Paulinho has fun playing straight man to Coutinho
Brazil get into the groove
WITH sunshine and clear blue skies over a glistening sea and with impatient drivers on winding roads, this could be a tiny patch of Brazil nestling in the hills above the Black Sea.
True, there is a lack of sand because the beach is rocky, the natural wonders are a little less striking and Russia’s seaside vibe involves a surreal blend of designer bustle and house music, rather than the lazy swing of Ipanema. Yet Brazil coach Tite’s squad have slipped smoothly into their camp above Sochi to focus on Sunday’s opener against Switzerland — their first meaningful fixture in the World Cup finals since the 7-1 humiliation at the hands of Germany in 2014.
Four years on and a pleasing, sub-tropical climate comes without the stifling weight of expectation they suffered as the host nation. Experts consider this to be Brazil’s best team since they last conquered the world in 2002.
Tite is a popular boss with the trust of his players and there were few fitness issues, despite not managing to get all 23 of the squad out to train on the same day.
Brazil trained yesterday without Fred, set to become a Manchester United midfielder after the tournament with a £57million fee agreed with Shakhtar Donetsk.
He worked alone on the grass encircled by a nearby athletics track. Twisting and turning and punching volleys back to the coaches, he does not seem far away from fitness.
Neymar was all smiles, fooling around with Philippe Coutinho. He was full of tricks and flicks on the ball as players went through their warm-up routine at the Yug Sport Stadium, while dozens of TV reporters filed live updates from the touchline.
‘The pressure on Brazil will always be there,’ said midfielder Paulinho. ‘It was there for the last World Cup. We were under pressure but what we did in the last four years was to leave the past behind us.
‘We lost and this is another chance. We have an opportunity to be better.
‘We know how difficult it’s going to be. Opponents are watching us because we are playing consistent football. Most important, we are playing a happy kind of football. We have to play like that. Happy. We do what we love.
‘We are on the right track and focused on a having a wonderful World Cup.
Like Brazil, football’s wheel of fortune has turned for Paulinho.
A £17m club-record flop at Tottenham four years ago and soon to be frozen out by manager Mauricio Pochettino, his confidence was shattered before he gambled on a risky escape to Guangzhou Evergrande in China.
‘My main objective was to play,’ said the 29- year- old. ‘ I wasn’t playing and I had to move on if I was to play any part in the future for Brazil. I knew I had to leave Tottenham. ‘China opened its doors for me to regain my confidence and I’ll always have a very special feeling for the country. I became confident again, played at a high level and returned to the Brazil squad — my biggest dream.’ He was helped when Brazil appointed Tite, Paulinho’s mentor during a successful time together at Corinthians. Tite sent his son Matheus, also part of the backroom team, to check on Paulinho’s form and issued a recall after positive feedback.
Paulinho will start in midfield, asked to curtail his attacking instincts to offer balance and allow Barcelona team-mate Coutinho freedom to attack.
‘No problem,’ said Paulinho. ‘All I want to do is help the team. The manager will pick the team but, for me, Philippe Coutinho — he rocks.’
There is a quiet confidence in the camp, enhanced by news of upheaval at Spain’s base in Krasnodar.
Brazil view the Spanish as among their main challengers for the title.
‘I prefer not to stick my finger into the fact they no longer have their trainer,’ said Paulinho. ‘But Spain are one of the favourites. They have wonderful players.’
Pressed for his other ‘ favourites’ he added Germany, France, Belgium and Argentina and his audience nodded in understanding.
There is little concern about England in this green and pleasant corner of Russia but not much is troubling the Brazilians, apart from the fact there is only one loo for more than 300 journalists — and they were reprimanded for littering the media tent with empty plastic bottles.
All smiles: Paulinho says Brazil play happy football
Juggler: Coutinho in action