Resurgent Brazil take on Bolivia in World Cup qualifying
Before the arrival of new coach Adenor Bacchi, Brazilians were gloomy about their national team's prospects.
Jeers were common when the Selecao was playing its 2018 World Cup qualifiers, broadcasts of its matches became less and less popular, and some fans even cheered when opponents scored.
But in only two games and two convincing wins, the man universally known as Tite has changed everything. Now, many Brazilians can't wait to see their side play Bolivia tomorrow at the Arena das Dunas in the sunny northeastern city of Natal.
When Dunga was coach, Brazil wasn't even among the top four positions in South America's qualifying standings — each of which is worth an automatic place at the World Cup in Russia. Many fans were worried that, for the first time, their team would fail to qualify for a World Cup tournament.
But after beating Ecuador away and Colombia at home, Neymar and his teammates are now second in the standings with 15 points, one behind leader Uruguay. Bolivia is eighth, with seven points.
Brazil fan Ana Queiroz, a 31year-old teacher, wasn't expecting to be so excited about the Bolivia game. "If this match were a few months ago, I couldn't have cared less. But after those wins, I made a very big effort to be in the stadium to see it," she said. All 31,000 tickets for the match were quickly sold.
Real Madrid's left-winger Marcelo and midfielder Casemiro, both injured, are the two notable absences in Tite's side. Guanghzhou Evergrande midfielder Paulinho is suspended, but could return for the match against Venezuela on Tuesday. After more than a year away, Paris Saint-Germain defender Thiago Silva could be tested once again, but that is far from certain.
Tite said his selection criteria will be "coherence and respect," a language that he used as a winning coach at Sao Paulo giants Corinthians, and also a hint that he will not be changing his 4-1-41 tactics.
The decision to play in Natal will also help Brazil during this period of change. Crowds in Brazil's northeast are usually more welcoming than those in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro in the southeast of the country.
URUGUAY Also in this round, South American qualifying leader Uruguay plays last-place Venezuela in Montevideo. Some time ago, that would have been predicted as an easy win for the home side. Now, after Venezuela nearly beat Argentina last month, the predictions are being revised. The match against Argentina ended up as a 2-2 draw, but the Venezuelans were two goals ahead late into the second half.
ARGENTINA Third place Argentina, which is level on 15 points with Brazil, travels to face ninth-place Peru, with seven points. Argentina will again be without Lionel Messi as the Barcelona star recovers from a groin injury sustained in a Spanish league match last month.
CHILE The toughest match on Thursday is likely to be in Quito, where former standings leader Ecuador, currently fifth, tries to climb back to the World Cup qualifying positions against Chile, the Copa America champion which is struggling in seventh place.
Ecuador has 13 points, two points more than Chile.
Chileans are so worried about their team's current position that their national soccer federation asked FIFA to be awarded three points after a 0-0 home draw with Bolivia in September. The federation claimed that Bolivia fielded an ineligible player, defender Nelson Cabrera.
Elsewhere, Colombia travels to Asuncion to face Paraguay.