BELO HORIZONTE, Brazil – Even without Neymar, Brazil’s show must go on.
The World Cup hosts, now forced to play without their injured superstar, will face Germany on Tuesday for a spot in next weekend’s final.
Neymar fractured a vertebra in his lower back in Brazil’s quarterfinal win over Colombia, ruling him out for the rest of the tournament. But despite having to stay off the field, the 22-year-old striker with the dyed-blonde fauxhawk is still expecting Brazil to win its sixth World Cup title.
“I won’t be able to fulfill the dream of playing in a World Cup final,” Neymar said, “but I’m sure they will win this one, they will become champions, and I will be there with them, and all of Brazil will be celebrating together.”
Along with Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar was among the biggest stars at the World Cup. And in Brazil, the man in the yellow No. 10 jersey is something of a megastar, with his face plastered on billboards around the country and constantly shown in TV.
His play on the field lived up to the hype, with four goals in the group stage. He continued to make an impact, albeit without any more goals, in the knockout games until he took a knee in the back late in the match against Colombia.
Coach Luiz Felipe Scolari hinted in training Sunday that midfielder Willian is his first option to replace the injured superstar.
Willian took Neymar’s position when Brazil’s reserves played against a local under-20 squad at its training camp outside Rio de Janeiro.
The regular starters stayed in the gym and didn’t practice on the field, but all players touted as possible Neymar replacements trained normally. Willian was used in the middle, in front of Brazil’s defensive midfielders, the same way Neymar played before being ruled out.
The other options for Scolari include Ramires, Bernard and Hernanes.
Brazil won the training match 3-0 with goals by Bernard, Dante and Ramires. It was Brazil’s second-to-last practice session before traveling to Belo Horizonte for Tuesday’s match at the Mineirao Stadium.
“You can’t compare Neymar to any other player, he has a lot of quality,” Willian said. “I have a different style. He is more of a striker, scores more goals, while my strong suit is to set up my teammates.”
The Chelsea player left practice near the end of Saturday’s session because of a hit on the back but said the injury was not a problem even though it “was still bothering” him a bit.
Bernard said he is prepared to play but acknowledged it won’t be easy to replace the team’s biggest star.
“It’s a difficult situation,” he said. “No player would want to have this opportunity to play because of an injury to someone so important to us on and off the field. But it happened, and we have to understand that we can get through this.”
In addition to missing Neymar, Brazil will not be able to count on captain and central defender Thiago Silva because of a yellow card suspension. Dante, who plays in Germany for Bayern Munich, is his likely replacement. Fellow defender David Luiz is the probable captain on Tuesday.
The Brazilian football confederation is trying to overturn Silva’s suspension and FIFA said it was analyzing the request, but it remained unlikely Brazil would get its way.
Neymar had missed only six of Brazil’s 60 matches played after the 2010 World Cup.
In the 54 matches he played with the national team, Brazil won 36, drew 12 and lost six. He had scored half of Brazil’s eight goals going into the World Cup quarterfinals.
Brazil has played Germany only once at the World Cup, winning 2-0 in the 2002 final. But the Germans, who will be making their 13th appearance in the semifinals, have reached the final seven times and won three of them.
At this year’s tournament, Germany coach Joachim Loew has experimented with the defense, moving captain Philipp Lahm into the midfield and then back to his usual right back position.
With Lahm in the backline and Per Mertesacker on the bench in the quarterfinal win over France, the Germans looked as good as they have since routing Portugal in their group opener.
“The team is improving from match to match,” said Loew, who has led Germany to the semifinals in every major tournament since taking over eight years ago.