James Lawton: Brazil show signs of stirring in response to Argentinians' art

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The Independent Online

The question had been posed amid the fastest rising pressure of this extraordinary World Cup, asked by their most bitter foes, Argentina, in that stunning eruption of collective brilliance, and if the immediate answer was far from complete there was the sparkle of the most familiar glory when Brazil said, yes, they could still score the sweetest of goals.

It came four minutes into the second half and it was made to seem as easy as peeling a grape.

No team under Guus Hiddink has a consistency even faintly squishy and his Australia, like his South Korea four years ago, fought in the fashion of wounded, scuffling, extremely well-organised lions. But there was a limit to their ability to contain the reigning, psychologically embattled, world champions.

No, it was by means a complete answer, but it did say that there were still some stirrings in the soul of the world's greatest football nation, however long they retain that title.

Ronaldinho played the ball forward with a beautiful precision, Ronaldo, shaking himself into a rare burst of life, resisted a challenge and then played in his muscular strike partner Adriano with a perfectly weighted pass. Adriano finished as a Brazilian should, as cleanly as the very best matadors.

It was a preliminary reply, exquisite in its own way, to an enquiry that seemed to be daubed as explicitly as the paint on the faces of the fans crowded into the spectacular silver dome. They were hungry to know if Brazil were still a vibrant force - or were they just going to melt away? The question smacked of hubris, even greed, when you considered the riches that have been spread out on these German fields of football gold these last 10 days - and then ran back through the 20 years since the last great expression of the game at the highest level, Diego Maradona's astonishing tour de force in Mexico in 1986. But, of course, it had to be asked because in the 48 hours since Argentina played themselves so beautifully into the centre of the stage there had been no slackening in the rate and the power of the World Cup pulse.

Could Brazil make some kind of dramatic response to the challenge thrown down by their fierce South American rivals when they went out against Australia? Could Ronaldo, who according to one Brazilian camp insider, had been slaving in lone training sessions to turn back the tide of bitter, dismissive criticism that all but engulfed him after his wretched performance against Croatia, augment his legend, at least by just a little.

Then there was the challenge that for several years now has appeared to be utterly pivotal to the outcome here. Only Ronaldinho, the destroyer of England in Japan four years and a beacon of the world game for the most of the time since, could supply the answer. He had to take hold in this fabulous stadium turned into a great unfolding sunflower by the massed yellow of two of the world's greatest pound-for-pound sporting nations.

It all gave wonderful dramatic weight to a weekend which had already seen the the fabulous spirit and power of Ghana reignite the Africa dream of one day making a true and lasting impact on the great tournament. Ghana's destruction of the much-fancied Czech Republic, Italy's bloody dogfight draw with the revived Americans and the Netherlands' desperately achieved victory over the unluckiest team in Germany, Ivory Coast, brought us to a fine edge of competitive tension here.

Hiddink, the man who many will always swear should have walked into the job left vacant by Sven Goran Eriksson, had a simple objective: frustrate a Brazilian team desperate to show that their old "heavenly" game could still compete for the prize they have won five times.

The strain was written all over the faces of Brazil, and because Hiddink's Australia were so fierce in their play and huge in their heart that agonised look wouldn't disappear until the 90th minute. Then the substitute, 22-year-old Fred, who may well have been providing the final nudge towards oblivion for Ronaldo, helped overwhelm the Aussie defence before tapping in the second goal.

The Brazilians had been pushed against the ropes, they had at times looked aged, and slovenly, as they had in their first match against Croatia. But when the end came here, there were distinct signs that, like a champion in need of a testing fight, a reminder that the basics of effective moment can never be abandoned, there were signs of returning life - and virtuosity.

When Adriano gave way to Fred it was not before he had shown moments of persuasive power. Last week he looked muscled-bound. Here Adriano looked as though he could punch his weight, formidably. Robinho, who came on for Ronaldo, was explosively quick. He ran at the Australian defence with withering determination and though Hiddink's men can always talk about the day they stretched the Brazilians to their limits, they might also reflect that they drew from them some of the old, clearly identifiable magic.

Whether there is enough of it left to halt the march of Argentina is questionable, and there are doubts, apparently within the camp. Said one source close to the team: "There is tremendous respect for the new Argentina. In the past they have always played with anger and anxiety.... they have never let their talent flow. Now it is happening, we know we have a great battle on our hands. Their performance against Serbia was fantastic.

"Brazil knows what it has to do for any chance of keeping the world title." It is to ransack their past and what is left of their present. It is to pray that Ronaldinho can build on the promise of his second-half performance and that between them Adriano, Robinho, Fred and, who knows, even the old warhorse Ronaldo, can muster some authentic and sustained finishing power.

Given all of that Brazil can still be a factor. If it is so it will be still another gift for the dazzling 18th World Cup.

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