By Andrew Downie
SAO PAULO (Reuters) - With a passionate crowd behind them, a savvy coach and a settled team enjoying a sparkling run of form Brazil are hot favorites to lift a record sixth World Cup this July.
After their quarter-final defeat to the Netherlands four years ago, coach Dunga was replaced by Mano Menezes who re-shaped the team and gave debuts to young, agile players such as Neymar, Oscar, Fernandinho and Paulinho.
In turn Menezes made way for old favorite Luiz Felipe Scolari in December 2012 and the man who guided Brazil to their fifth World Cup triumph in 2002 has since added both steel and guile to the undoubted flair in the squad.
Crucially he rallied fans behind the team and, in just six months, turned Menezes's callow group of youngsters into one capable of great things.
The way they waltzed through the Confederations Cup last year, defeating Uruguay and Italy on the road to a 3-0 final drubbing of world champions Spain, was unforgettable and instilled a belief in the side missing for the best part of a decade.
Brazil have won seven games in a row and 13 of their last 14, and fans no longer wonder whether they can win the competition, they are expecting it.
The worry, however, is whether they have peaked too early.
No team have won the World Cup after lifting the Confederations Cup a year previously. Brazil won the dress rehearsal tournament in 2005 and 2009 but a year later suffered crushing disappointment.
Another pertinent question is how will they respond to the pressure of playing the World Cup at home in front of passionate fans desperate for success.
While every member of the 23-man squad has European experience few will have encountered the expectation about to be heaped on their shoulders.
"It's different," said Juninho, the former Vasco da Gama, Atletico Madrid and Middlesbrough midfielder who took home a World Cup winner's medal in 2002. "There's much more pressure. Representing your country is more important."
The only other time Brazil hosted the World Cup was in 1950 when the home side lost out in the final match to Uruguay.
That defeat scarred the nation and the enormous pressure to finally lift the trophy at the Maracana could be an issue if the team start slowly in their opener against Croatia and anxious supporters get on their backs.
So far, at least, the players do not appear overawed.
The good run has left them brimming with confidence and with good reason - they scored 25 goals in the last seven games, conceding only two. Five of the seven teams they faced had qualified for the World Cup.
"We've ended this preparation phase perfectly," Thiago Silva said after the team's last friendly, a 5-0 drubbing of South Africa in March.
"We were unbeaten in winning the Confederations Cup, we did what Felipao asked of us in this match and I am certain we'll do a great job in the World Cup."
That confidence is not misplaced, but it must be accompanied by humility if there is to be no repeat of 2006 when, delirious with the form of the Four Rs (Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Ronaldinho and Roberto Carlos), Brazil thought the tournament would be a walk in the park.
Instead they crashed out in the quarter-finals to France.
Scolari has repeatedly and boldly declared Brazil will win the World Cup and seven of the UK and Ireland's biggest bookmakers make them the favorites.
The feeling at home is the tournament is theirs to lose.
A nation expects.
(Editing by Martyn Herman and Mike Collett)
- Sports & Recreation
- Mano Menezes
- Luiz Felipe Scolari