Tite and Neymar impress, Paulinho returns: What we learned about Brazil
If the reaction in Brazil after Tuesday night's 2-1 win over Colombia in Manaus was subdued in comparison to the euphoria that marked the drubbing of Ecuador last week, by no means did it compare to the pessimistic tones of before.
After winning two games in a row for the first time on the road to Russia 2018, the Seleção has shown that not only can they negotiate safe passage to the next World Cup, preserving their 100 percent attendance record, but they can also come up with a side that could do a lot more.
In short, the latest round of the qualifiers also taught us some other interesting things about Neymar & Co.
1. Tite has arrived
That the former Corinthians manager was a name supported by many to take the reins of the Seleção, there was no doubt. But it was another thing for him to deliver performances with a group of players not fundamentally different from the ones -- Neymar included -- that floundered and set some negative records under his predecessor, Dunga .
In the team practice at Arena da Amazonia ahead of the Colombia game, Tite had his name chanted by the supporters, still fired up by the gutsy win against Ecuador brought back from the heights of Quito.
Although hailing from the same Rio Grande do Sul state that gave both Dunga and Luiz Felipe Scolari to the footballing world, Tite is not known for the same "cowboy" gestures. His remit so far is to try to keep the players as comfortable as he can. Yes, there is still a long road until Russia, but the new "Gaucho" seems to have steadied the boat.
Not that he didn't play for the gallery, mind you: Brazilian journos still purr talking about how he announced the team in a press conference a day before the Ecuador game, instead of retaining some kind of mystery.
2. So has Neymar
In the days leading up to the Rio Olympics, Neymar "spat wasps" (as the Brazilian saying goes) when questioned about his poor displays for the Seleção at the time. A very bad start at the games didn't help either, so it was a genuine relief that the Barcelona man played a major role in the Seleção's rebound.
It was even better that he didn't do it in some kind of heroic way. While his winner against Colombia oozed coolness, Neymar has been more praised for the work for the collective that marked his game in Quito, where assists rather than goals were proof of his more mature ambition. While his histrionics even managed to tarnish his role in helping Brazil win gold in Rio, even critics know the Barcelona man is crucial for the Seleção.
Oh, and his goal against Colombia took his national team tally to 48, putting him level with Zico.
3. CSL "exiles" buck the trend
The only real surprise by Tite in this latest round of games was the return of Paulinho. It is quite likely that the former Tottenham man was expecting a call-up. "Exiled" in the Chinese Super League with Guangzhou Evergrande since July 2015 after failing to impress in the Premier League, the central midfielder looked as good a bet for a national team return as Fred, their disgraced former No. 9. Tite, who worked with the player at Corinthians when Paulinho actually shot through the Seleção ranks, surprised people even more by putting him in the starting XI.
More shocking still was that Paulinho was one of the best players over the two games. Alongside another "exile" in Beijing Guoan attacking midfielder Renato Augusto, Paulinho formed a partnership that helped Brazil tire the Ecuadorians and contain the Bolivians. (That said, a lot of kudos need to be directed towards Real Madrid's Casemiro, who marked his club teammate James Rodriguez off the park in Manaus.)
If the standards of playing in the Chinese league are still a worry, at least they haven't hurt Tite so far. Paulinho is suspended for the Bolivia game, which might allow Tite to take a closer look at Fernandinho instead.
4. Coutinho is more "when" than "if"
Twice has Phillipe Coutinho came from the bench to fire up the Seleção in two difficult games. Twice has the Liverpool man eclipsed Willian, chosen by Tite to start those matches. But while he came in while Brazil were leading Ecuador, it was a different story against Colombia. Ultimately, his deft touch found Neymar in space so the Barca star could fire the ball past David Ospina for the winner in Manaus.
Tite might as well keep using Coutinho as a super sub, but few in Brazil are against seeing the Liverpool start alongside Neymar versus Bolivia in the next round of qualifying.
5. The defence needs work but is getting much better
Marquinhos certainly won't have the fondest memories of Tuesday's game in Manaus, because he ended up scoring an own goal that put Brazil under genuine pressure. Rather than being harassed by the media for it, the Paris Saint-Germain centre-back ended this round of game with plaudits from the Brazilians. His partnership with Miranda is new and thus bound to have some bumps, but the confidence shown on the ball couldn't be more different when compared to the panic that used to follow David Luiz' every move.
Tite hasn't ruled out giving another PSG defender, Thiago Silva, a chance to show his mettle, while Rodrigo Caio, who was amazing during the Olympics, is another promising name for 2018. But the Miranda-Marquinhos ticket looks strong so far.
6. Check the table
When the fixture list for the 2018 South American qualifiers was released last year, not even the most patriotic Brazil fans couldn't help being upset. In their first three games, Brazil had to travel to both Chile and Argentina (with a home game against Venezuela in the middle), and it didn't help that their confidence was in tatters after a dismal showing at the Copa America. Worse, they were without Neymar for the opener in Santiago.
Four points in those three games might not sound that bad, but when the team collected only five from the next three, things looked a bit more daunting, especially as the Seleção sat sixth in the 10-team table in March, not good enough for a place at the World Cup.
But their recent form means Brazil are now second in qualification with 15 points; and despite the fact that only five points separate leaders Uruguay from Chile in seventh, Tite is hardly losing much sleep. If Brazil win the next two games, they will be needing something like seven points from the following eight matches to mathematically book a place in Russia.
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.