Half an hour into Brazil’s meeting with Serbia at the last World Cup, two heavyweights contested a loose ball close to the centre circle.
Aleksandar Mitrovic thought a stooping header might win the joust and launch a Serbian counter-attack. Thiago Silva reckoned a judicious stretch of his long right leg might nip the danger in the bud.
Thiago connected with the ball, but also with Mitrovic’s brow. The striker fell, clutching his scalp in pain. Thiago offered appropriate gestures of concern. And for the remaining hour they carried on going at each other hammer and tongs.
That duel, compelling to watch in the Moscow sun four-and-a-half years ago, should be resumed at some point this afternoon as the favourites to win the 2022 World Cup take on a Serbia team tipped, not for the first time at a major tournament, as candidates to make a surprise, outsider surge to the later stages, even to a semi-final.
Serbia are dark horses largely because of the career-defining 2022 their lead strikers, Mitrovic and Dusan Vlahovic, are now completing.
Both come into the tournament a little gingerly, an ankle injury having interrupted Mitrovic’s stunning momentum with his club Fulham – 43 goals towards last season’s promotion from the Championship; nine more in the Premier League this season – and a thigh problem having kept Vlahovic out of action for Juventus, who signed the 22-year-old for close to €82 million in January.
Whichever of the pair makes – or indeed, if both start – the line-up on Thursday, Brazil’s worldly defensive unit can anticipate duelling that is muscular and intense.
Thiago is earmarked to wear the captain’s armband, a distinction he has enjoyed, on and off, for a dozen years spent gradually making himself commander-in-chief of Brazil’s back line.
Brazil's Road to Qatar
The Chelsea veteran is into his 39th year, old enough to have turned professional when Brazil won the fifth of their World Cups, in 2002. But at that stage in his life he was beginning a tough journey towards the elite.
He suffered rejection from various clubs in his teens, was marginalised when he moved to Europe to join Porto, and came close to leaving football altogether when he was hospitalised with tuberculosis while playing for Dynamo Moscow.
His endurance through his later years, the trophied period with AC Milan, Paris Saint-Germain and Chelsea owes plenty to the determination he developed in the lean times.
He made sound alliances, too, and the partnership Thiago nurtured over six seasons at PSG with Marquinhos is the rock on which Brazil’s solidity is based.
With Thiago and Marquinhos in tandem, six clean sheets have been preserved in their nine games on the pitch together since the July 2021 defeat to Argentina in the final of the Copa America – and two of those goals conceded came in 5-1 victories. With Alisson, the Liverpool goalkeeper behind them, and Casemiro, of Manchester United, the sentry at the base of midfield, Tite, the Brazil head coach, believes he has a security corps to better any at the tournament.
The dilemma, ahead of the Group G opener, is whether to also include Fred, Casemiro’s club colleague and established sidekick in midfield. Leaving out Fred would mean a midfield pairing of Casemiro and West Ham United’s Lucas Paqueta, a Tite favourite, and so allow Neymar to be flanked by Barcelona’s Raphinha and Real Madrid’s Vinicius Junior, behind, most likely, Richarlison of Tottenham Hotspur. With Fred included, Vinicius or Raphinha would start on the bench.
Whatever Tite’s choices, it will be a very different XI from the one the same coach, in the job since 2016, assembled for the quarter-final against Belgium at the last World Cup, a 2-1 defeat for which Casemiro was suspended, Neymar frustrated and Thiago Silva regretful that an early opportunity came off his thigh and on to the Belgian post.
In that tournament, Thiago had already reminded of his usefulness at attacking set-pieces, one of his many assets, with a goal in that percussive group match against Serbia. Mitrovic would remember it well. A Neymar corner swung in, the burly Fulham striker was marking the near post. He ended up spread-eagled on the ground.
Thiago took advantage to head home Brazil’s second of a 2-0 win, by which time the Mitro-versus-Thiago ding-dong had been engrossing spectators for close to 70 minutes. Mitrovic was booked shortly afterwards.
Tite anticipates more bruises being left on his players at the Lusail stadium. He knows his team’s billing as favourites, and Brazil’s fabled World Cup history, motivates every opponent.
“We will not be surrendering easily,” said Dragan Stojkovic, Serbia’s head coach.