Monday 08 August 2016, 11:15

Anxiety-afflicted Brazil seek positives

Stats never tell the whole story, but they can often speak volumes. A case in point is the staggering drought with which Brazil have kicked off their Men's Olympic Football Tournament Rio 2016 campaign. Tellingly, a team containing Neymar, Gabriel Jesus and Gabriel Barbosa have taken 41 shots in their two games, against South Africa and Iraq, but just 13 of those were on target and none rippled the net.

Having collected just two points from their opening couple of matches, an Auriverde side expected to win, entertain and score freely in front of their fans are now facing the very real prospect of an early exit on their own patch. This situation has logically prompted some soul-searching in the dressing room and, interestingly, one word has been repeated by several figures amid the inquest.

"There's a great deal of anxiety about scoring goals and that is ending up unsettling us and undermining the players' confidence," said Renato Augusto, the oldest member of the squad. This then becomes a vicious cycle because, as he put it, when your attempts go awry, "you stop having a go and it gets even more difficult".

It was to the experienced midfielder that the clearest chance fell against Iraq, deep into second-half injury time. With the Iraqi players scrambling the ball away any which way they could, Barbosa gathered possession, drove forward at pace and picked out the darting run of a fresh-legged William, who had only come on in the 80th minute. Confronted by Mohammed Hameed, the substitute clipped a cross past the onrushing keeper and into the heart of the box where an unmarked Augusto contrived to scoop his finish over the bar rather than into the gaping net.

"It's 7.32 by 2.44," a resigned Brazilian TV commentator was moved to exclaim, incredulously citing the dimensions of the goal as he lamented another opportunity gone begging. This was the midfield schemer's explanation: "I had edged forwards expecting the ball ahead of me, but it came in behind me and when I tried to turn around and arc my body, I ended up mishitting it."

There's a great deal of anxiety about scoring goals and that is ending up unsettling us and undermining the players' confidence.

Centre-back Rodrigo Caio was at a loss to explain his side's profligacy but refused to point the finger: "It's hard to analyse. We have attackers who are stars for their clubs but I think it's down to the team as a whole. We have to improve both individually and collectively."

Meanwhile, Luan, who was introduced off the bench in both matches to try to provide extra inspiration up front, echoed Augusto's thoughts and returned to the word of the day: "In the first game we had a bit more space, but that wasn't the case this time: they stuck everyone back in their box. That caused a bit of anxiety among our team about getting the first goal, which led some players to show impatience." He added that finding the breakthrough would have settled the nerves and "then everything would have come off more smoothly".

Although the team have not quite clicked the way they would have liked to, Brazil did still enjoy one very good 15-minute spell against the Iraqis. This came at the end of the first half when, by Augusto's rueful admission, they "could've scored two or three goals". That quarter of an hour was a veritable whirlwind, with Neymar missing a header following a magnificent leap and almost scoring direct from a corner, Zeka bursting into the box before being denied by Hameed, Jesus twice going close (particularly with a headed effort that whistled past the post) and Augusto himself rattling the woodwork with a piledriver.

"The ball's going ahead of or behind us, the opposition are cutting it out… We're training and battling as well as we can, it's not for a lack of effort. The ball just isn't going in, but when it does, it'll open the floodgates," said Barbosa, who is just 19.

So too is his namesake and strike partner Jesus, but Caio does not believe that the pair – or indeed the other youthful members of the squad – are suffering stage fright on account of their tender age. "We may have several young players, but we've all got a lot of experience at club level and we have to stay calm. Just because the ball wouldn't go in across two matches, it doesn't mean we should be all gloom and doom. Far from it."

Taking his cue from Caio, Jesus – guilty of hitting the post against South Africa when the goalie was beaten – sounded an upbeat note: "I don't know why we're not winning, but Portugal won the European Championship after drawing their first few games, so it's not a lost cause."