Just like everybody thought, Brazil have unsurprisingly made their way to the quarter-final of the World Cup.
Whilst other pre-tournament favourites such as Germany and Spain have been eliminated, Brazil have made the last 8 without too much stress. Nevertheless, they haven’t produced the thrilling samba style of football that we are used to. Neymar, until a decent second half showing against Mexico, has not hit the heights that have been expected and demanded of him. Nor has Gabriel Jesus, who scored an impressive 7 goals in ten qualifying games. The Manchester City youngster has struggled the most out of Brazil’s attacking outlet, with Philippe Coutinho seeming to be shouldering most of the responsibility for the Seleção’s progress. Is the time right for a change? Many are calling for Coutinho’s former Liverpool teammate, Roberto Firmino, to take on the mantle from Jesus as Brazil’s starting striker and lead them to World Cup glory.
‘Bobby’ Firmino, for a long time, was regarded as a decent striker who would score a few goals, but someone who seemed to be a better player off the ball than on it. However, in the last 18 months, his form has improved dramatically. It is no surprise to see that Firmino’s rise to being one of the Premier League’s best strikers has coincided with Liverpool’s upward trajectory over the past two years. He seldom gets the credit he deserves – it was all about Sadio Mane in 2016/17, and understandably, Mo Salah took the headlines last season. However, it is undeniable that neither player would have performed to such a high level if it weren’t for Roberto Firmino. The Brazilian is finally starting to get the recognition he deserves for his incessant pressing off the ball, his excellent link-up play and more recently, his goalscoring ability.
The truth is that Brazil’s manager, Tite, has two clear options as to who should start up front: Firmino or Jesus. So far, the latter has been selected to start each game at this World Cup. It was a justified decision, given Jesus’ superior record for Brazil. However, the Manchester City striker has produced a series of underwhelming performances in Russia and is yet to score a goal. Firmino, on the other hand, has been restricted to brief cameos off the bench, but his impact has been greater than that of Jesus, scoring a late goal in their 2-0 victory over Mexico in the last 16. Admittedly, it was a tap-in, but it simply reaffirms the premise that Jesus has been given four opportunities to show his worth to the team, and has failed to deliver each time, leaving the window open for Firmino to step up to the plate.
One thing that Liverpool and Brazil have in common is their exceptional array of attacking talent. Genuine superstars who have the ability to change the course of any game in an instant. Firmino’s greatest asset is getting the best out of the players around him. Liverpool and Brazil are both a lot worse off without Firmino in the side compared to when he is leading the line. Mo Salah is obviously a superb player who doesn’t ‘need’ Firmino to perform, but any Liverpool fan will tell you that he would probably only score half as many goals as he did this season if Firmino was not in the side. Neymar is Brazil’s equivalent of Mo Salah: the mercurial talent who carries the hopes of a whole city (or nation in Neymar’s case) on his shoulders. The best player on the pitch, who the fans expect to win games on his own. Firmino’s interplay and his ability to draw defenders away from Salah is what gave the Egyptian the space to weave his magic. Gabriel Jesus is obviously a supremely talented footballer in his own right, but if Neymar was just given a bit more space and time on the ball, this Brazil side would transform into the complete attacking force.
Further enhancing Firmino’s chances of starting against Belgium in the quarter-final is his relationship with Coutinho. Whilst the two were at Liverpool, they formed a stellar partnership. If they can transfer that connection onto the international stage, Brazil’s opponents should be very scared indeed. In a pre-tournament friendly against Austria, Firmino and Coutinho produced a number of eye-catching moments to carve open the opposition defence. Their chemistry is perfect; they always seem to be on the exact same wavelength even when neither of them is on the ball. Coutinho has been excellent so far this tournament, but he could be even better if he had his best mate Firmino playing alongside him.
Gabriel Jesus is undeniably a top talent who will go on to have an incredible career at the highest level of football. However, this is Brazil’s best chance to win the World Cup since they last lifted the trophy in 2002, with a number of top tier opponents crashing out earlier on in the tournament. There is no time to pick a player who is struggling, hoping he can find his form. In Firmino, Tite has a player who will not only perform to his outstandingly high level, but furthermore a player who will bring the best out of the superstars around him. The tide is turning in Firmino’s favour, and Tite must act now if this Brazil team is to realise their potential and add to their five stars.
Written by Dan Walker.