LONDON (AFP) – It is with a raincloud hovering above the head of their talisman Neymar that Brazil are gearing up for their final assignment of 2017 against England at Wembley tonight.
Though Neymar has scored 11 goals in 12 games since his world-record move to Paris Saint-Germain from Barcelona, recent weeks have yielded stories of rifts with his team-mates and disagreements with coach Unai Emery.
He cut a fragile figure in the press conference that followed Brazil’s 3-1 win over Japan in a friendly in Lille on Friday, wiping away tears as national coach Tite spoke out in his defence and then hurriedly leaving the room.
“When you are an idol, an example in the eyes of so many people, you have to be perfect and very often I am not,” Neymar said before his abrupt departure.
“I am a young man of 25 with a lot to learn in football.”
Neymar has generally dazzled in Ligue 1 since completing his $259 million transfer from Spanish giants Barcelona, but his recent performances have betrayed signs of unease.
He was sent off in PSG’s 2-2 draw at Marseille after being shown a second yellow card for reacting angrily to a foul by Lucas Ocampos.
Although he scored and squandered a penalty against Japan, he was also booked for cuffing Hiroki Sakai – who, coincidentally, plays for Marseille – on the back of the head.
More worrying yet for PSG’s fans have been the reports emanating from Brazil that Neymar has already expressed regret about leaving Barcelona.
He has returned to Barcelona at least twice since the start of the season, twice being pictured on social media with Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez, and is even reported to have asked them how they would feel if he came back for good.
But for PSG team-mate Kylian Mbappe, Neymar’s emotional press conference was merely a reminder that the superstar is only flesh and blood.
“It just proves that he’s a man like anyone else,” Mbappe told French television channel TF1 on Sunday.
“He’s like us – he has two arms, two legs and one heart. He can be affected by the all the criticism he gets.
“From the outside, he gives the impression that he’s not affected, even if there (in Lille), he let go. When you’re on the inside, he opens up to you and shows that he’s someone normal.”
Neymar aside, Brazil have had a little else to worry about, having finished 10 points clear in the South American qualifying tournament for next year’s World Cup following the dynamising mid-campaign appointment of Tite as coach.
Tite is expected to rotate his starting XI from the Japan game, with Neymar’s PSG colleagues Dani Alves and Marquinhos, as well as Philippe Coutinho and Diego, among the players tipped to come into the starting XI.
England will approach the game in a positive frame of mind after an inexperienced and injury-depleted side produced an encouraging display in a 0-0 draw against Germany on Friday.
Everton goalkeeper Jordan Pickford and Chelsea midfielder Ruben Loftus-Cheek, who is on loan at Crystal Palace, both impressed on their debuts as manager Gareth Southgate gave five players a first taste of international football.
There could be more debuts in the offing against Brazil after Bournemouth midfielder Lewis Cook and Liverpool forward Dominic Solanke were drafted into the squad, along with young Manchester City goalkeeper Angus Gunn.
“I think we did well against a well-oiled machine in Germany,” said Tottenham Hotspur’s Eric Dier, who captained England against the Germans.
“We need to continue to build and not just against Brazil, but even for the future.”