Football: Ascent of smart Alex and modest Montano

Tim Vickery assesses the art of a new midfield guide for Brazil
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The Independent Online
"WE HAD 90 per cent of the play," was the Argentina coach Marcelo Bielsa's surprising reaction to his team's 3-0 defeat by Colombia last Sunday. More precise arithmetic would confirm that his team had 75 per cent of the missed penalties - Martin Palermo's astonishing three against one by Hamilton Ricard. But by whatever reckoning, Bielsa would probably give his team less than a 50-50 chance against Brazil today in Ciudad del Este.

One of the men who tips the balance in Brazil's favour is Alex. The gifted 21-year-old attacking midfielder is confirming the good impression made during his rise through the ranks of international youth football. The World Youth Cup may not hit the headlines in England, but its importance is clear from a glance at the fields of Paraguay. The Copa America is full of those who came through the Under-20 tournament held in Nigeria earlier this year. Roque Santa Cruz, the 17-year-old leading Paraguay's attack, was one of the main successes, along with Brazil's Ronaldo Assis and Mexico's impressive trio of Marques, Torrado and Osorno.

Alex is a more senior graduate. He played in the 1997 tournament in Malaysia where he got Brazil off to a flying start with a goal after four minutes against France. Brazil won 3-0, and twice scored 10 in other games before falling 2-0 in a tight struggle with eventual winners Argentina. Walter Samuel and Juan Riquelme were among Alex's opponents that day. Now they meet again.

Like Ronaldo Assis and Jhonnier Montano, Alex stepped in to the Copa America at the last moment. He made his international debut as a substitute in Brazil's first post-World Cup fixture, and had frequently figured in the national squad. But the coach Wanderley Luxemburgo made it clear that he was thinking more in terms of the Olympics for the Palmeiras youngster.

Two things changed his mind. First, the Vasco da Gama midfielder Juninho dropped out with an injury. And then Alex forced his way into the squad with the consistent brilliance of his performances as Palmeiras won the Copa Libertadores, South America's Champions' League.

Both Amoroso and Rivaldo were suspended for Brazil's final warm-up game against Latvia. So Alex came in for his first start, celebrated by heading home his first international goal and looked so at home that Luxemburgo was forced into a re-think. Alex was in his starting line up.

At his best operating behind the front two, Alex catches the eye with his skill in tight spaces. Naturally left footed, years of working on his technique have made him much stronger with his right than Rivaldo. For all the slightness of his frame, his left foot can generate great power, as he showed against Mexico when he crashed home the winning goal from 25 yards.

He is also a frequent danger with his head. He times his runs into the box with great intelligence, an attribute which can also he seen by his refusal to follow the Brazilian craze for head-shaving. In the intense cold of Paraguay, some of the Brazil team have nothing on their heads and precious little inside them. Not Alex.

With the Brazilians worried about the return of Ariel Ortega, who has been quietly sitting out a three-game suspension, there has been some talk of sacrificing Alex to strengthen the midfield marking. It would be a mistake. Argentina are weak in front of their centre-backs, where Simeone has too much work to do. It is exactly the area from which Alex could win the match for Brazil.

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