Connect in the back of the net

It may be something of a surprise to those with Premier League connections that Brazil now find themselves heading into a World Cup semi-final led by David Luiz. With captain and Luiz’s central-defensive partner Thiago Silva suspended and Neymar, the poster-boy of this World Cup, recovering from a tournament-ending fractured vertebra, a lot now rests on the shoulders of a defender who often betrays his precious talent with raw emotion and brash immaturity.

There may have been a worry as Luiz Felipe Scolari prepared his men to face Colombia in the Fortaleza quarter-final that Luiz and Silva may have been troubled by the directness of Juan Cuardrado or the movement of Teo Gutierrez and the brilliance of James Rodriguez, but as the manager told his critics to “go to hell” in the build-up, his centre-backs also responded with similar defiance.

First it was Luiz’s near-post presence that paved the way for Thiago to turn a ninth minute corner beyond David Ospina, before they constantly combined to repel Colombia’s high-quality attack-line.

Brazil were a notable improvement on the fragmented side seen previously in their home tournament and Luiz’ passion and flair for carrying the ball out of defence was integral to a game-plan that seemed intent on taking a hold on proceedings in order to limit the time on the ball for Colombia’s emerging pack of stars.

Then with just over 20 minutes left, the centre-half imprinted his unique excellence on these finals as he bolted a 30 yard free-kick past Ospina for what turned out to be the match-winner.

Colombia responded with more urgency, eventually breaching Brazil’s defence through Carlos Bacca who was hauled down by Julio Cesar to win a penalty which Rodriguez converted, but in the face of onslaught and the emotional loss of Neymar, the Selecaoheld firm to reach Belo Horizonte and a semi-final with Germany. Luiz claimed it a genetic advantage that allowed him to hit the outstanding goal that saw off Colombia but his contribution was much more a reflection of his determination and skill.

It was perhaps typical of Luiz that such an excellent performance would linger in the memory because of a stunning goal rather than the calm assurance with which he led his defence. Too often a highlights reel defender, once described by Gary Neville as one who“plays like he’s being controlled by a 10-year old on a Playstation” and one who had to be used in midfield by Rafael Benitez and Jose Mourinho to negate his considerable tendency for error.

He is however a Confederations Cup winner with Brazil as well as a Europa League and Champions League winner with Chelsea, his flawless performance against Bayern Munich in that 2012 final should echo just as loudly as any one of his many mistakes. Since signing as a Portuguese double-winner with Benfica in January 2011, Luiz’s time in England has often been under-appreciated with his eccentricity and over-enthusiasm seen as potentially damaging faults to a collective defensive effort.

Technically able to pick out a fifty yard cross-field pass with the same ease he can pick out the top corner as he moves forward, he is also liable to such costly blunders as giving the ball away cheaply with a lazy ball in his own half. Concentration can also go missing as he abandons discipline to be involved high-up the field, a trait that Brazilian football expert Tim Vickery likened to former Inter Milan centre-half Lucio when he first arrived in Europe with Bayern Munich.

It was Benitez during his caretaker spell in charge of Chelsea who first shuffled the Brazilian forward in an attempt to harness his erraticism and to take advantage of his fine vision and majestic passing ability with the insurance of a defence behind him should he lose focus.

After succeeding Benitez Mourinho then reaped the benefits of limiting the Brazilian to just 19 Premier League appearances last term as Gary Cahill and John Terry anchored the sturdiest defence in the league.

However it failed to deter PSG from signing Luiz for an astonishing £40 million this summer, making Luiz the most expensive defender in history. In Paris he is likely to replicate his country’s centre-half pairing with Thiago and manager Laurent Blanc has claimed the 27 year old will “take us to the next level”.

Benitez named him as“one of the best central-defenders in the world”, but the Portuguese’s assessment of the defender, following a mistake against Cardiff last season, was much more revealing; “A team and a defensive player need stability. With the talent Luiz has I hope he can reach that”, he said.

“Sometimes he makes a little mistake and he has to work on that stability because it is important for him and it is important for the team. The team needs him and, yes, he has what it takes to be a really top, top defender in the world. Now he has to reach that stability and maturity.”

And so he was shown the door at Stamford Bridge for a very handsome fee, PSG obviously taken in by his talents, and the Luiz dichotomy rumbles on. Rated as the top-performing player in the tournament by FIFA after the conclusion of the second round despite a typically awful lapse in concentration against Chile that let Alexis Sanchez pounce on a short throw-in to net an equaliser.

That is the unfortunate down-side to an undeniable genius that carried Brazil through in Fortaleza and will be there unmistakeably, through his bushy hair and passionate booming out of his country’s elongated national anthem, in the semi-finals.

With the focus on him, he now has the chance to answer any doubts as Brazil lock eyes on the biggest prize of all.

 

Written by Adam Gray

Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamGray1250

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