Colombia bounced back to stun Brazil 1-0 at the Copa America, avenging their bruising defeat to the South American giants in last year’s World Cup quarter-finals.
A first-half goal by Inter Milan defender Jeison Murillo settled a frenetic Group C encounter in Santiago which leaves Colombia firmly in contention for a place in the quarter-finals.
Three teams – Brazil, Colombia and Venezuela – now have three points in Group C. A bad night for Brazil was compounded when skipper Neymar picked up his second caution of the tournament, which rules him out of the crucial final group game against Venezuela on Sunday.
Victory was sweet for Colombia, who were subjected to rough-house tactics from Brazil last year during the World Cup in a 2-1 quarter-final exit.
A pulsating opening 45 minutes saw Colombia gradually get on top after a frantic start dominated by defence. Brazil, who brought in Thiago Silva at center-back in place of David Luiz, defended in depth throughout, dropping back in numbers and frustrating Colombia’s attack.
As talented as Neymar is, his judgement & maturity are still in need of work His straight RC may have cost his team the Copa America.
— Jeremy St.Louis (@jrstlouis) June 18, 2015
Colombia also gave no quarter, with defensive midfielder Carlos Sanchez breaking up Brazil’s attacks in midfield and restricting the five-time world champions to hardly any shots on goal. Colombia slowly began to get the better of their opponents however, and soon started to threaten.
A Sanchez shot deflected just wide of Brazilian defender Miranda just after the half-hour mark and then on 36 minutes the breakthrough came.
Cuadrado’s teasing free-kick from the right flank dropped into the area and when Brazil failed to clear, Murillo was on hand to rifle in a low shot past Jefferson.
Chelsea star Cuadrado might have doubled Colombia’s lead on 43 minutes but wastefully shot wide after being teed up by Teo Gutierrez’s deft backheel.
Brazil might have grabbed a barely deserved equaliser just before half-time though when Dani Alves skipped clear down the right and curled a cross into Neymar whose diving header was saved by David Ospina.
It got worse for Neymar however, who was booked for handling the rebound from Ospina’s save. It means Brazil will be without their most potent attacker for their tie with Venezuela.
Venezuela now top a group that includes Brazil and Colombia. Love Copa America.
— Bryan Armen Graham (@BryanAGraham) June 18, 2015
Brazil went for broke in the second half, bringing on Liverpool attacking midfielder Philippe Coutinho for Fred, and immediately looked more threatening as a result.
But they squandered a golden chance to equalise on 58 minutes when Bundesliga-based striker Roberto Firmino missed an open goal.
The ball ended up with Firmino after Ospina made a hash of a clearance. But with an open goal begging, Firmino — reportedly a summer transfer target for Liverpool — blazed over the bar.
One of the most iconic images of the 2014 World Cup was that of a distraught eldery man in a Brazil shirt, clutching his replica trophy as tears streamed down his cheeks. The devout supporter’s appearance encapsulated the collective heartbreak of over 200 million of his compatriots as they watched their national team humiliated 7-1 by uncompromising eventual winners, Germany.
– Compare and contrast: How James can learn from Neymar
– EPL fixtures: Matches to watch out for in 2015-16 season
– #360view: Braga’s return to Jazira will be defined by defence
– AFC: General Secretary steps down after ‘cover up’ claims
The host nation’s shambolic defending was at long last ruthlessly exposed by the Germans in possibly the most one-sided semi-finals in history. Rubbing salt into the wound was an Opta statistic that surfaced in the aftermath of the demolition.
Lone front-man Fred had epitomised his poor form in one stupendously anonymous performance. He was repeatedly jeered by the hostile crowd as he failed to make a single tackle, cross, run or interception throughout his seventy minutes on the pitch. Furthermore, the most time he spent on the ball was at the centre spot as a result of six restarts and taking kick-off.
With their faults laid so emphatically bare on home soil, the Selecao had nowhere to hide. Yes, their defence was atrocious but it’s difficult to comprehend how or why Brazil were subjected to such an unimaginative and ineffective frontman for so long.
It’s unthinkable that a country both blessed and obsessed with attacking football was unable to produce a formidable striker post phenomenal Ronaldo. Great attacking talents like Ronaldinho, Kaka, Robinho and, most recently, Neymar emerged in the years that followed but the attack was starved of a worthy focal point.
Between 2003 and 2006, Inter Milan’s Adriano appeared to be the real deal but a prolonged run of poor form, riddled with fitness issues and personal problems led to an early decline. Luis Fabiano had a decent stint but lacked panache and his prolific period was short lived, transpiring mainly between 2008 and 2010.
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) July 13, 2014
Hence, the underwhelming Fred was, largely by default, given the responsibility of spearheading the Samba Kings’ attack.
Enough was enough and a new striker was desperately required.
And, unlike the meteoric rises of previous Brazilian prodigies, Roberto Firmino has gradually emerged as a viable solution to his country’s problems up top.
The 23-year-old was snapped up by TSG Hoffenheim from Brazilian second division side Figueirense in December 2010. He didn’t burst on to the Bundesliga scene like your typical wonder-kid, instead restricted to fleeting appearances as he was given time to gradually settle in his new surroundings and grow as a footballer.
In the 2013-14 campaign though, the attacking midfielder began to make his mark, scoring 16 goals and making 11 assists. The 27 goals he directly contributed to was a tally bettered in the league only by Marco Reus (29).
Playing in the number 10 role, Firmino harnessed his attacking repertoire. He developed as a playmaker, read runs and targeted spaces. He put in a real shift as well, boasting a fine number of tackles for a player plying his trade so far up the pitch.
Last season he was pushed even further forward and regularly led the line, a role he took to like a duck to water. Not only has Firmino matured in front of goal, but his intelligent movement means that opposing defenders are pulled out of position at will, while his ability as a playmaker makes him a striker capable of bringing others into play as well.
His quick feet, flamboyance and speed is what you’d expect from a 23-year-old Brazilian forward, but it’s his technique and understanding of the game that sets him apart from others. In total, the Maceio-born youngster scored 10 goals and provided 12 assists in all competitions last season for Hoffenheim, contributing to a goal every 145 minutes.
In just seven appearances for The Canaries, Firmino already has 3 goals and 1 assist to his name, contributing to a goal once every 75.5 minutes. And while Diego Tardelli is his main rival for a spot in the starting eleven, one would think his link-up play and creativity would even help get the most out of Neymar.
Firmino had interested Manchester United but has now agreed a deal with arch-rivals Liverpool and is expeted to make the move to Anfield after his Copa America exploits. With Daniel Sturridge injured for large parts of last season, Liverpool lacked firepower in front of goal and are crying out for a striker as vibrant and innovative as Firmino.
— adidasfootball (@adidasfootball) June 14, 2015
In Mario Balotelli and Rickie Lambert, Liverpool’s back-up strikers appeared laboured last season but Firmino’s recruitment could inject fresh impetus into their frontline.
The recently signed Danny Ings, while promising, is still young, which leaves Sturridge as Liverpool’s only consistent goal-scorer. The latter’s inability to remain fit for long parts of the past two season meant that Rodgers was always on the lookout for a ‘world-class’ forward this summer.
Apart from his ability on the ball and eye for a pass, Firmino’s work rate and relentless closing down will serve him well at Anfield and likely draw comparisons to a fellow enigmatic South American striker; Luis Suarez. His tactical discipline would also only serve to endear him to the Liverpool manager further.
With Anfield calling and his international career ready to bloom, Firmino is a star in the making. He appears to be on the cusp of football’s highest level, his career on the proverbial launch pad and his future primed for greatness.
Whether or not he will be the striker to lead Liverpool back into the Champions League depends on a deal being struck, but he does have an opportunity to become the front man Brazil deserve. If given the chance to shine, Firmino may just put a lasting smile on the face of Clovis Acosta Fernandes, Brazil’s now iconic fan who is seen these days at the Copa America in Chile, still brandishing that famous replica trophy.
“Neymar is at an incredible level,” said James Rodriguez of his opposite number ahead of Colombia’s crucial Copa America clash with Brazil on Wednesday night. Neymar didn’t get the chance to respond, but would have returned the compliment. After all, they are as much media-trained megastars, as they are talismans for their respective clubs and countries.
– Copa 2015: Aguero inspires Argentina to win over Uruguay
– EPL fixtures: Matches to watch out for in 2015-16 season
– #360view: Braga’s second spell will be defined by defence
– World Cup: Omar surprised by “dogged” Timor Leste
The No 10s share many similarities, but many differences too. Let’s take up their story one year ago, at the Brazil World Cup, when James left the Estadio Castelao in Fortaleza in tears while Neymar left in an ambulance.
Neymar was removed from the field in a stretcher, in clear agony, after an over-zealous challenge by Juan Zuniga – whom he is set to face again in Santiago – left him with a broken bone in his back. James’ agony was apparent too, but it was a pain of a different kind. Despite his own brilliant display and a remarkable World Cup, the then-Monaco star’s team was eliminated.
Soon it was the Brazilians who were left with tears streaming down their faces; shorn of their star man Neymar they were clinically dispatched by Germany in the semi-finals, as the hosts lost their heads in a shocking 7-1 defeat.
Things were looking up for James though. His six goals, including one against Neymar’s Brazil, were enough to win him the Golden Boot and a move to Real Madrid, with Florentino Perez splashing £71 million on the midfielder.
“I am very happy, this is a dream come true. I hope to make people very happy and win a lot of titles here,” said James. A generic quote from anything but a generic footballer.
Unlike many players who gush the same admiration upon arrival at a new club, this really was a dream for James, a supporter of Los Blancos since his youth. He had even made the journey, of his own volition, to Bavaria a few months prior to the World Cup to watch Madrid crush Bayern Munich and reach the Champions League final en route to European glory.
A year earlier, Neymar too was left blushing as Barcelona sealed the signature of world football’s brightest talent. “My dream has come true,” he explained after signing for Barcelona. “I’m very happy to be realising my life’s dream. The thrill of being cheered when I entered the Nou Camp… it was hard not to cry.”
Just like James, Neymar was not lying either. Real Madrid were offering him more money than Barcelona and the Santos graduate had the pick of the litter when it came to leaving his homeland, but his heart was set on the Catalan giants and that’s where hung his hat.
Fast-forward to October 25.
Neymar and his Barcelona teammates arrive at the Santiago Bernabeu, top of La Liga and without having conceded a single goal, to face James’ Real Madrid.
Neymar, playing with great desire after his World Cup disappointment, is in phenomenal form. Even at his peak in his debut season in Spain, he had never reached this level. As well as forging a stronger understanding with Messi, he’s more prolific in front of goal and has 10 goals in his first 10 games of the season.
When he makes that 11 in 11 after just four minutes against Real Madrid, you fear for Carlo Ancelotti’s side. But Madrid play superbly, scoring three times in response and going on to win the game, with James laying on a goal for Karim Benzema.
Benzema’nın golü. Real Madrid 3-1 Barcelona http://t.co/aRWbuBiAbB
— sportsVine (@siwakura4) June 17, 2015
The Colombian had taken to La Liga like a duck to water, confidently orchestrating Real Madrid’s midfield, instinctively on the same plane of thought as the likes of Luka Modric and Toni Kroos. His instant transition to life in La Liga helped Madrid march towards a 22-game winning streak.
James’ humility on arrival at Madrid instantly endeared himself to Cristiano Ronaldo, the Portuguese realising that his new teammate was going to be an asset to his own goal-scoring endeavours. Things had been different for Neymar at Barcelona, with his signing by president Sandro Rosell, someone Messi did not get on well with, viewed by the Argentine as a potential threat to his status as Camp Nou top-dog. It took time for the frost to thaw, which was partly down to Neymar’s natural “front-man” swagger, but since it has the results have been truly spectacular. Alongside Luis Suarez, they have formed one of the most successful striking trios in Spanish football history, netting a phenomenal 122 goals between them last season.
By the time the second Clasico of the season came around in Barcelona, in March, Real Madrid’s bubble has burst and the home side were now favourites for the title. A 2-1 win for the hosts saw them close in on glory, and although Neymar’s shooting boots desert him, his dynamic running tears Madrid apart on several occasions. James and Madrid have their moments, but they are few and far between.
Since then, not much has changed for the two stellar South Americans. Neymar is playing at maximum capacity, a capacity that seems to grow every time he steps on to the picth. His performance against Peru in Brazil’s first Copa America was quite incredible, playing with his own spirit seemingly channelling the vision of his team-mate Messi. The pass with which he split the Peruvian defence to find Douglas Costa was a moment of true genius, and it handed his country a last minute winner. Neymar had opened the scoring, making it nine goals and three assists in his last 10 Brazil games.
By contrast, James has just one goal and two assists in seven games, post-World Cup for Colombia. James had a thoroughly impressive season, but Neymar had an elite year, contributing 39 goals to Barcelona’s treble success. That’s more than Samuel Eto’o, Rivaldo, Thierry Henry and many other huge names managed in a single season for the Blaugrana.
The Barcelona star has moved into hyper-drive this season and James will hope his second year in Madrid will result in the same.
But does Neymar have an edge? He certainly has the spice you need to make it to the very top, telling the world that he has no plans to change the way he plays, even if it upsets opponents. Take for example, this rainbow flick, past no other than James himself.
Many this season have resorted to hacking at the Brazilian in frustration. His double “chapeu” trick against Peru was flashy, but he backed it up with a goal, assist and a commanding display that led his country to victory.
Colombia are just as dependent on James as Brazil on Neymar, but try as he might the midfielder couldn’t inspire his side to a result against Venezuela as his team fell to a surprise defeat. Few doubt Neymar will be on the Ballon d’Or podium soon, but if James wants to join him he has work to do.
Carlos Valderrama, a Cafeteros legend, thinks that James is at the same level already, saying: “The star of the Copa America will be between James, Messi and Neymar. James is at that level.”
However, Madrid-based Brazilian journalist Fernando Kallas, who works for AS, thinks that Neymar is a step ahead of the Colombian, citing his aggressive streak.
He told Sport360: “I see Neymar as a more decisive guy, more aggressive, even mean, a player that thrives under pressure. As if he loves it the most when everything is on the line and all the responsibility is on him. That’s when he plays at his best.
“James is more of a ‘good guy’ and he has not been put under the spotlight as much as Neymar, who at a young age was a Copa Libertadores Champion carrying Santos on his back. For me, James is a superb player. But Neymar is a once-in-a-generation talent. I see him as the second best player in the world, only behind Messi. It’s incredible how he matured before our eyes in two years at Barcelona and we only could see it against Peru, where he was without Messi – but played like Messi.
“When Neymar arrived at Barcelona, he only could play as left winger. Now, he is a complete player. If he wins the Copa America playing at this level, the Ballon d’Or is between him and Messi, not Messi and Cristiano.
“I think James is a superb player. And it surprised me how he was an instant fit in the Real Madrid side, how he blended in. There was no adaptation needed. And he had a good season. But Neymar’s jump from the first to the second season in Barcelona was unbelievable. He became a man and I think something has to do with the way Brazil lost the World Cup and the fact that Dunga named him captain of the national squad. He had to mature.”
The gauntlet has been thrown down for James. He is a wonderful talent, but if he is to drive his club and country to success he must continue to develop at the same rate and keep making strides as a footballer. What better time to start that progression that on Wednesday night, with Colombia needing to take something against Brazil to retain a good chance of reaching the next phase of the Copa America?
It may even be time for James to get “mean”.
“It’s not revenge,” said James, calm and aware of the cameras beaming his words across the world, having been asked about making up for the World Cup loss to Brazil. “It’s one more match, and I think it will be a good one.”
When Brazil meet Colombia and the pair face-off, carrying the hopes of their nations on their backs, the gloves will be off. This one will be settled with colourful, endorsement-supplied boots. Right now, Neymar seems more comfortable in them.