By Brazilian national team standards, the past several years have been rough. The Selecao were blown out by Germany in the semifinals of a home World Cup and failed to make the finals of the Copa America in either 2015 or 2016. But for this World Cup in Russia it seems that everything will be different, starting with the number of talents and super stars and an encouraging coach with innovative ideas.

CONMEBOL qualifying is the most difficult of all the regional qualifying tournaments, and Brazil romped through with little difficulty. The “Canarinha” rate as the best defensive team in the world by a significant margin. But the likely back line of Danilo, Thiago Silva, Miranda and Marcelo has an average age of 31, so they’re not exactly at the peak of their careers. Rather, manager Tite has developed a tactical system that protects the back line with two of the best defensive midfielders in the world, Casemiro and Fernandinho.

Both players anchor three-man midfields for their club sides, Real Madrid and Manchester City respectively, where they are largely responsible for stopping opposition attacks in midfield on their own. For Brazil, they can share the load. Devoting two midfield pieces to defense only works because Brazil’s forward line is so good that it doesn’t suffer despite fewer offensive-minded players on the pitch.

The 2014 World Cup was Neymar’s coming-out party on the global stage, and in the years since, he has made a leap to where he’s putting up numbers rivaled only by Lionel Messi. The 2014 team gave Neymar an attacking partner of Fred, who was playing at the time for Fluminense (Brazilian team from Rio). Four years later, Neymar is better, and his teammates are, too. Brazil can choose between Liverpool’s Roberto Firmino and Manchester City’s Gabriel Jesus up top. Both players put up more than 0.75 expected goals plus assists per 90 minutes last season.

The “Canarinha” have one of the world’s premier passers, Philippe Coutinho. Since 2014-2015 among players with at least 8,000 minutes played in the big five European leagues, Coutinho is sixth in progressive passes per 90 minutes ahead of such world-class playmakers as Belgium’s Kevin De Bruyne, Spain’s Andres Iniesta and Germany’s Mesut Ozil. On most teams, a player like Coutinho would be the creative hub; here he is a plan B or C who can support Neymar and the striker.

Most teams would struggle to progress the ball with this alignment. But most teams don’t have Marcelo. The Real Madrid left back is the best passing outside defender in the game, leading all fullbacks and wingbacks in progressive passing for three years running. Marcelo is famous for his aggressive runs to the penalty area, but he reveals his ability most clearly when he tucks inside and starts picking passes to the forward line. He doesn’t have the elite speed he had in his 20s, but now he doesn’t need to risk getting caught upfield in order to push Brazil forward.

Brazil’s talent is so good, and so cohesive, that the team can play two defensive midfielders and still create more than enough chances to be confident of walking through its group and making a deep run in the knockout phase. Our bet is for Brazil to win Group E and move forward to play against the second place of Group F, which in our opinion, should be Mexico, believing that Germany will win this group. As second in the group of Brazil we bet on Switzerland (60%) and Serbia (40%). We do not believe that Costa Rica in this World Cup 2018 can again change all the prognostics as it was in the 2014 when they survive as second in a difficult group with soccer giants England, Italy and Uruguay.

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