REALITY BITES FOR LIVERPOOL AFTER SPRINGTIME IN DREAMLAND BUT WHAT AWAITS IN 2015?

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Make Us Dream, They Dared to Dream, We Go Again and Poetry In Motion, these are all titles of some of the books you can buy this Christmas and they all tell the same story.

A plucky underdog rises from relative obscurity, dispatches all before them before a fatal slip brings them crashing back to earth. The books are about Liverpool’s season 2013-14 season, each a celebration of the club almost winning the league.

It would be interesting to see what authors would title books based solely on Liverpool’s 2014. This year the club went from 11 victories in a row to winning one in eight, from the explosive genius of Luis Suárez to the frustration and mediocrity of Mario Balotelli. The cusp of the league title in May to crashing out of the Champions League and struggling in the Premier League as the year closes. Brendan Rodgers going from winning manager of the year to admitting he may be the first top-flight boss to get sacked this season.

No football club has had as polarising a year as Liverpool.

The club entered 2014 on the back of consecutive losses to Manchester City and Chelsea, but sat in fourth spot and on course to meet their primary aim of Champions League qualification. However, following the stunning 5-1 victory over Arsenal at the beginning of February, Liverpool set off on an incredible run of form, an emotional rollercoaster that reached its crescendo against Manchester City in April.

On the weekend of the 25th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster, Liverpool won 3-2 to go five points clear of Chelsea in second place, and seven clear of City, although both had games in hand.

Yet with the sight of the Kop in full voice as a tearful, exhausted Steven Gerrard passionately addressed his team, and with just four games remaining, it seemed destined for Liverpool to win their first league crown in 24 years. But then the most unlikely title victory in Premier League history was dashed as cruel fate intervened. Jose Mourinho, Tony Pulis and the most unfortunate of slips from Gerrard tore up the romantic script.

‘What leaps off the page,’ BBC journalist Ben Smith said of Make Us Dream, ‘is the feeling of reclamation, the feeling of a city and a football club finding harmony’. However, seven months after daring to dream, the club and its fans have awoken to a uncertain and frustrating reality.

Last season’s harmony is long gone, departing, ironically, with Suárez, the most inharmonious of figures. Like Alex Ferguson it appears, through genius and ruthless determination, one man was capable of lifting an entire team to another level. If Suárez was Liverpool’s equivalent of Ferguson, then the club signed a team of David Moyes’ in the summer.

That ‘feeling of reclamation’ that grew in the final months of last season now seems like a cruel tease for fans. Liverpool’s shot at the title seemed to be the beginning of a return to the glory years. The team represented the club the fans believe Liverpool were and should still be. A club that wins titles and plays attractive attacking football, led by a talismanic genius and an articulate, innovative manager. However, as the year ends, nothing has been reclaimed.

Liverpool v Everton - Premier League

Luis Suárez carrying Liverpool on his back.

Before Liverpool’s opening game of the season, the manager dismissed suggestions the side would struggle without their departed talisman. Rodgers has been right to champion the team’s qualities, and his ambitions have been somewhat thwarted by the long-term injury to striker Daniel Sturridge. However, there is no escaping the questions surrounding Rodgers’ management of the side. Just as the first half of 2014 seemed to convey Rodgers coaching ability, eye for a player and tactical acumen, this season has suggested the opposite.

Liverpool’s defence was weak last season and the manager has seemingly done little to fix the problems. At almost every defensive set-piece Martin Skrtel grabs his opponent’s jersey instead of attacking the ball, the defender is like a drowning man, frantically attempting to pull himself to safety. His erstwhile partner, £20 million summer signing Dejan Lovren, has struggled to the point where veteran Kolo Toure looks a more calming influence. Liverpool’s defence has underperformed and looks completely devoid of confidence, but there is little sign they are working from a cohesive plan.

Despite the much-maligned ‘transfer committee’ Liverpool employ, Rodgers is ultimately responsible for the team’s performances. He apparently has the power of veto over any signing and is meant to be one of the game’s brightest coaches. Circumstances, such as injuries, a busted flush of a goalkeeper and the decline of Gerrard, have gone against the manager. But such events can be the making of a coach, the ability to adjust in situations of ill-fortune.

He has shown signs of adapting in the past, but it is as though there have been three versions of Rodgers at Liverpool. Year One was filled with buzzwords of footballing philosophy, ‘death by football’. Year Two the team was more reactive, playing their best football when breaking fast up the pitch. For the majority of this season, though, it has been hard to recognise any plan.

Just as the fans seem to suffering for their exuberance over last season’s false dawn, Rodgers is paying for some of his comments over the last year. Saying it is ‘easy’ to organise a defence, following Liverpool’s loss to Chelsea in April, reflects poorly on him when one watches Liverpool hopelessly attempt to defend. Deriding Tottenham Hotspur last season for not challenging for the league after spending £100million on new players may now bring a wry smile to some faces, but for Liverpool fans it must sting.

Before Liverpool’s opening game of the season at to Southampton, the manager said: ‘People in football say that it might have been our best chance to win the league, but this year might be our best chance. We will have more belief. We will be stronger this season’. Needless to say, the team have not been stronger in any way. 2014 offered a glimpse at the club Liverpool want to be, but also an image of what the club will be in the immediate future, and it is troubling.

Jose Mourinho brought Liverpool back down to earth.

Jose Mourinho brought Liverpool back down to earth.

For all of Rodgers’ mishaps, Liverpool’s poor performances and the departure of Suárez, the club have been in this situation before. When tasked with building on success, they have taken one step forward, only to then take two steps backwards. Liverpool finished second in 2001-02 season, ahead of Manchester United for the first time in the Premier League era, having won a cup treble the previous year. That summer El Hadji Diouf, Salif Diao and Bruno Cheyrou arrived and subsequently flopped, becoming by-words for poor transfer dealings. The club exited the Champions League early and finished fifth in the league. Within two years manager Gerrard Houllier had departed and Liverpool were back at square one.

Seven years later, Rafa Benitez’s side also finished second and went into the transfer market in a position of strength. Midfield dynamo Xabi Alonso left for Real Madrid, but the club signed Alberto Aquilani to replace the Spaniard and had Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard at the peak of their abilities. Liverpool began the 2009-10 season as favourites for the title. The summer signings made no impact as the team finished seventh and crashed out the Champions League in the group stage.

However, the immediate problems facing Liverpool go deeper than Rodgers. In an era of petro-dollar fuelled football clubs, and the new Galactico transfer policy of commercial juggernauts Manchester United, a club like Liverpool simply cannot afford to make mistakes in the transfer market. A club that has just spent over £100 million in the transfer market should not currently look like they need to spend another £100 million.

Just as Liverpool were stronger in the second half of last season, Rodgers will be hoping for a similar upturn in 2015. However, qualifying for the Champions League, the objective at the start of the season, seems unlikely, putting Rodgers at risk of the same fate as predecessors Houllier and Benitez.

In modern football, titles are won by commercial leviathans or clubs pumped with petro-dollars. Competing with this giants is hard enough without Liverpool’s many mishaps.

If Liverpool dared to dream in the first half of 2014, and the final six months has been a rude awakening, 2015 could represent a frustrating reality.

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The Special One another poor season away from being yesterday’s man

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Originally featured on Back Page Football.

The dubious accolade for the Premier League’s biggest flop presented a number of viable, unfortunate nominees last season. There were misfiring strikers, such as Roberto Soldado or Ricky van Wolfswinkel, expensive but underwhelming signings, Erik Lamela and Marouane Fellaini, and mismanaged clubs, such as Fulham and Cardiff City. There was also David Moyes.

The former Manchester United manager was perhaps the most popular choice for the season’s biggest flop. Moyes presided over a disastrous campaign, devoid of any positive developments, where every occurrence, from the United’s falling stock price to the upsurge of Everton, his former club, seemed to further convey his inadequacy. When Moyes’ hellish year eventually ended, he was no more sacked than put of his misery.

While it would be impossible to dispute that Moyes’ time as Manchester United manager was anything but an unmitigated disaster, there is an argument to be made that he does not qualify as the worst flop of last season. The concept of being a flop is based on prior expectation not aligning with the subsequent reality. So while United underperformed last season, almost every other aspect of the season, from the team’s final position, points total and record against the top teams, was in line with David Moyes’ managerial career.

A more fitting recipient of such an unwanted distinction was not even among the nominees. José Mourinho, Chelsea manager and ‘Special One’, returned to England from Real Madrid last summer to great fanfare from football fans and media outlets alike. At his opening press conference, Mourinho re-anointed himself as the ‘Happy One’, spoke of staying at Chelsea for years to come and of a repaired relationship with owner Roman Abramovich.

He also dismissed reports that he wanted to succeed Sir Alex Ferguson as United manager and generally seemed humble and content. A more mature version of the brash Mourinho that first arrived at Chelsea in 2004, and nothing like the man whom had apparently waged civil war in his previous position. ‘I am where I want to be’, Mourinho said. ‘I wouldn’t change it for anything. It’s my job and the job I want. It is the job I was offered and I accepted immediately’.

Mourinho seemed primed to return Chelsea to the pinnacle of English football. In the six-year spell since he left, the Blues, despite achieving European success, won just a single league title. The power vacuum created by Ferguson’s retirement partly resulted in the most open title race for years. It also provided Mourinho the opportunity to stake his claim as English football’s dominant figure, as he had threatened to do during his previous spell in the Premier League.

However, Mourinho was neither special nor happy. Chelsea endured a fruitless season, finishing third and exiting the Champion’s League in the semi-finals, the fourth time in four years Mourinho’s teams have lost at that stage of the competition. It was also the first time in his career that he had experienced consecutive trophy-less campaigns. To further compound Mourinho’s misery, his former club Real Madrid, seemingly bounded by his departure, and guided by Carlo Ancelotti, very much the anti-Mourinho, finally achieved La Décima.

Throughout the domestic season, Mourinho talked down his side’s chances of success. After winning 1-0 away to eventual champions Manchester City last February, Mourinho said: ‘The title race is between two horses and a little horse that needs milk and needs to learn how to jump’. In this bizarre analogy, Chelsea, a club fuelled by a Russian oligarch’s millions, the recent European champions, team of internationals with the average age of twenty-eight, were the underdogs. Liverpool’s surge for the title, consisting of a sixteen game unbeaten run, made further mockery of Mourinho’s theory.

Steven Gerrard’s slip against Chelsea will long be remembered as the defining moment of the 2013/14 season. Combined with Liverpool’s subsequent collapse against Crystal Palace, the narrative has since been that the Merseyside club bottled their chance to win a first league title in twenty-four years. However, despite the dramatic de-railing of Liverpool’s season, there is an argument to be made that it was in fact Chelsea who squandered the greater chance of glory.

Last season, Mourinho’s side were undefeated against the top four, winning five of their six games. Yet Sunderland were the only other team to take more points from the top ten teams than those in bottom half. This trend was particularly telling during the title run-in, where Chelsea continued to drop points against struggling teams. Mourinho’s side lost away to Aston Villa and Crystal Palace, at home to Sunderland and drew with Norwich City. Six points from these games would have secured Chelsea the league crown.

Mourinho attempted to pin the blame for his team’s woes on a number of variants, from misfiring strikers to poor refereeing to, without even a hint of irony, the opposition’s defensive, ‘19th century’ tactics. However, perhaps the real reason lies in Mourinho’s footballing philosophy. Spanish journalist Diego Torres’ book, The Special One: The Dark Side of José Mourinho covers Mourinho’s time at Real Madrid and provides a dark, fascinating insight into the Chelsea manager’s methods and mindset.

The book depicts Mourinho as calculated, manipulative and extremely paranoid, a fish out of water, attempting to mould every facet of one of the world’s biggest football clubs to fit his own personality. Torres paints the Chelsea manager as a controlling, power mad, Machiavellian war monger, with a manic fixation on controlling media narrative. There are a number of telling passages in relation to Mourinho’s tactical outlook.

After the 2011 Copa Del Rey Final, where Madrid defeated Barcelona in extra-time: ‘he puffed out his chest … repeating, ‘This is football! This is football!’ The final reaffirmed his belief that a very good way of playing football is to give the ball and the initiative to the opposition’. Torres also said that Mourinho: ‘Insisted to his players that possession of the ball does not have value in itself and, if not treated with extreme care, at times can be dangerous’ Following Chelsea’s defeat to Sunderland last December, Mourinho essentially validated Torres’ tactical insight, saying: ‘It’s something I don’t want to do, to play more counterattacking, but I’m giving it serious thought. If I want to win 1-0 I think I can as I think it is one of the easiest things in football. It is not so difficult, as you don’t give players the chance to express themselves’.

This method has brought Mourinho great success, including two Champion’s Leagues and four league titles in four countries. However, will it be possible, in an era where tactical flexibility is ever-growing in importance, to further this success with such a dogmatic, one-dimensional outlook? How long will it be before English teams realise the path to defeating Mourinho potentially lays in playing him at his own tactical game? Those that done so last year, such as Sunderland, West Ham and Aston Villa, recorded positive results. Meanwhile, Liverpool and Manchester City dominated possession, but were defeated in both games against the London club.

Chelsea do however look a more formidable prospect for the forthcoming season as they are significantly bolstered by summer signings Diego Costa, Cesc Fàbregas and Filipe Luís, and the return of Thibaut Courtois. Yet this also means that, if his team ends another campaign trophy-less, Mourinho’s excuses will no longer have any semblance of validity. No more talk of little horses or misfiring strikers.

Mourinho dismissed Torres’ book as a work of fiction. If the author did in fact entirely fabricate events from the Chelsea manager’s time in Spain, then he should be working in Hollywood, rather than Spanish broadsheet El País. However, if even a percentage is true, then Mourinho’s best days may be in the past. If we take the Portuguese’s career in two halves, divided by the time he moved to Madrid in 2010, then the latter period is considerably less successful.

If the trend continues, then the ‘Special One’ may have run out of road, tactically and personally. If Mourinho can no longer guarantee success, conflict is almost certain. And, if Chelsea have a repeat of last season, one imagines it will not be long before Mourinho and Abramovich clash again. This could be the defining campaign of José Mourinho’s managerial career.

Ugly Brazil team unworthy of World Cup glory

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Originally published by Back Page Football 4/6/2014.

Dutch football legend Johan Cruyff was appalled after watching his country play Spain in the World Cup final four years ago. Referring to the Netherlands as: ‘ugly, vulgar, hard, hermetic’ Cruyff, the iconic leader and symbol of the great total-football Netherlands and Ajax teams of the 1970s, and architect of the current style of Barcelona and Spain, said the Dutch: ‘were playing anti-football’.

The Netherlands kicked and hacked their way through a gruelling 120 minutes, committing twenty-eight fouls, receiving eight yellow cards and had, fortuitously, just one player dismissed. The team, rather than the wonderful attacking Dutch sides of the past, featuring players such as Cruyff, Dennis Bergkamp and Marco Van Basten, was typified by the aggression and gamesmanship of players such Mark Van Bommel and Nigel De Jong. The classic, romantic image of technical, graceful Netherlands teams was firmly dented when de Jong karate-kicked Spain’s Xabi Alonso.

Spain still prevailed though, winning 1-0 thanks to an extra-time goal from Andrés Iniesta. The tournament had been dour, the final was ugly but the Spanish were worthy winners, a measure of saving grace for an otherwise forgettable month of football. The 2014 World Cup does not require such redemption as it is on course to be widely considered as the best tournament in recent memory.

Within this festival of football there have been some disappointments. The most notable being Luis Suarez’s bite, the performance of some European teams and the petty squabbling among the Ghana and Cameroon sides. However, the biggest disappointment of the tournament, with the possible exception of one hungry Uruguayan, has been the Brazil national team.

The hosts, with the exception of golden boy Neymar, have failed to adequately contribute to their own party or come close to playing the type of samba football synonymous with the country. Following their controversial, unconvincing opening victory over Croatia, Brazil laboured to a goalless draw with Mexico and secured top spot in Group A with a 4-1 victory over hapless Cameroon. They now face Colombia in the quarter-final after eliminating Chile in a dramatic penalty shoot-out.

For those who watched last summer’s Confederation Cup, the sight of a functional, aggressive, hard pressing Brazil team, relying on some Neymar magic to save the day, will be familiar. Indeed, there has not been a Brazil team to fit the romantic image, forged by the great teams of the 1950s, 60s and 70s, in over thirty years. It has been well documented that the 1982 World Cup team are considered the last to match the famous ideal of Brazilian jogo bonito.

That Brazil side, featuring some of the country’s greatest ever players such as Zico, Socrates and Falcão, were playing exhilarating, fluid attacking football. However, their defensive failings were exposed by a Paolo Rossi hat-trick as they crashed out 3-2, in the second group stage, to eventual winners Italy. Zico said the game was ‘the day football died’.

While that description may be dramatic, subsequent Brazil teams, such the teams that won the World Cup in 1994 and 2002, have been more functional than fantastic. Each side have had ultra-attacking full backs, a plethora of defensive midfielders and individual brilliance from a star forward. However, if one ascribes to Zico’s view that the classic, romantic Brazilian nature of football died in 1982, then the current side must resemble the equivalent of Brazilian football zombies.

Brazil now treats the centre circle as though it is a shark infested lake, repeatedly hoofing long balls into the opposition final third in hope something will land for Neymar. They attempted almost sixty long passes against Cameroon and again in the second-round tie with Chile. In both games they played just a handful of through balls and against Cameroon their main pass combination was between midfielder Luis Gustavo and central defender David Luiz.

Neymar said this week:

The games are very hotly contested and equal and whoever shows the most commitment is the winner. Brazil didn’t come to put on a show, we came to win.

Further evidence, if any was needed, that the image of beautiful Brazilian football now borders on myth. This team is built on an ethos of ‘commitment’, which seemingly extends to their embarrassingly overly emotional rendition of the national anthem and crying before penalty shootouts.

Brazil are also committed to a tactical plan that involves pumping the ball as far down the pitch as they possibly can, abjectly defending, physically bullying the opposition and desperately relying on Neymar. The defence is creaky, the midfield lacks incision, and gets bypassed anyway, and to claim Fred is misfiring would be incorrect because that involve the striker actually shooting.

One may argue that Brazil do not have the required personnel to play an expansion, attacking game. That it is foolish to imagine Luis Gustavo, Paulinho and Hulk could play like Zico, Socrates or Ronaldinho. However, we have seen apparent lesser teams, such as Costa Rica, Algeria and Mexico, play in an attacking style with cohesion, neat passing and tactical discipline. The current Brazil side may not have to tools to mirror the famed teams of the past, but that does not automatically mean they should resort to playing like the Wimbledon teams of the 1980s and 90’s.

Regardless of whether one is viewing through a purist or pragmatist prism, Brazil verge between being ineffectual, ugly and, at times, difficult to comprehend, typified by David Luiz. In the 73rd minute of the host’s game with Cameroon, Luiz, the most expensive defender in the world, stepped onto a misplaced opposition header around thirty-five yards from his own goal. Brazil was leading 3-1 against a dispirited team who had already been eliminated.

However, Luiz, under no opposition pressure, rather than taking the ball down, playing a short pass or even attempting to pick out one of his attacking teammates, aimlessly smashed a volley seventy yards down the pitch. If this was to occur during an over forties Sunday league match it would be a needless waste of possession. However, this was a Brazilian player with undoubted technical ability, in the World Cup in Brazil, and in a situation that presented vast scope for personal expression. In this context, the act was infuriating, nonsensical and dispiriting.

Next up for Brazil is South American rivals Colombia in Friday’s quarter-final in Fortaleza. Los Cafeteros have comfortably dispatched each side they have faced thus far and have, arguably, the tournament’s star performer in the form of James Rodriguez. The Monaco forward has been a revelation and, with Brazil’s defensive midfielder Luis Gustavo suspended, could be in line to continue his heroics. Colombia looked primed to provide the Seleção with their toughest test of the tournament so far and cause a potential upset.

Cruyff was asked, prior to the World Cup final in 2010, if the Netherlands would mirror Inter Milan’s defensive performance in their aggregate victory over Barcelona in that year’s Champions League semi-final.

I said no, no way at all. I said no, not because I hate this style… I said no because I thought that my country wouldn’t dare to and would never renounce their style. I said no because, without having great players like those of the past, the team has its own style.

This Brazil team has seemingly taken such a path, but they are neither pragmatic nor purist. They instead resemble a parody and perversion of past Seleção sides and the supposed footballing ideals of a country regarded as the spiritual home of the beautiful game.

A victory for Brazil would be a triumph for FIFA and the ruling establishment within the country, both of whom will wish to use a sixth World Cup title as a way to paper over the failings of the tournament’s organisation, corruption allegations and the plundering of Brazil’s economy and poorest citizens. A final perversion, but this time also serving to distract from the failings of the Seleção, and an unfitting outcome to a wonderful festival of football.

Costa on the cusp of greatness

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Originally published on Back Page Football 19/5/2014.

The popular consensus ahead of next month’s World Cup in Brazil is that the tournament can be the defining moment in Barcelona forward Lionel Messi’s career.

If the Argentina captain can propel his country to glory, on enemy soil, it will be hard pressed to argue against the inevitable proclamations that the diminutive genius is the greatest footballer of all time. However, even if Argentina fall short, Messi’s place among the pantheon of the game’s greats has long been assured. The next two months will go some way to defining Messi career, but it will not be the definitive estimate of his career.

Messi’s Atletico Madrid rival, striker Diego Costa, is, however, facing the prospect of a career defining period. It would be foolish to suggest the striker can, or ever will be able to put himself on par with Messi. However, Costa has a unique opportunity to capture the game’s greatest prizes and thus secure his standing as a peak operator.

The striker has had a stunning season, scoring 36 goals in 50 appearances and driving his club to an historic league title and Champion’s League final. A reoccurrence of a niggling hamstring injury prevented Costa from pushing his team over the line in last night’s La Liga decider against Barcelona. The striker went from been visibly distraught to elation upon his side capturing the unlikely title.

However, with part one of the double complete, Costa’s prime focus will be on a swift return for Saturday’s Champions League final against city rivals Real Madrid. In what may prove to be a tight encounter, Costa’s power and proficiency could be the decisive factor, as it was when the two sides met last September. The striker scored the only goal as Atletico won at the Bernabéu for first time in the league for 34 years, spoiling Gareth Bale’s debut and upstaging Cristiano Ronaldo.

Regardless of whether Costa can return for the culmination of Atletico’s improbable season, his power, intensity and proficiency have embodied the qualities of Diego Simeone’s side. Costa is reported to be on the verge of a €40 million move to Chelsea, and, if so, the Champion’s League final will be a fitting end to his time with Atletico. Saturday’s final, and next month’s world cup, could mark the beginning of the next stage of Costa’s career.

‘Costa is not Spanish’ chanted the Real Madrid fans as their team lost last year to their great rivals. And while the striker may not be Spanish in their eyes, he holds a Spanish Passport and within five months he would make his debut for the World and European Champions. Costa had made just two friendly appearances for his native country and was not included in Luiz Felipe Scolari’s squad for last year’s Confederation Cup, despite Brazil’s relative lack of quality centre-forwards. As he had not appeared in a competitive game, Costa was free to choose which country to represent.

When Brazil came calling again last autumn it was too late. ‘When I heard there was interest from Spain I began to imagine things, to think: ‘Why not?’ the striker said in March, in an interview with Spanish-based journalist Sid Lowe. ‘It was a privilege that the world champions want you, a privilege to be able to help the great players they have. I felt very important. I valued it a lot’. Therein lays the basis of Costa’s decision. Whereas he felt undervalued by Brazil, when he was just a promising striker, Spain’s interest reflected his new status and Costa’s decision represented his new-found place at the cusp of the game’s elite players. He chose perceived loyalty and estimation of his personal value over national allegiance, or the emotional pull of potentially winning the World Cup in the country of his birth.

It was a bold statement and one which irked Scolari, who said ‘He is turning his back on a dream of millions, to represent our national team, the five-time champions in a World Cup in Brazil’. The Brazil manager is clearly bullish about Costa’s defection to their key rivals. Yet one can only imagine Big Phil,when he announced his squad with just two centre-forwards, was left wondering what might have been. Costa, with his incisive movement, powerful running and clinical finishing, would have been the ideal focal point of his attack. And perfect foil for Brazilian golden boy Neymar.

Indeed, it is telling that Chelsea, the club team that perhaps most closely resemble Brazil, see Costa as the missing piece in their side. Both Chelsea and Brazil are built on a solid defence with an industrious midfield. At their best they are both direct, fast and hard pressing, with a sprinkling of individual flair, with Belgium’s Eden Hazard being Chelsea’s equivalent of Neymar. On July 14th, the day after the World Cup final, will Scolari, as his Chelsea counterpart José Mourinho has done all season, be ruing the absence of a world class centre-forward?

Costa himself was largely anonymous during his adopted country’s friendly win over Italy in March and, until the World Cup begins, it is unclear exactly how the striker fits into Spain’s tiki-taka system. However, even if it is by virtue of denying their main rivals of his quality, Spain is set to profit from Brazil’s loss as Costa could prove the tournament’s decisive figure.

From international cast-off and second choice Atletico striker, to a Spanish, and potential, European and World champion, in less than a year. Costa is on the cusp of the game’s greatest prizes, and cementing his place on football’s elite stage.