Vinícius steps up for Brazil after slow Copa América start

Tournament football can be a little like a social media voice message played three times faster than normal. Time speeds up. Teams suddenly come together, or just as quickly collapse under the intense pressure of the competition.

Brazil were subjected to the stress test on Friday night against Paraguay after an underwhelming start to their Copa América. Their opening display against Costa Rica was by no means a disaster — but the goals did not come. At the end of the 0-0 draw, captain Danilo — seen as a symbol of calm, rational leadership — was arguing with supporters in the stands.

Part of the problem is a consequence of the recent failures of previous Brazil sides, leaving the current group expected to pay a bill for which they are not responsible. The pressure cranked up still further after fellow Group D opponents Colombia cruised to a 3-0 win over Costa Rica. It meant that Brazil took the field against Paraguay in the knowledge that defeat would mean almost certain elimination.

Instead, Brazil’s 4-1 win on Friday means that, barring a mathematical miracle, they have booked their place in the quarterfinals. But they had to confront a few demons along the way.

The traditional resilience of the Paraguayans has broken Brazilian hearts before. They knocked Brazil out of the Copa América tournaments of 2011 and 2015, and they presented coach Dorival Junior’s Brazil side with the prospect of a frustrating evening spent trying to break down their defence.

Worse still, with Brighton’s Julio Enciso flitting about, and Miguel Almirón looking to have a right at Danilo, Paraguay posed an attacking threat. They came up with the first two dangerous shots of the game. And then on the half hour, when Brazil were out of the blue awarded a penalty for hand ball, Lucas Paquetá put it wide.

At this point, some serious questions were being posed and Brazil did not look up for their stress test. Was Paqueta being affected by the serious charges of spot fixing that have been levelled against him? Would Bruno Guimarães ever dominate the Brazil midfield the way that he does for Newcastle? And were Brazil making a mistake by playing without a recognised centre forward?

Within minutes, all in the same move, the team came up with some answers. It was a moment that might go down as a turning point for this Seleção. Vinícius Junior cut in from the left, exchanged passes with Rodrgyo; then Bruno Guimaraes played a nicely angled ball to Lucas Paqueta, whose sweet lay off was into the path of Vinícius, who had continued his infield run and had broken into the space created by the very absence of a centre forward. And Brazil’s 1-0 lead after 34 minutes became 3-0 at halftime, with the game effectively decided.

The first goal was the key. Once Brazil were in front, Paraguay would have to commit more men forward, opening up space for the Brazil counterattack. Brazil’s attacking pieces had clicked. And, probably most importantly, it was Vinícius Junior who led the pack.

This is a big tournament in the life of the Real Madrid superstar. Vinícius Junior went to the 2022 World Cup as a bolt-on. He was not originally part of the team constructed by coach Tite, and forced his way in on the run in. But it was not his team.

Times have changed. After a slow start to his international career, Vini is now viewed as the most potent attacking weapon, and this is his first tournament carrying this status.

In the back end of last year, injury restricted him to three of Brazil’s six World Cup qualifiers. They were not memorable either for him or for the team — a draw at home to Venezuela and defeats away to Uruguay and Colombia, with Vini substituted on all three occasions.

And then he was disappointing in the Copa debut against Costa Rica — though many in the Brazilian media were critical of the decision to withdraw him in the second half. Brazil can be very cruel to its idols, and a second sub-standard Copa display would not have been greeted with such tolerance.

Instead, at the time when the team most needed it — just after that Paqueta missed penalty — Vinícius stepped up. This was his first two goal haul for his country, and probably the best match he has played in the yellow shirt.

He dribbled Paraguay right back Gustavo Velasquez to distraction, completing more dribbles in the first half alone than in any previous game he has played for Brazil. And, as he showed with that vital opening goal, there was an end product as well.

Brazil, then, are on their way. But they are still very much a work in progress.

As yet, this team is not remotely near the level of the side that coach Tite took to Qatar for the last World Cup. They do not press from the front with anything like the same intensity. And, despite often sitting deep and playing two tough midfielders in Bruno Guimaraes and João Gomes, they are nowhere near as defensively solid.

This last point has been a point of concern for Dorival Junior, and has been the focus of his training sessions. Even so, Paraguay had plenty of shots on goal. Alisson was beaten by a long range special from Omar Alderete — Brazil sitting deep but unable to stop the shot — and was also called upon to make a number of difficult saves.

But with a place in the last eight of the Copa all but guaranteed, Brazil can build for the rest of the competition under much less pressure on their backs. Dorival Junior will trust that in the rapid development made possible by tournament play, he can mould a unit which, spearheaded by Vinícius Junior, can win Brazil’s first title of the decade.