It has been some time since a forward trident has stirred as much excitement in Brazil as the trio that will spearhead the country’s bid for an elusive Olympic football gold medal in Rio de Janeiro.
Neymar and the two Gabriels – Barbosa and Jesus – have provided hope that “jogo bonito” – that mesmerising mix of trickery, skill and goal-scoring flair that once characterised Brazilian football – is on the cusp of a comeback.
Brazil’s Olympic team coach, Rogerio Micale, has given every indication that he will deploy the teenage Gabriels alongside Neymar at the Rio Games, which begin on August 3.
Micale on Friday tested the combination in a match simulation exercise at Brazil’s pre-Games base in Teresopolis, near Rio de Janeiro, reports Xinhua.
During the session, the strikers were urged to defend high up the pitch in an attempt to pressure the opposition into ceding possession. It marks a stark contrast to recent Brazilian teams, which have rarely strayed from a defence-minded 4-2-3-1 system since the turn of the century.
A country once renowned for its production line of prolific scorers has suffered from a dearth of strikers in recent years.
Not since the 2006 World Cup, when the Selecao squad included Ronaldinho, Ronaldo, Adriano and Kaka, has Brazil’s front line boasted a more dynamic look than the one it will field in Rio.
Neymar, as ever, will be Brazil’s focal point during the Olympics. The 24-year-old Barcelona forward has netted 46 times in 70 international appearances for the Selecao since 2010, making him the country’s fifth all-time top scorer. It seems only a matter of time before he surpasses Pele’s record of 77 goals.
At the London 2012 Games, Neymar was a tyro unknown to many outside of Brazil. Despite his inexperience, the then-Santos prodigy scored three goals to help his team to the final, which they lost to Mexico 2-1.
Back then, Brazil’s talisman had forwards Leandro Damiao, Alexandre Pato and Hulk as his mentors. In Rio, Neymar will assume that role with the two Gabriels.
The 19-year-olds have shown all the hallmarks of players of the highest ilk.
Dubbed the next Neymar after making his first-team debut for Santos as a 16-year-old, Barbosa has long been linked to a slew of top European clubs. This season he has scored 13 goals from 28 matches as interest from the old continent swells. Last week he added weight to rumours of an imminent departure by telling reporters he could have played his last match for Santos.
Many rate Jesus even more highly. The striker was unknown to even local football fans until this year when Palmeiras manager Cuca shifted him from a wide midfield role to centre-forward.
The move has reaped instant rewards. There is almost a common consensus among observers of Brazil’s Serie A that Jesus has been the competition’s best player this season. He is the league’s top scorer with 10 goals from 14 matches and is equal third on the assists chart with four.
Like Barbosa, Jesus is the subject of mounting transfer speculation, though Palmeiras say they will not release him until the current Brazilian season ends in December.
His suitors are said to include Barcelona, Real Madrid and Manchester City, the latter having made enquiries at the behest of new manager Pep Guardiola, according to reports in Brazilian media.
But before any deals take place, there is a tournament to be played.
While an Olympic gold medal might not be at the top of some countries’ list of football priorities, Brazil have unashamedly made victory in Rio their prime objective for 2016, even in a Copa America year.
The Olympics remain the only major international football tournament to elude the five-time World Cup winners.
With Neymar, Gabriel Jesus and Gabriel Barbosa leading the line, Micale has made it clear that the hosts’ plan of attack is to do just that: attack.