While Ronaldinho is out of the picture, Brazil seeks more balance
Despite his improving fitness, Ronaldinho was dropped from the Brazil squad
Brazil has upcoming World Cup qualifiers against Venezuela and Colombia
The 28-year-old Mancini, recently called up, could be a key player for Brazil
If you want to make friends and influence people at your new club, then scoring the only goal in the big local derby is a pretty good start.
That's what Ronaldinho did for Milan against Internazionale on Sunday. He began the move with a raking diagonal pass for Kaká, and then got himself up and into the penalty area to meet Kaká's cross and score a rare headed goal. It was a terrific response to his omission from the Brazil squad some three days earlier.
Ronaldinho's recent history with his national team has been a strange one. It is far from clear if coach Dunga really wanted to take him to the Olympics. It was longtime Brazilian FA boss Ricardo Teixeira who announced that Ronaldinho would be playing in Beijing. This was back in June, with the boss still ringing in Dunga's ears after his side's 2-0 loss at Paraguay and goalless draw against visiting Argentina.
At the time, Ronaldinho was out of shape and out of rhythm. He had not played for awhile for Barcelona, which had decided to move him. So at that moment, he had clearly not earned his place in the Olympic squad on merit -- which was supposed to be Dunga's criteria. Tostăo, the 1970s great who is now Brazil's most perceptive soccer writer, theorized that Ronaldinho's presence in the Olympic party was due mainly to the need to placate the sponsors by including a big-name player. The official word was that the tournament would help the player get back in shape.
In China, Ronaldinho certainly looked well short of match fitness. He was an occasional threat from set pieces, but from open play he cut a stately and immobile figure.
Nevertheless, Brazil kept faith in him, picking him for September's pair of World Cup qualifiers, the 3-0 win at Chile followed by the amazing 0-0 home draw with Bolivia, a team that had lost its previous 13 qualifiers on the road, conceding 44 goals in the process.
And now, Ronaldinho has not been included for the upcoming qualifiers at Venezuela and against Colombia. Dunga justified his absence by saying that AC Milan's recent acquisition was short of rhythm. But as he showed about 72 hours later against Inter Milan, Ronaldinho is almost certainly in better shape now, when he has been left out, than a month ago, when he was called up.
So there is clearly more to the story than merely one man's level of match fitness. More likely is the theory that Dunga has taken advantage of this situation to have a look at the collective balance of his side.
The convincing win at Chile was all very well, but it came in a most atypical game. Under coach Marcelo Bielsa, the Chileans want to attack all the time, and play the match in the opponent's half of the field; against Brazil, they ended up playing into the hands of one of the most effective counterattacks in world soccer. Brazil's recent problems, as the Bolivia game made all too clear, have come against teams that don't give them the opportunity to counterattack, that get men behind the ball, close down the space and seek to find the right moment to break at pace.
Brazil's biggest problem is arguably the lack of good passing from its two central midfielders, who seem unable to either provide quick service forward or suck in the opposition with short passes and then open up the game with a long ball. But also in the 4-2-3-1 formation he uses most often, Dunga is entitled to expect more from the line of three attacking midfielders operating behind center forward Luís Fabiano. At full strength, these three are Kaká, Robinho and Ronaldinho. With Kaká absent because of injury, Diego filled in for the recent two games.
Now Diego has also been dropped. A suspension after two yellow cards means that he would not have played in the Venezuela match, but the fact that both he and Ronaldinho will also be missing from the Colombia game could be significant.
Brazil's attacking midfielders, excellent players all, have at times tended to get in each other's way, all of them cutting in toward center field. For this reason, the side's most interesting new player is Mancini, Inter Milan's recent recruit from Roma.
Now 28, Mancini has had a fascinating career. He was a teenager with great promise at right back when he first appeared in 1999. After that there were a few years in the doldrums until suddenly in 2002 he started scoring rivers of goals. He then left for Italy still considered a right back, but was soon converted into an attacking midfielder or striker.
Brazil had a look at him in the 2004 Copa América, where he was still selected in his original position. It didn't work, and now it comes calling for his attacking skills -- specifically, his ability to score and create from wide positions.
It was a point made by Dunga in last week's news conference. He has been lacking players who can operate on the flanks in the final third of the field. Mancini is accustomed to playing on either flank -- and will surely get a chance to show what he can do, either in San Cristóbal against Venezuela on Oct. 12 or three days later against Colombia in Rio de Janeiro.
If it works -- if the balance of the team is improved with his addition -- then Dunga will indeed find himself in interesting times. Because then it will hardly matter what kind of shape Kaká, Robinho and Ronaldinho are in. With Mancini wide and a specialist center forward up front, it is hard to see how all three can be squeezed into the same starting lineup.