Barcelona star Philippe Coutinho can do more to help Neymar in Brazil v Costa Rica key match-ups

Chris Bailey 20/06/2018
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Brazil’s Samba beat was out of rhythm in their opening draw against Switzerland – cranking up that pressure just a touch more for a side desperate to erase memories of a World Cup horror show in their own house four years ago.

Neymar is still searching for fitness and form ahead of their clash with Group E underdogs Costa Rica in St Petersburg (Friday, 16:00).

As Los Ticos showed during their narrow defeat against Serbia, the spirit that saw them reach the quarter-finals in 2014 is still very much alive.

Below, we select three key match-ups to take a particular interest in on Friday.

PHILIPPE COUTINHO v BRYAN RUIZ

It was a sight that the Kop has seen many times and the Nou Camp is growing accustomed to. Philippe Coutinho, lurking on the left-hand apex of the box and laughing at the laws of physics with a swing of that right boot.

But as glorious as that strike was, don’t let it fool you into thinking that the Barcelona playmaker was entirely blameless for a team performance lacking punch.

Switzerland’s geometrical mastery in defence made things exceedingly difficult for the tournament favourites and what Costa Rica lack in skill, they’ll make up for in dogged defence.

With Neymar hobbled and central midfield otherwise lacking in imagination, the onus weighs heavily on the 26-year-old – who made nearly double the passes (77) of any other member of Brazil’s front six.

Bryan Ruiz will be lucky to receive a sniff of the ball for large swathes of the game though, much like Coutinho, he is the go-to man for Costa Rica in the final third.

An attacking midfielder who is a proclivity to drift in from the right and will look to occupy the space that the ultra-attacking Marcelo vacates when the Central Americans find a way to counter-attack.

Pace, at 32 years of age, is not Ruiz’s motif anymore but he is both a fine dribbler and passer and he will look to the impressive Switzerland duo of Xherdan Shaqiri and Blerim Dzemaili for inspiration on how to probe a Brazilian backline that can quite clearly be got at.

NEYMAR v MARCO URENA

Think of Neymar against Switzerland and an image of him being stricken on the floor, whether through a rough challenge or pure frustration, immediately comes to mind.

The Selecao’s main man was widely panned for his performance but it is easy to forget that was his first start since February and he was the clear lightning rod for Swiss aggression.

Indeed, take his name away from the equation – while factoring in that he was half-fit at best – and you’ll find he was still the man your eyes were drawn to time and again. Dodgy haircut or not.

According to whoscored.com, Neymar made four key passes from just 37 attempts. In contrast, Coutinho mustered just one from 77.

Neymar simply needs more protection and his team-mates can give that to him by being far more productive themselves.

Marco Urena, on the other hand, is not going to melt the minds of defenders with tricks or flicks, but he shows a willingness for the dirty work that Neymar disdains. Just because that lacks glamour doesn’t decrease its effectiveness.

The 28-year-old never stopped running Serbia down in a match the Costa Ricans were a trifle unlucky to lose and he has enough pace for centre-backs to worry about his presence in behind.

His biggest weakness? Well, scoring goals. He has yet to score for MLS expansion side Los Angeles FC and though his international record is hardly horrific – 15 goals from 60 caps – the step up in competition does him no favours.

MIRANDA v GIANCARLO GONZALEZ

Thiago Silva is the bigger name but it’s clear that Miranda is the leader of this Brazilian defence. Sadly the Internazionale defender didn’t lead by example at the crucial juncture against Switzerland.

Miranda lost goal-scorer Steven Zuber from the corner and despite Brazil’s insistence that Miranda was pushed, he was caught in a land where no man should be.

The amount of chances that Costa Rica get will likely be counted on one hand but a single brain freeze is all it would take.

Giancarlo Gonzalez was the standout at the heart of the Ticos’ back five against Serbia but where Aleksandar Mitrovic and Sergej Milinkovic-Savic were physical, the trickiness of Brazil is a completely different prospect.

Indeed, the Canarinha won’t be pelting aerial balls in the box and though he plys his domestic trade in Europe for Serie A side Bologna, there won’t be much to draw upon from the slower-paced Italian game.

Gonzalez has never been the most sure-footed tackler and and received two red cards for Bologna last season. It’s all a little ominous.

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Record-breaker Cristiano Ronaldo knocks Morocco out of the World Cup with Portugal winner

Alex Rea 20/06/2018
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Morocco were the first team to fall out of the World Cup after a Cristiano Ronaldo bullet header consigned them to a second straight 1-0 defeat.

The Portugal superstar moved ahead of Hungarian great Ferenc Puskas to become the highest scoring European in international football with his 85th goal in 152 appearances.

His brave header from a fourth-minute corner was enough to secure all three points, although, the Euro 2016 champions were fortunate to survive a Moroccan onslaught with their profligacy either side of the half consigning them to an undeserving defeat.

With Iran and Spain to play later this evening and both sides guaranteed to at least move onto four points in Group B, pointless Morocco are now out.

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Marcus Rashford hails England's improved team spirit ahead of Panama clash

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Marcus Rashford says the England squad are relishing this opportunity to show people how far they have come, saying Gareth Southgate’s World Cup group “really is a team” compared to Euro 2016.

Harry Kane‘s late heroics in Volgograd saw the Three Lions start the World Cup with a victory for the first time since 2006.

The spirit, patience and camaraderie displayed in the 2-1 defeat of Tunisia was a far cry from their last match at a major tournament, when toothless England suffered one of their most humiliating defeats ever.

Rashford came on for the dying embers of that galling Euro 2016 exit to Iceland, but the forward believes the group has taken huge strides since then and have kinship perhaps lacking back then.

“I think the mood around the camp is a lot calmer from what I can remember of that last tournament,” he said, comparing this squad to his first major tournament experience with England.

“But I think that’s as expected. We were all fairly new to each other in that tournament and now we’ve managed to build relationships and the team really is a team now. 

“I think that only puts us in good stead for this tournament and future tournaments.”

It certainly paid dividends against Tunisia as England displayed patience and maturity that belied their inexperience – not that Rashford sees tournament rawness as a problem.

“You can say that but, like I said before, we already know that within ourselves,” Rashford said.

“The games that everybody can watch, all it is, is an opportunity for us to showcase that and show everyone how far we’ve really come.

“Even if we draw that game, we stay calm and the next game is an opportunity to again showcase what we’ve been working on and you know get three points.

“I think that mentality has to stay because you’re not going to win every single game and when you do lose or when you do draw, you have to learn from it.

“As a team we are capable of doing that and it doesn’t really matter about the age of us or how experienced we are. I think if we have that togetherness we can all drag each other through.”

Rashford was the first player Southgate turned to help change the game with Tunisia digging deep at the Volgograd Arena.

The Manchester United forward replaced Raheem Sterling in the 68th minute of a match he may well have started had it not been for injury.

After scoring a spectacular goal in a man-of-the-match display against Costa Rica in England’s send-off friendly, Rashford was forced to miss England’s first two days of training in Russia with a knee complaint.

“It was more just annoying because it’s something that I’ve had before, and I’ve had to sort of play with before,” the 20-year-old said.

“So, it was just a bit annoying the timing of it, for it to come just before we travelled to the tournament.

“But you have to stay calm in them situations and I’ve had it before, so it wasn’t sort of a shock to me, so I knew what I had to do to recover fast enough for the game.

“That will continue to happen now throughout the tournament, I’ll have to keep doing that sort of recovery and stuff in order to stay in shape for the games.”

Rashford now hopes to prove himself worthy of starting England’s penultimate Group G match against minnows and World Cup debutants Panama on Sunday.

“They’re a team that can play good football,” he said. “We have to do what we can to nullify that.

“They like to play out from the back and they’ve got some quality in the team as well, so we have to show respect to them and we have to go there and ultimately get the three points.”

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