Tite's Brazil World Cup squad taking shape but still places left to play for
In a recent interview with the local press, Brazil coach Tite confirmed 15 of the 23 players he will be taking to the World Cup.
They were (and this is the way he referred to them) his 11 normal starters, plus four. The team base, then, is goalkeeper Alisson (Roma), full-backs (right and left respectively) Daniel Alves (PSG) and Marcelo (Real Madrid), centre-backs Marquinhos (PSG) and Miranda (Inter Milan; holding midfielder Casemiro (Real Madrid), midfielders Paulinho (Barcelona) and Renato Augusto (Beijing Guoan); attacking midfielders Phillippe Coutinho (Barcelona) and Neymar (PSG); and centre-forward Gabriel Jesus (Manchester City).
Tite also added centre-back Thiago Silva (PSG), midfielder Fernandinho (Man City), attacking midfielder Willian (Chelsea) and striker Roberto Firmino (Liverpool).
Much of the coach's work over the coming months will be focused on filling the remaining gaps -- which may turn out to be much more than just making up the numbers. Unfortunately, players always get injured in the buildup to the tournament. World Cup history is full of stories of those who did not imagine themselves taking part but who ended up as heroes.
But working on the basis that 15 places have already been allocated, that leaves eight. Two of them will be goalkeepers. It is somewhat surprising that Tite did not name Manchester City's Ederson among his certainties, because it is surely inconceivable that he would be left out. Cassio of Corinthians would seem to be in the lead for the third keeper spot, although some are pushing the claims of uncapped veteran Vanderlei of Santos. But the third goalkeeper rarely plays -- it is the only position for which there is triple cover.
The reserve left-back slot would seem to be a straight fight between the steady Filipe Luis (Atletico Madrid) and the more explosive Alex Sandro of Juventus. Pole position for the last centre-back berth is Monaco's Jemerson, although Pedro Geromel of Gremio has his supporters. The extra pace of Jemerson will probably win the day.
Right-back is something of a problem -- not least because undisputed first choice Alves, for all his many talents, is hardly the world's best defender. Danilo of Man City is a candidate, and over recent months Tite has also had a look at Fagner (Corinthians), Mariano (Galatasaray) and even the veteran Rafinha of Bayern Munich. It seems he is still looking. Edilson, who recently joined Cruzeiro from South American champions Gremio, is also on the radar screen. A fine striker of the ball, Edilson has been let down in the past by a fiery temperament.
And once the goalkeeping and defensive slots have been filled, there are only three places left open for other sectors of the team. This would seem to make it unlikely that Tite will go for a target man centre-forward. He has flirted with Diego Souza, recently signed by Sao Paulo, in this role. But as the veteran has played his entire club career in midfield, this has always looked like a strange option, and it could well be that the storming form of Firmino at Liverpool has closed the door on it.
Tite may wish to have another look at the rapid Taison of Shakhtar Donetsk, a wide striker capable of operating through the middle if necessary. Failing that, Douglas Costa of Juventus may well be the strongest candidate to complete the attacking options -- though Gremio's Luan could bring something different to the table. Voted the best player in South American football last year, Luan's game is based on intelligent passing rather than sinuous dribbling, and his introduction into the 2016 Olympic side was exactly what was needed to kick-start the campaign.
There will be a battle royale for the all-round midfield slots. Tite thinks highly of the versatile Giuliano of Fenerbahce, a regular squad member. Manchester City transfer target Fred (Shakhtar Dontesk) is left-footed and dynamic, and young Arthur of Gremio has a touch of Andres Iniesta about him, explaining Barcelona's interest in signing him.
Arthur will be involved in the group stages of the Copa Libertadores, which will also serve as a shop window for Jadson of Corinthians to push his claims. A fine passing midfielder, he worked well with Tite at club level. But local Sao Paulo rivals Palmeiras would seem to have the stronger team, which could serve as a platform for the left-footed Lucas Lima to win a recall. His capacity to organise the midfield from box to box could be an asset to Brazil's World Cup campaign. But first he, and the others on the fringes, have to force their way onto the plane alongside coach Tite and his 15 certainties.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.