May 23, 2018 / 3:22 PM / 3 months ago

Recovering Brazil are favorites with everything to prove

SAO PAULO (Reuters) - Few national teams have experienced the ups and downs of Brazil over the last five years but the good news for fans of the selecao is that they are ascendant as Russia approaches.

Football Soccer - Brazil national soccer team training - World Cup 2018 Qualifier - Olimpico Atahualpa Stadium, Quito, Ecuador - 31/8/16 Brazil's soccer players in training. REUTERS/Kevin Granja Picture Supplied by Action Images

Brazil won the 2013 Confederations Cup, hammering an all-conquering Spain side 3-0 in the final. A year later they were humiliated 7-1 at home by Germany in the World Cup semi-finals and early exits at the Copa America in 2015 and 2016 deepened the gloom.

But the improvement since Tite took over as coach in June 2016 has been remarkable and Brazil are now joint favorites to win a record sixth World Cup.

Much of that credit goes to the wily coach, who has instilled a sense of purpose in a team that looked lost under his predecessor Dunga.

Tite has retained only seven of the 23 players who failed on home soil four years ago, with Neymar, Marcelo, Dani Alves, Fernandinho, Thiago Silva, Willian and Paulinho among those likely to make the final 23.

The central defense has been shored up with Marquinhos and Miranda, and Brazil under Tite have conceded just five goals in 19 games.

The midfield has a balance of solid and creative, with Casemiro providing the backbone, Paulinho capable of going box-to-box, and Renato Augusto offering some spark.

Up front Tite has an embarrassment of riches, with Neymar, Gabriel Jesus and Philippe Coutinho the likely starters with able back-up on the bench from speedy wingers Willian and Douglas Costa.

Those players helped Brazil to become the first team to qualify for Russia with a record string of nine successive wins, but they must take care to rein in any euphoria.

Brazil have historically done better at World Cups when they fly off hated rather than feted by their own press and fans.

In 1970, 1994 and 2002, the selecao left home under a cloud only to silence their doubters and lift the cup.

In 1982 and 2006 it was the opposite, as teams headed to Europe expecting to canter to victory.

Tite is nothing if not pragmatic and he has worked overtime to ensure his players are focused on the task at hand.

On the field his work has been exemplary, as 15 wins in 19 games prove. How he prepares them off it may be almost as important.

Reporting by Andrew Downie; editing by Ken Ferris

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