the most decorated clubs in all of Brazil was staring at the first relegation in their history and lacked the financial muscle to parachute in any potential saviours.
But then came Hernanes. The former Lazio, Inter and Juventus midfielder had led the club to back-to-back Brazilian first division titles between 2007 and 2008, and negotiated a loan return from Chinese club Hebei China Fortune for a relative pittance.
It would prove the most remarkable of turning points. The 32-year-old midfielder playmaker’s leadership instantly provided the direction the team had so desperately lacked, and a flurry of important goals dragged Sao Paulo back up the table.
So sensational has his form been, in fact, that he is now targeting an unlikely recall to the Brazilian national team. Few would have seen a World Cup 2018 place, but then the Prophet has a keener eye than the rest of us.
"I have two goals just now: to finish the league campaign well and then get a place at the World Cup,” he told Folha de Sao Paulo. “I believe that there are 13, 14, players who, if everything goes well, are already guaranteed [a place in Tite’s squad]. The rest…”
Hernanes, inevitably, appears to see the situation clearly. Tite has his preferred XI all guaranteed a place in Russia (Alisson, Miranda, Marquinhos, Dani Alves, Marcelo, Casemiro, Paulinho, Renato Augusto, Coutinho, Neymar and Gabriel Jesus). In addition to them, Willian, Fernandinho and Thiago Silva are fighting for first-team places and are all assured a place in the World Cup squad.
After that, places among the reserves remain up for grabs. While Coutinho has been repeatedly trialed among the central midfielders, he will not be selected as one for the World Cup.
That ostensibly leaves two reserve places up for grabs, with Giuliano and Diego named as back-ups to Renato Augusto and Fernandinho for the Brasil Global Tour matches with Japan and England last month.
Giuliano offers dynamism, Diego guile and craft. But the latter was once again struck down by injury problems in November and didn’t see a minute in matches. Diego has made just one appearance under Tite – in January’s “Game of friendship” against Colombia in a Brazil side that was restricted to domestic-based players.
Hernanes, meanwhile, floats in the midfield, both attacks and defends, and his excellent distribution allows him to dictate the pace of the game. Moreover, he has found his shooting boots since returning to Sao Paulo, and now has now found the net nine times 19 Brasileirao outings.
His new-found eye for goal is just the latest his seemingly endless evolution. Having begun his career as an attacker, he gradually retreated into a deeper midfield position. His supposed weaker left-foot, meanwhile, is so strong it’s often difficult to see which foot he now favours.
"I see this all as part of my evolution [into a complete player],” he told UOL. “Sometimes I no longer have to think. There are two key systems in our mind. There is the quick-paced approach, where things are instinctive, intuitive. Then there is the slower tempo, which I’ve learned throughout my career and where you have to think a lot.
“You must always change and improve, that is what makes a complete player, until you do not know if you are a defender or an attacker."
Many will likely need reminding that Hernanes was looking on in 2014, a substitute as Brazil went down 7-1 to Germany in the World Cup semi-final. But he hasn’t, and he’s desperate for 2014 not to be his final World Cup experience.
Hernanes has not appeared for his country since, but his sparkling form has certainly attracted a glance from those who matter most.
"We are watching the great form of Hernanes, we are paying attention to all the players who are in good form,” Tite said.
“He is ambidextrous, he scores from midfield and shoots well from distance, and he’s adjusted under [coach] Dorival Junior to a position slightly more to the left.”
The biggest hurdle left for Hernanes on the way to his World Cup dream is now time. There is just one more Brazil squad to be announced prior to the final 23 that will go to World Cup 2018, as the Brasil Global Tour sees the Selecao face off against Germany and Russia in March.
But Hernanes can see it, sitting just over the horizon.