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Brazil coach Tite looks for rhythm in last friendlies

(AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo)

By MAURICIO SAVARESE

AP Sports Writer

SAO PAULO (AP) Going into his first World Cup as Brazil coach, Tite is looking for some rhythm.

It's the one thing, surprisingly, he thinks his team is short of. So Tite will use the upcoming friendlies against World Cup host Russia and defending champion Germany to find a proper No. 10, someone who can play at the heart of the midfield and keep his orchestra in sync.

"To use a samba concept, I need a rhythm-maker," Tite said recently. "Even if that player is not in his top form he will be brought in because the team needs that."

Beijing Guoan's Renato Augusto has been Tite's first-choice No. 10 so far but hasn't inspired much confidence that he can lead a team that is among the favorites to win the tournament for a sixth time.

With Neymar out injured, there's even more room for experiment, and players like Willian, Philippe Coutinho and Fernandinho could be tested in more than one position.

Here is a look at the main issues that Tite has to sort out ahead of the World Cup:

Once a weakness, the goalkeeping position is now one of Brazil's main strengths. And there is little doubt that Roma's Alisson will keep his role as the No. 1 for the tournament, after a stellar season that has seen him linked with a host of top clubs such as Real Madrid. But Tite also has Manchester City's Ederson at his disposal, and there's not much to separate the two at the moment.

But one doubt remains: who will be the third goalkeeper in the squad?

Corinthians' Cassio had been considered the most likely choice until the squad list for these two friendlies was announced, with Tite giving Valencia's Neto a first call-up instead. Neto is currently the goalkeeper with most saves in the Spanish league.

And there's one common problem with all of those goalkeepers. Neither of them has any World Cup experience.

Tite has relied heavily on Augusto, viewing the midfielder has his voice and eyes on the pitch. But the player has had such an easy time in the Chinese league that he has a separate fitness program to stay ready for Brazil games. And his recent sub-par performances have forced Tite to think of alternatives.

The most obvious change would be to push Coutinho back to Augusto's position, which would also open space for Willian in the starting lineup. Besiktas' Anderson Talisca and Juventus' Douglas Costa could also be options to Willian. There is also a more defensive alternative with Fernandinho replacing Augusto, which could be useful once Brazil has the lead.

If neither of those options prove effective enough, Tite might decide to bring in some players he has overlooked recently, such as Giuliano (Fenerbahce), Lucas Lima (Palmeiras), Diego (Flamengo) or Rodriguinho (Corinthians).

Gabriel Jesus' recent injury with Manchester City and Roberto Firmino's top form for Liverpool have thrown the striker position wide open for Brazil. Whichever of the two performs better during these two friendlies could have the upper hand going into the World Cup.

Jesus only recently returned from a near two-month injury layoff but had a good first half to the season and is widely seen as Brazil's future No. 9. But Firmino's current form has some wondering whether the Liverpool player could still represent the present.

The 26-year-old Firmino is having his best season with Liverpool and has become one of the main leaders of the team after the recent departure of Coutinho to Barcelona.

Tite seems inclined to keep Jesus for now, but could try playing both strikers at the same time because of Neymar's absence.

Tite also needs a Plan B with a more traditional target man who can be brought off the bench if the team is struggling for goals. That's why he has brought in Real Sociedad's William Jose for the first time, hoping that the 6-foot-2 striker can replicate the form that has seen him score 18 goals this season. William Jose has a blend of Jesus' ability to hold the ball and Firmino's fluency in playing outside the box. However, most Brazilian fans preferred Gremio's Luan, who was chosen the best player in South America last season.

Dani Alves and Marcelo will start as Brazil's full-backs as long as they remain fit, but it remains unclear who their backups will be.

Corinthians' Fagner will once again be tested as a replacement for Alves on the right, while Juventus' Alex Sandro will play on the left in the two friendlies. Sandro's chances of making it to the World Cup are significantly higher after Atletico Madrid's Filipe Luis picked up an injury, although Monaco's Jorge is also fighting for that spot.

Man City's Danilo has not been called up by Tite for these friendlies but could be a more versatile option as he can play on both flanks.

In central defense, Monaco's Jemerson, Sao Paulo's Rodrigo Caio and Gremio's Pedro Geromel will be tested. Only one of them is likely to go to Russia.

Updated March 20, 2018

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