When Brazil last hosted a major tournament five years ago, it’s a fair recollection to describe them as having more functionality than flair.
That World Cup saw the Samba Boys struggle under the weight of expectation when left stunned in the semis by eventually winners Germany in one of the most shocking knockout matches ever seen in international football.
As Brazil prepares for a first Copa America on home soil in 30 years that gets underway on Friday, 14 June, head coach Tite doesn’t have his star turn and reliable goal source to call on.
This was supposed to be the tournament where Neymar cemented himself among the pantheon of Samba Boys greats.
The group stage looked a golden opportunity to eclipse Ronaldo in the goalscoring charts and also become just the seventh player in their storied history to reach 100 caps.
Injury in a warm-up friendly against invitees Qatar which he had no need to be involved in has put paid to that. It also makes Brazil decidedly weaker favourites despite home advantage.
Calling a country that has produced such an array of talent down the years a one-man team would be churlish. What happened when Neymar got injured at the 2014 World Cup, though? Brazil were bust.
There is also no getting away from the fact that heading into their final prep match with Honduras, the seven other attacking players in the squad – including late call-up Willian – had only netted 80 per cent of Neymar’s international tally (60) between them.
Five of those did score six goals between them against the Central American nation but far sterner tests, particularly in the knockout phase of the Copa America, lie ahead.
No true superstar among Samba supporting cast
Gabriel Jesus won a domestic treble with Manchester City in his best scoring season since moving to England yet wasn’t always first choice for Pep Guardiola.
Roberto Firmino lifted the Champions League with Liverpool despite offering little in the final itself. Across Merseyside, Richarlison demonstrated he’s developed further at Everton since showing promise in the early months of his Premier League career with Watford.
Willian, meanwhile, helped Chelsea win a third European trophy in seven years. Firmino’s erstwhile Anfield teammate Philippe Coutinho may have struggled for form in Spain this season but Barcelona again lifted La Liga.
David Neres is part of a young Ajax side coveted by Europe’s elite after their eliminations of Real Madrid and Juventus from the Champions League that did the domestic double in the Netherlands.
Gremio forward Everton Soares has won four trophies in as many years. And yet, none of these names have ever been regarded as top dog at their current club or held that supreme status as being Brazil’s main man.
Gabriel Jesus can’t compete with Sergio Aguero and that stoppage time title-winning goal at the Etihad, for instance.
Firmino is the least fab of Liverpool’s front three with African duo Sadio Mane and Mo Salah more prolific. Coutinho lies in the shadow cast by Lionel Messi at the Nou Camp – one Neymar felt he had to escape.
Willian, that most orthodox of wingers, didn’t make Tite’s 23-man Copa America squad at first presumably on the basis he was only playing Europa League football throughout the past club campaign. Eden Hazard was the wide player most Chelsea fans fawned over.
Tite now has the tough task of blending these undoubted talents in Neymar’s absence to create an attack that can fire his Samba Boys out of the group and well beyond.
Argentina still have Aguero and Messi
What makes things even more difficult is many of the challengers Brazil could face come the business end of the Copa America have more than one established international player they look to for inspiration.
Major rivals Argentina can call on two of their three most prolific all-time goalscorers from their roster in Aguero and Messi. Both have enjoyed glittering careers in England and Spain.
With more than 100 strikes in international football between them – while it’s worth remembering both have failed to replicate their club form for their country at times – this can hardly be called an area of weakness.
Lionel Scaloni has assembled a coaching staff that reads like a who’s who of the last generation of Argentina players.
Pablo Aimar was a cult hero in midfield and has breakout talent Giovani Lo Celso to work with here after a great season at Real Betis.
Angel Di Maria remains part of the supporting cast behind Aguero and Messi, so there is a familiar look to forward areas.
Defensive duo Roberto Ayala and Walter Samuel will ensure the rearguard, so often seen as Argentina’s problem, are organised.
Plenty is expected from diminutive Ajax left back Nicolas Tagliafico, while the heart of the rearguard is still marshalled by Nicolas Otamendi.
Falcao and James may mask new Colombia threat
Colombia had to make do without star striker Radamel Falcao at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, but the Monaco man is fit for this tournament which may prove the twilight of his international career.
He is backed up by the playmaker who stole the show five years ago, James Rodriguez. While precious little has worked out since for him with a mega transfer to Real Madrid off the back of his World Cup exploits disappointing, he has still won things.
Bayern Munich aren’t exercising their buy option on James after two years on loan at the Bundesliga big boys, and the feeling appears to be mutual.
Together with Falcao, Colombia’s key couple have more international goals than the Brazilian septet Tite has to choose from in attack.
This tournament could be another shop window for James to recapture his scintillating form. Now that he has Falcao, who is in many ways the perfect foil for him, this pair could do plenty of damage together.
Duvan Zapata has had a prolific campaign on loan at Atalanta, meanwhile, and if bringing that form to international duty adds a new dimension to the Colombian attack. Relatively little is known about him after just a handful of caps.
With midfield very much built around letting James go forward, their defence may rest on Premier League pair Yerry Mina and Davinson Sanchez who are both still yet to reach their prime.
Usual suspects for Uruguay and Chile
Uruguay have two of the same strikers as when winning the Copa America eight years ago. They were good enough to fire Oscar Tabarez’s team to glory then, so little has changed for Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez.
They can relate to Brazil’s forward players. Neither are the one at their current clubs but remain hugely consistent and represent another 100 goals plus partnership on the international stage.
Tabarez has been very loyal to the side that went all the way in this competition, but also looked to bring through new midfielders to supply Suarez and Cavani.
Lucas Torreira and Rodrigo Bentancur remain very exciting players in the Uruguayan engine room.
Fernando Muslera behind a defence that still contains captain Diego Godin looks solid as ever. This is probably their last shot at Copa America glory though.
Chile have won the last two editions of the Copa America. Eduardo Vargas, the one-time QPR flop, scored 10 goals across both tournament triumphs and is only regarded as the third best player in the squad.
Alexis Sanchez and his struggles for form with Manchester United are well-documented. That doesn’t change the fact he is Chile’s record goalscorer.
Arturo Vidal is another household name of this highly successful generation after hotfooting it around Europe. Midfield is obviously all about him, while the defence of Jean Beausejour, Mauricio Isla, Gonzalo Jara and Gary Medel have all aged together.
They have over 440 caps between them, and that experience will either prove Chile’s greatest asset of their downfall.
Golden oldies all gathered for one last tilt at glory
You may look at some of these names from South American nations that will all fancy their chances of beating Brazil and think their key players perhaps look past their prime, but it only highlights how many established stars are on show at this Copa America.
Half of the eight making up the Samba Boys defence are 33 and over, with the eldest Dani Alves in as captain aged 36.
The Brazil backline rarely concedes goals, but have seldom played tough opposition since last summer’s World Cup in Russia.
From what looks like an easy enough group stage draw and a pool which contains Bolivia, Peru and Venezuela, Tite should take his team through to the knockout phase.
What happens when Brazil comes up against another heavyweight of South America in a possible semi-final if all goes to plan will be very interesting.
Just getting to the last four would be their best performance since last winning the Copa America in 2007. The one major difference from five years ago is there’s no Neymar from the start.
He can’t drag the Samba Boys through a group which they should walk on paper, so others must take up his mantle and prove able deputies either collectively or as individuals.
Doing that in early matches should be easy enough but, just like Argentina, this generation of Brazilians really need to win a major trophy. In trying to achieve that aim, it may well prove a case of no Neymar, big problem.