Coming back after the mother of all humiliations in that 7-1 defeat to Germany while hosting the tournament in 2014, Brazil are once more among the top contenders.
The Selecao were the first team to qualify for next year’s showpiece, wrapping up South American qualifying as runaway leaders with 10 points more than second-place Uruguay.
They have a fiery attack, a solid defence and in Tite a coach who in a short time has managed to lift the team from its meltdown and restore the faith of desperate fans.
When he took over in June 2016, Tite inherited a team that may have a history of five world championships, but under his predecessor Dunga had slipped to sixth in the regional qualification. Brazil risked not going to Russia at all.
But under Tite’s guidance, the team turned around, rediscovering its beautiful game and getting the individual stars to work more as part of the collective.
Of the 12 remaining qualification matches, Brazil won 10 and drew two, scoring 30 goals and conceding just three.
– Attacking trio –
The former Corinthians coach didn’t have to make many changes to the team sheet to achieve this remarkable revival.
“Tite isn’t a coach like (Pep) Guardiola who comes in with big new innovations, but he is without doubt the best current Brazilian coach,” said Mauro Cezar Pereira, a commentator for the cable channel ESPN Brazil.
“Unlike the former selectors, he’s in touch with modern football and knew how to rapidly reorganize the team. It’s not the best generation of players we’ve ever had, but there are good players.”
At the heart of the 11 are the explosive trio of Gabriel Jesus (Manchester City) as center forward, flanked by Neymar (PSG) and Philippe Coutinho (Liverpool), although the three are encouraged to roam.
Jesus stormed through the qualifiers as Brazil’s top scorer with seven goals and five assists.
Neymar is an even bigger star, coming off the euphoria of his record-breaking 222 million euros ($264 million) transfer from Barcelona to PSG.
But he continues to struggle with discipline, racking up six yellow cards in 14 qualification matches, with his habit for irritability growing over the most recent games.
Dogged by his image as football’s spoiled child, a tearful Neymar attended a November 10 press conference alongside Tite, after a friendly against Japan, to deny rumors of tensions between him and PSG coach Unai Emery.
Pereira at ESPN Brazil warns that questions over Neymar’s mental toughness could haunt the team in Russia.
“I think he’s still too immature. He needs to watch out because at the World Cup all his opponents will be trying to get under his skin,” he said.
– Fighting for places –
In defence, Tite has Miranda (Inter) and Marquinhos (PSG), Marcelo (Real Madrid) and Dani Alves (PSG), and even the luxury of Thiago Silva (PSG) on the bench.
In midfield, Paulinho, who has silenced his critics at Barcelona, and Real Madrid stalwart Casemiro look sure to start.
However, Renato Augusto, who plays in China, is going to have to battle for his place against Fernandinho, a favourite of Guardiola at Man City.
In goal, Roma’s Alisson has moved up from the bench but has Manchester City’s Ederson breathing down his neck.
Tite likes keeping his players keen.
“Every time we meet, he says it was a real headache to choose the team and that we all have to keep giving everything at our clubs,” Neymar said after Brazil’s most recent game, a 0-0 draw with England at Wembley.