Pivotal Paulinho returns to the fold for Tite's Brazil

Europe’s main event is the UEFA Champions League, the competition where the top players from all over the world congregate, seeking to win the trophy and each other’s respect.


Paulinho in action for Brazil Source: Getty Images

Strictly speaking, South America’s equivalent is the Copa Libertadores. But club football in the continent has been so gutted by player sales that a different comparison can be made.

The closest that South America gets to the Champions League is the continent’s FIFA World Cup qualification campaign.

There is plenty at stake. The level of competition is now so high that no one is guaranteed an easy ride – Copa America champions in both the last two years Chile are down in seventh place, and running a real risk of not making it to Russia 2018.

The pressure is on, the rivalry is intense, the sense of occasion always present. And the big name stars come home to represent their national teams.

The World Cup qualifiers are a rare opportunity for the local crowd to have a look at Lionel Messi, Neymar, Luis Suarez, James Rodriguez, Alexis Sanchez ... and Paulinho.

That last name on the list will raise more than a few eyebrows. Paulinho was a big money signing for Tottenham Hotspur who, after a reasonable start, descended into the depths of disappointment.

Chuntering about lack of opportunities, but very seldom shining whenever one came his way, the midfielder chased the money off to Chinese football, and it was widely thought that he would never be heard of again.

To general amazement he was named in Brazil’s squad for the recent World Cup qualifiers away to Ecuador and at home to Colombia.

These were crunch matches. Brazil went into them down in sixth place in the table, outside the qualification slots.

They were up against dangerous opponents, and two more disappointing results would leave Brazil worryingly off the pace, their proud record of having appeared in every World Cup in serious jeopardy. And this was the moment to recall Paulinho!

There was criticism in the Brazilian media. It would have been much fiercer but for the fact that the team had a new coach – Tite, by some distance the best local man for the job, who was so mysteriously overlooked after the 2014 World Cup disaster.

Tite, then, was an overwhelmingly popular choice, and he stepped into his new role with plenty of credit. Even so, it seemed hard for most to understand why Paulinho was in the squad, let alone straight into the starting line up.

Tite, though, new what he was doing. He had next to no time to train with his players before they took the field.

He needed people he could trust, and Paulinho was part of that list. The two worked together in a highly successful spell with Sao Paulo giants Corinthians, winning the Brazilian, South American and Club World titles.

A year after Tite had collected the set, I had the opportunity to do a TV programme with him in Rio. Afterwards, reliving his triumph over Chelsea, he gave me his opinion of Paulinho – a fantastic player, he said.

Not one with the technical ability to make people marvel at the range of his passing, but one who was hard working and versatile, useful in attack and defence, ideal for the type of compact team that Tite sought to select.

And if a national team coach has little time to train, he has all the time in the world to observe the opposition.

Tite’s task away to Ecuador, at the altitude of Quito, was a little like the one he faced when he was up against Chelsea in the final of the Club World Cup.

First he had to identify the strengths of the opposition and nullify them. The brain of the Ecuador side is central midfielder Cristian Noboa, whose superb passing is he supply line to their dangerous wingers.

Luckily for Brazil, Manchester United’s Luis Antonio Valencia was suspended for the game and would not feature on the right wing.

But Jefferson Montero was there on the left, and indeed, in the early stages he looked likely to win the game for his side.

Paulinho’s tasks in this match were primarily defensive. He had to get a grip on Noboa, denying him space the run the game.

And he was also expected to drop on the right and help Daniel Alves to mark Montero. The plan worked well.

After some early scares Brazil were comfortable in defence, and sprung out to win the game with three late goals – the only away victory in the two recent rounds.

They then followed that with another victory, 2-1 against Colombia, which rocketed them up to second in the table. Once more, Paulinho had a part to play.

This time Paulinho’s task was a little more attacking. Now, as well as forming part of the midfield block, he was expected to use one of his great strengths, the timing of his runs into the box, to break behind the Colombian defence.

It nearly brought Brazil a vital goal, but as he tried to latch on to a diagonal ball into the penalty area he inadvertently handled, picking up a yellow card which rules him out of the next game, at home to Bolivia in early October.

Tite may decide that it is hardly worth bringing Paulinho all the way back from China for just one match – the trip to Venezuela a few days after the Bolivia game.

Or he may opt to keep him in the squad and further strengthen the bond of confidence between them.

Because what this story shows is the importance of the player-coach relationship, how a coach who is well aware of the strengths and weaknesses of a player can get him to be useful within a specific gameplan, regardless of his form with his club, which takes place in a different collective context.

Because that same Paulinho who added little to Tottenham brought plenty to the table when he went back home to play for Brazil.

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6 min read
Published 13 September 2016 at 12:48pm
By Tim Vickery