Neymar needs lift-off in order to avoid Messi and Ronaldo fates, and other Brazil v Mexico talking points

Matt Jones 1/07/2018
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Brazil and Mexico square off in Samara on Monday looking to book their place in the quarter-finals of the World Cup.

Brazil have been far from the brilliant best we know they are capable of in Russia, while Mexico lit up the tournament in the opening phase but almost failed to qualify after a disastrous final game in Group F saw them squashed 3-0 by Sweden.

Ahead of the last 16 clash, we look at three talking points. 

NEYMAR HOPING TO AVOID BEING RON OUT OF TOWN

Down and out: Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal.

Down and out: Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal.

Lionel Messi and Argentina survived the ignominy of heading home early like dethroned champions Germany by the skin of their teeth, but crashed out anyway on the opening day of the World Cup’s knockout stages.

The Barcelona behemoth might well have bumped into Cristiano Ronaldo at the airport later on Saturday evening after the Real Madrid superstar followed suit with Portugal in the later game.

Neymar completes the podium of the three biggest superstars in football today, so will he and Brazil be bounced out of the tournament at the second hurdle as well come Monday evening?

Fans of the Samba side and the game’s greatest players, not to mention the FIFA hierarchy, will hope not. But both player and team will have to show more than what they have up to this point.

Brazil haven’t been a complete and utter national embarrassment in Russia, unlike their South American brethren. They at least have a bit of soul and rhythm unlike the very one dimensional Portuguese – who despite picking a much more talented squad than the one with which they won the European Championship two summers ago – proved incredibly hollow without their talisman at top form.

But Canarinho have not been completely on song either, with disjointed performances littering their group games.

They drew their opener against Switzerland, having shrunk into their shell after a blistering beginning. Fears of a group stage exit were staved off as Costa Rica were eventually vanquished at the death, before a relative stroll against Serbia confirmed progress.

Poster boy Neymar’s lasting impression so far though has been of a spoilt child throwing his toys out of the pram more violently than he’s been throwing himself to the floor.

If he wants to avoid an early flight home, he and Brazil have to finally get off the ground.

 

HISTORY WEIGHS HEAVILY ON MEXICO

Hirving Lozano and Mexico need to bounce back after a 3-0 defeat to Sweden.

Hirving Lozano and Mexico need to bounce back after a 3-0 defeat to Sweden.

Never mind the fact Mexico are aiming to unburden themselves of facing the prospect of going out at the round of 16 stage for a seventh successive tournament – El Tri can count themselves fortunate to even be here.

Chasing a maiden quarter-final berth in 32 years seemed like it would prove eminently possible following two swashbuckling displays in their opening two group games.

Then, a shambolic showing against the Swedes threatened to undo all their fabulous work. Had reigning champions Germany been anything but a mere shadow of the side that were crowned kings four years ago, a draw for them against South Korea would have been enough to see Die Mannschaft sneak through.

So having begun so brightly, there’s now plenty of work for Juan Carlos Osorio’s side to do. And having to beat the mighty Brazil is hardly a task to tempt them into dreaming of emulating the side that last reached the last eight on home soil in 1986.

For a nation with a rich pedigree of competing at the World Cup – El Tri have featured in 16 tournaments (only Brazil, Germany, Italy and Argentina have made more appearances) since being one of just 13 teams to play at the inaugural World Cup in 1930 – Mexico have performed poorly.

A pair of quarter-final appearances – and they came when they hosted in 1970 and 1986 – are all they have to show for the last 88 years.

They are the worst performing country in a list of the top-20 with the most finals appearances.

Everyone else has at least a fourth-place finish to their name, except Switzerland – and even they have achieved one more last eight appearance.

Mexico will co-host in eight years’ time, but have a real chance to make history if they can claim Brazil’s scalp in Samara.

PLAYING FAVOURITES

Germany's demise is a lesson for Brazil to learn from.

Germany’s demise is a lesson for Brazil to learn from.

Similarly, for Brazil, they should not be particularly buoyed by Mexico’s malaise in their final group game.

It would have been a travesty to see one of the most engaging teams to watch over the first two weeks go out – particularly after winning their opening two games – but it very nearly happened in a madcap Group F full of thrills, spill and utter chaos.

Brazil, like many of the superpowers, have heavily underperformed and underwhelmed in Russia, while the likes of Monday’s opponents Mexico, and other considerably lesser lights like Croatia and Sweden, have shone.

So while Canarinho fans might well look to this contest as a given, Tite and his players would be playing an extremely dangerous game if they approach the contest in a similar manner.

After all, the biggest flops of the tournament so far have been Germany. Their horror show of a tournament all started when they came into the World Cup in first gear and were completely overrun by the North Americans. They had been in poor form throughout a lackluster 2018, but once they had been steamrollered by El Tri, it all began to unravel.

The players at least are keenly aware of the pitfalls that lie ahead, with Real Madrid midfielder Casemiro warning his team-mates to ignore the fact they are billed by many as favourites not only to win the game, but also the World Cup.

“The shirt doesn’t win you the game. Look at Germany,” said the 26-year-old.

“With all the players they have, all that favouritism, they were still knocked out in the first round.

“We are relaxed about it. All our players are top class, their clubs are always favourites. We always have respect, tranquility and humility. We have to play football to beat Mexico.”

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Will the real Neymar please stand up and other key players as Brazil take on Mexico

Matt Jones 1/07/2018
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Brazil and their elite group of Galacticos enter Samara’s Cosmos Arena on Monday looking to display some of the otherworldly football that has made the famous nation the most successful country on earth.

Canarinho will look to progress to the quarter-finals of a World Cup for the seventh consecutive occasion when they take on in-form Mexico in what should be a cracking last 16 tie.

Ahead of the game, we look at three key players for each side.

MARCELO V JESUS GALLARDO

Mexico completely capitulated against Sweden in the final group game, so they are heading into this giant of a contest perhaps with a little trepidation.

The way in which El Tri were manipulated in their final group game belies how brilliant they’d been previously though, especially in defence where they’ve provided a solid base from which their exciting attackers have wreaked havoc.

Marauding Monterrey full-back Jesus Gallardo has been a massive cog in the Mexico machine, contributing in both attack and defence.

He’s won on average 2.3 aerial duels per game (joint 2nd), makes on average two tackles per game (2nd), posts 3.3 clearances per game (3rd) and no-one can top his 3.3 interceptions per game among team-mates.

He’s dispossessed on average just 0.3 times per game, only bettered by Hector Moreno and Carlos Salcedo, and his 32.7 average passes per game is the fifth-highest among colleagues.

Equally important to his side is Marcelo, whose back spasm means he is a doubt for the round of 16 clash, although Brazil team doctor Rodrigo Lasmar is confident the Real Madrid man will be fit to feature.

Though the left-back has often attracted criticism throughout his career for a lack of defensive nous, there can be no doubting his importance as a leader for both club and country, while his attacking attributes often outweigh his defensive shortcomings.

He hasn’t quite been at his best in Russia, but he is still contributing – his average of 1.7 dribbles per game is only bettered by Neymar, Philippe Coutinho and Douglas Costa.

His delivery leaves a little to be desired though with only one cross from 10 having reached a team-mate.

PHILIPPE COUTINHO V HIRVING LOZANO

Many expected Neymar to pick up from where he left off on home soil four years ago – he may have been his nation’s hero but was a mere boy whereas he has since become a behemoth for Brazil – but he has so far underwhelmed in Russia.

Philippe Coutinho has instead been the talismanic figure who has dragged Brazil into the knockout stages kicking and screaming rather than coasting and comfortable.

He scored a sumptuous opening goal against Switzerland and nabbed the crucial winner in stoppage time against a valiant Costa Rica side as group stage exit fears loomed.

Though Canarinho have failed to really hit the high notes thus far, it is Coutinho who has kept the choir in tune, dictating the play and trying to find the gaps in the opposition – his 73.3 average passes per game leads Brazil players who’ve played over 80 minutes.

Not many people outside of the Netherlands or Mexico will have heard too much about Hirving Lozano up until a few weeks ago – but many Germany fans and players won’t be able to forget it after his historic goal against them in the opening Group F game that sent the holders down the road to ruin.

Shame on you for not knowing about Lozano prior to the tournament – the 22-year-old enjoyed a mesmeric campaign in the Dutch Eredivisie where he finished fourth in the scoring charts with 17 strikes, and was also joint-sixth in assists, registering eight to help PSV claim their third title in four years.

His goal aside, he is also contributing across the board and is second only to Andres Guardado for passing accuracy (89.1), while his 3.3 dribbles per game and 2.7 shots per game also lead his team. The livewire winger is also, perhaps unsurprisingly, Mexico’s most fouled player, being felled 3.7 times per game.

NEYMAR V JAVIER HERNANDEZ

Will the real Neymar please stand up, pretty please. We’ve seen from one of the best players at this World Cup so far is that he knows how to fall down.

The Paris Saint-Germain prima donna is the most fouled player on average in Russia, felled 5.7 times per game. Overall he has won 17 fouls, four more than Cristiano Ronaldo, but this doesn’t tell the full story.

This is not a case of an unplayable danger teasing and tricking defenders into cynically scything him down. It’s more a case of cheap ploys and petulance from a player who is yet to scratch the surface in Russia in terms of showing us just how good he is.

We all know how good he is, he’s showed glimpses. But the lasting impression he’s left so far is the spoilt child who stropped as Brazil toiled against Los Ticos.

Contrast Neymar with the man who’ll be trying to fire El Tri into the quarter-finals for the first time in 32 years. Javier Hernandez is not the most technically gifted player in the world but he comes alive for his country and is firing after a fairly average season at club level with West Ham.

But he has been hugely involved in Mexico’s run to the last 16. The man known as ‘Little Pea’ planted the seed for their stunning win over Germany by setting Lozano racing away for the winning goal, his pass to Guardado led to the penalty which Carlos Vela converted to give them a 1-0 lead over South Korea, and Hernandez then scored the crucial second – his 49th international goal in his 103rd cap.

He’s certainly shown up in Russia. Now it’s Neymar’s turn to follow suit.

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Former captain Wayne Rooney backs England to win the World Cup in Russia

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Optimistic: Wayne Rooney

Wayne Rooney believes “this could be the year” for England to match the heroes of 1966 and triumph at the World Cup.

The former England skipper has joined DC United and looks set to spend the rest of his playing career in Major League Soccer.

He made his last England appearance in November 2016, since when the team have been transformed under the leadership of Gareth Southgate.

With the likes of Germany, Argentina and European champions Portugal already out, Rooney senses an opportunity.

He said: “There’s some big teams gone out of the World Cup and this could be the year England can go far and hopefully win it.”

Personnel and tactical changes have been introduced by Southgate, and Rooney believes the signs are promising as England prepare to tackle Colombia in the second round on Tuesday.

Defeat to Belgium in their third group game on Thursday may not prove costly for England, as it means they arguably have a more straightforward route to the semi-finals.

England last reached the semi-finals in 1990, and reached their only final on home soil in 1966, beating West Germany 4-2 to lift the trophy.

Speaking about England’s new breed on US broadcaster Fox, Rooney said: “I think certainly the first two games they were excellent.

“It’s been refreshing to see a lot of young players, a lot of energy, a lot of high pressing, and they’re scoring goals and exciting as well.

“It’s an exciting time to be an England fan.

“The game against Belgium was a bit of a game which probably no-one wanted to win. Losing the game might actually benefit England to go further in the World Cup, to be on the right side of the draw which I believe they are.”

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