Brazil need more than luck if they are to challenge for Copa America glory
Whether it was down to luck or sheer refereeing incompetence, no matter how you look at it, Brazil walked out of the Rose Bowl after the opening match of their Copa America campaign with a result they didn't really deserve.
The 0-0 draw against Ecuador was a result that will do nothing but deepen the confidence crisis that has been running through the side since last year's disastrous Copa America in Chile and their stumbling World Cup qualifying campaign (where they are currently sixth in the table after six games) in CONMEBOL.
Of course it could have been worse: the Selecao should have gone 1-0 down after goalkeeper Alisson fluffed what looked like an innocuous cross and managed to throw it into his own net. However, the assistant referee thought the ball had already gone out of play; though replays seem to suggest that the Ecuadorians have every reason to feel aggrieved.
It was never supposed to be an easy match. While Brazil are struggling in their World Cup qualifying campaign and took a highly experimental squad to the United States for the Copa, Ecuador are joint leaders in CONMEBOL and are oozing confidence. Before Saturday, they had only beaten their bigger South American neighbors in two out of 29 games but they knew Dunga's men were there for the taking.
The irony is that the Selecao weren't exactly in tatters at the Rose Bowl. Several times in the match they showed good pace and created chances that should have been buried. Lucas Moura and Philippe Coutinho should have showed more composure in front of goal, while Elias could certainly do with more target practice in training.
On the ball, Brazil were notably better than in recent games. The team kept the ball on the floor instead of putting it into the air and their positioning was much more compact. Dunga used a starting XI with attacking spirit and, in midfield, only Casemiro (added after Luiz Gustavo's departure from the tournament due to personal problems) played a proper holding role in front of the defenders. Elias, Renato Augusto and Coutinho were free to roam and help Willian and Jonas upfront.
That, however, also seemed to compromise the defensive efficiency that is a trademark of Dunga's teams and the Selecao were left exposed to Ecuadorian counter-attacks. A more composed team could have punished Brazil's high line and it was concerning that Dunga's side had to resort to fouls to stop those Ecuadorian breaks -- Casemiro, Elias and Gil all picked up bookings as a result.
Nonetheless, it was interesting to see Brazil trying to run the game instead of working it pragmatically. Yet Willian picked up an injury that forced him to depart and his replacement Lucas Moura was in no way as influential to the side as his Chelsea counterpart. Dunga will certainly be hoping that the Willian is fit for the game with Haiti at the Citrus Bowl in Orlando on Wednesday.
Alisson's blunder will also be playing on the manager's mind. The promotion of the Internacional keeper to the Selecao No. 1 spot was taken after veteran Jefferson's wobbly display against Chile last September, but while the youngster didn't disappoint he certainly didn't cover himself in glory either.
In recent years, Brazil have tried over a dozen different goalkeepers but nobody has been able to claim the No. 1 jersey for themselves. It was notable that Dunga diplomatically refrained from criticising Alisson when questioned about the slip up and preferred to focus on the fact that the assistant referee had called the ball out.
The manager did what he could in terms of substitutions. Perhaps Lucas Lima could have been brought in a bit earlier than the 85th minute but Dunga was happy with the overall performance.
"It was a tough game and we tried everything we could to win it from the start," he said in his postmatch news conference. "I liked the behavior of the team against an opponent that knows how to defend and to try to hit the counter-attacks. We need to work out our finishing and diversify a bit more, like shooting from a distance instead of trying to invade the box all the time."
But, despite Dunga's positive spin, the result was worrying. No matter how well Ecuador are doing in the qualifiers, Brazil should have shown more authority on the pitch if they are to win this tournament. It also suggested that September's away encounter with Ecuador (to be played high above sea level) in the World Cup qualifiers could test the resilience of fans to the limit.
Brazil have more immediate worries, of course. Failure to win the Copa once again will put more pressure on Dunga and the squad as they try to avoid denting Brazil's perfect World Cup attendance record. That's before they even think about the mission to form a squad to actually challenge for honours at Russia 2018.
The Copa America campaign will be more important for Brazil than some might suggest. Dunga will need to lift his side after a disappointing start; they won't be able to rely on good luck for long.
Fernando Duarte is a U.K.-based Brazilian football expert who has reported on the Selecao for over a decade. Follow him on Twitter: @Fernando_Duarte.