Rebooted Brazil seeks redemption against gritty Switzerland
ROSTOV-ON-DON, Russia (AP) — Brazil has spent four years trying to atone for its last World Cup match, the calamitous 7-1 defeat as hosts by Germany. Popular coach Tite purged players, eased dependence on Neymar, and rebuilt a team that concedes few goals and blazed through qualification.
Those changes will be tested Sunday, when the Selecao start their campaign for a sixth World Cup title at the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don against Switzerland.
Few embody Brazil's rediscovered spirit more than Gabriel Jesus, the 21-year-old Manchester City striker: Four years ago he was photographed as a barefoot teenager painting the streets of his Sao Paulo neighborhood. Fast-forward to Russia and he's a valued team resource, the top scorer in qualification with seven goals.
"I don't think of that (time) as suffering, but being Brazilian — being able to change," he said after training. "For anyone, striving for your goal is not suffering. It's a demonstration of courage. That's where our pride comes from."
Restoring much of its pride, Brazil was the first team to qualify for this World Cup, 17 games unbeaten and with a 3-0 victory over Argentina at the stadium where they'd sustained the infamous semifinal loss to Germany.
Brazil's other Group E opponents, Serbia and Costa Rica, play in Samara on Sunday.
Making minor changes in friendlies, Tite appears to have settled on a core of starting players that trounced Austria 3-0 last week — with Neymar, Coutinho, Casemiro, Paulinho, and Willian forming a semi-circle around Gabriel Jesus as the center forward, in a 4-3-3 formation. Danilo, Thiago Silva, Miranda, and Marcelo form the defense in front of goalkeeper Alisson.
Switzerland, Gabriel Jesus admits, will be hard to rattle.
"There is no way to predict how they will play," he said. "Switzerland has high-quality players, and they can play two or three different kinds of game ... This will all be about understanding their Plan A and Plan B."
The Swiss would be taken lightly at their opponents' peril.
Coach Vladimir Petkovic's group of polyglot players has taken Switzerland to its fourth consecutive World Cup with ambitions to reach the quarterfinals for the first time in 64 years. They narrowly missed out in 2014 after taking finalist Argentina to extra time.
Switzerland confirmed its hard-to-beat caliber in qualification, with nine wins in 10 matches and conceding seven times to reach its current position of 6th in the world rankings — four places behind Brazil. Unusually, Switzerland's 23 goals in qualification came from 14 different players. Coach Petkovic favors a midfield-heavy lineup, typically using Benfica's Haris Seferovic as the lone striker, flanked by wingers Steven Zuber and Xherdan Shaqiri.
At his fourth World Cup, 33-year-old midfielder Valon Behrami says the Swiss can't wait to take on Brazil. They haven't met in a World Cup since 1950 and drew 2-2. Behrami acknowledged that his team's defense is Neymar-focused while worrying about committing too many players to try and stop him.
"Sure, we hope that he has a bad day and we have a good day," he said. "One player alone cannot stop him, because he is so fast and technically strong. We have to face him as a team."
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