Brazil’s impressive progress through the World Cup continued with an ultimately comfortable 2-0 victory over initially dangerous Mexico, as Neymar starred with a goal and an assist to take his team into the last eight.
Mexico enjoyed much the better of the early stages but Brazil responded strongly, and Tite’s men are looking good as they prepare for a likely mouth-watering showdown with Belgium.
Here are the main stories to emerge from Brazil’s latest victory.
NEYMAR LIGHTS IT UP
Brazil’s chief superstar Neymar hasn’t always made the headlines for the right reasons during this World Cup, but on this occasion the flamboyant winger let his football do the talking as much as his haircuts or theatrical tumbles.
Neymar was always the most dangerous individual on the field, starting in the early stages when he let fly with a swerving long-range strike which Mexico keeper Memo Ochoa punched away with difficulty.
Before long a slaloming run and shot from the left wing provided the most spectacular individual moment of the first half, and shortly after the break he opened the scoring by concluding a dangerous dribble with a clever back-heel to Willian, and then continuing his run to meet the Chelsea man’s low cross with a stretching close-range finish. Before the end he also created the second, racing inside from the left to deliver a shot which Ochoa could only divert straight to Roberto Firmino for a tap-in.
The less admirable side of Neymar’s game emerged as well, as he writhed in (probably fake) agony after an incident with Miguel Layun on the sidelines, but that shouldn’t detract from a match-winning display by a unique player who looks like he is back to his best. Watch out World Cup… Neymar is nowhere near finished yet.
1 - Neymar has attempted the most shots (23) and shots on target (12), as well as creating the most goalscoring chances for his teammates (16) and suffering the most fouls (23) at the 2018 World Cup. Busy.#BRAMEX #BRA #WorldCup pic.twitter.com/wTjXLoro8w— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) July 2, 2018
BRAZIL WEATHER THE STORM
Mexico started the game in a blistering fashion, throwing plenty of men forward and creating several dangerous positions in the first 20 minutes which could have very easily yielded an opening goal.
With Carlos Vela rampant down the left wing and Hirving Lozano doing the same on the right, while Javier Hernandez sniffed out space in the centre and midfield duo Hector Herrera and Andres Guardado burst forward to attack the box, the Brazilian defence was regularly stretched to breaking point.
But this was a case of bend and not break, as Brazil weathered the storm with a series of well-timed challenges and last-ditch interventions, blocking three shots to ensure that goalkeeper Allison did not have a save to make.
It was impossible for Mexico to maintain that kind of blistering tempo throughout the 90 minutes and the pattern of the game soon changed, with Brazil’s defence having played their part by maintaining a clean sheet to build the foundations for victory.
Representou hoje, Capita! Mais uma excelente partida de @tsilva3 e de todo o sistema defensivo da #SeleçãoBrasileira. Não passa nada na defesa do Brasil! ⚽️🚫🇧🇷 #GigantesPorNatureza #Copa2018— CBF Futebol (@CBF_Futebol) July 2, 2018
Foto: Lucas Figueiredo/CBF pic.twitter.com/UbDd5aPKLt
CASEMIRO LEAVES A GAP
One of the big reasons that Brazil were able to escape unscathed from Mexico’s fast start was the performance of defensive midfielder Casemiro, whose positional sense and strong physical presence protected his back four to perfection.
And although Neymar will understandably grab the headlines, it must not be overlooked that Brazil’s serene progress in Russia is being underpinned by a fine defensive effort with just one goal conceded in four games and three consecutive clean sheets – indeed, despite Mexico’s admirably attacking game-plan they were restricted to just one shot on target, showing that Brazil’s Neymar-inspired flair is backed up by plenty of defensive solidity.
However, Casemiro also picked up his second booking of the tournament and will therefore miss his team’s quarter-final, probably against dangerous Belgium, on Friday. A readymade replacement is available in the form of Manchester City’s Fernandinho, who is in line to enjoy a fascinating tussle with club-mate Kevin De Bruyne.
But he doesn’t possess the same defensive presence as Casemiro, and the Real Madrid man’s outstanding abilities in front of the back four could be sorely missed against a team with the attacking firepower of the Belgians.
Here are the key battles:
RADAMEL FALCAO V HARRY KANE
Falcao has waited a long time for this moment.
The 32-year-old missed out on Colombia’s run to the quarter-finals four years ago through a serious knee injury. He’ll be determined to ensure a repeat is attained this time.
Falcao toiled up with the 10 men of Colombia against Japan then stylishly struck with the outside of his boot against Poland. Against Senegal, the early withdrawal of James Rodriguez harmed his supply line.
Facing English opposition could unsettle ‘El Tigre’, after two woeful seasons on loan at Manchester United and Chelsea from 2014-16. But it is not yet known how Gareth Southgate’s react to being asked serious defensive questions.
With Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi now departed, a space in the spotlight is open for the next global superstar.
Tottenham and England skipper Kane has all the credentials to fill it. With five goals already to his name in Russia, he’ll be desperate to add to his figure against Los Cafeteros.
The 24-year-old’s predatory instincts saw a brace struck against Tunisia from corners. He then dispatched two penalties and benefited from a lucky deflection against Panama.
Remarkably, these five goals have come from six attempts on goal. Spurs club-mate Davinson Sanchez will need to be on his best form for Colombia.
JUAN FERNANDO QUINTERO V JESSE LINGARD
Quintero has been one of this World Cup’s great success stories.
Since the previous edition, the anachronistic central playmaker has bounced between parent club Porto, Rennes, Independiente Medellin and River Plate. Accusations of excess weight and a poor attitude bedevilled him.
But Colombia head coach Jose Pekerman’s desire to inject his side with creativity has been rewarded in style. With Rodriguez a severe injury doubt, his understudy’s importance will only grow.
With gaps to be found on the flanks of England’s 3-1-4-2 formation, Quintero will be key.
Lingard will not want 2017/18 to end.
The 25-year-old has gone from bit-part player at Manchester United and England, to essential for both.
Lingard’s ability to link play has been valued by Southgate since their days together in the Under-21s. This reliance and faith has been extended to the seniors, where it was repaid in style with his sumptuous curler from range against Panama.
His fleet of foot and thought will push Sanchez to the brink.
CARLOS SANCHEZ V JORDAN HENDERSON
Sanchez’s World Cup couldn’t have got off to a worse start.
A handball less than three minutes into the opener against Japan saw him given the second-quickest red card in World Cup. Without their defensive midfielder on the pitch, Colombia slumped to a 2-1 loss.
Returned to the side against Senegal, his influence was apart with three tackles the second most among his team-mates. The former Aston Villa flop will need to prove his quality against England.
Henderson’s strong finish to the season with Liverpool has been extended to the World Cup.
The 28-year-old has raced clear of Tottenham’s Eric Dier in the pecking order for the midfield holding role. A major contributor to this is his excellent range of passing, with 12 long balls attempted so far this tournament.
Southgate could decide to partner Henderson with Dier to add midfield ballast against Colombia. But if there is only one anchoring spot available, then the former is the outstanding candidate.
The Three Lions gained renown for dispatching minnows Tunisia and Panama. Then a widely debated decision to field back-ups led to a 1-0 loss to Belgium to finish second in Group G, from which a comfortable route to the last-four opened up.
For Colombia, they recovered from losing with 10 men against Japan to beat Poland and Senegal. Group H’s winners, however, are sweating on Rodriguez’s availability because of a lingering calf complaint.
Here are the talking points ahead of Tuesday’s clash at Spartak Stadium:
ENGLAND’S KNOCKOUT BLOWS
Only England head coach Gareth Southgate will know whether he actively sought the path of least resistance.
After the brouhaha caused when dusting off the stiffs for a soulless 1-0 defeat to second-string Belgium when Group G reached an unseemly end, comes reality.
Colombia, followed by either Sweden or Switzerland. Rather than Japan, followed by Brazil or Mexico.
A combined tally of two World Cups won on their side of the draw, compared to 10 on the other.
Thursday’s failure has gained obvious reward.
Regardless of Colombia’s obvious strengths, and a fair few weaknesses, England face their friendliest run to the World Cup semi-finals since 1990.
But this is not the end of the debate. Not by a long shot.
Since the Three Lions lifted the hallowed Jules Rimet Trophy in 1966, football’s founding nation has suffered knockout blow after knockout blow.
They’ve won just five matches in 52 years once the group games are done – two of these coming during a special Italian summer soundtracked by Luciano Pavarotti when Belgium and Cameroon were conquered.
The other victims were Paraguay in 1986, Denmark in 2002 and Ecuador in 2006. Hardly a list of heavyweights.
This situation can be viewed in contrasting fashion.
Either England have not earned the right to feel comfortable about any opponent, or the avoidance of a likely quarter-final against Brazil was worth pursuing no matter the cost in lost momentum.
The truth will out, beginning at Spartak Stadium.
Defenders must be on their best behaviour in the Russian capital.
Colombia and England have been this edition’s set-piece kings. Between them, nine goals have come via corner-kicks, free-kicks or penalties.
For the South Americans, this represents three efforts from five in total. A figure that include Porto-owned playmaker Juan Quintero’s daisy cutter in the opening 2-1 loss to Japan, plus Barcelona centre-back Yerry Mina’s towering headers in the 3-0 defeat of Poland and 1-0 victory against Senegal – courtesy of Everton anchor man Idrissa Gueye’s schoolboy defending.
The Three Lions have dead balls to thank for six of their eight strikes. Some turnaround from Harry Kane’s perplexing output at Euro 2016.
The Tottenham superstar bagged from two corners in the 2-1 win against Tunisia, plus put away a brace of penalties in the 6-1 routing of Panama.
Manchester City centre-back John Stones also got two against the Central Americans from set-pieces.
The supreme delivery of Spurs wing-back Kieran Trippier has been central to this profitable return.
A raft of 6ft-plus figures will be eager to strike again at Spartak. Mina is joined by fellow centre-back Davinson Sanchez for the Colombians.
The latter’s inside knowledge from Spurs could help combat the likes of club-mate Kane, Stones and Leicester City giant Harry Maguire.
Air supremacy should carry the day.
COLOMBIA ARE IN A JAM
The expression on Colombia head coach Jose Pekerman’s face did not betray much joy about progression to the knockouts.
Images of Rodriguez pounding the turf in pain just 31 minutes into the Senegal denouement flooded his mind. Describing the Bayern Munich loanee as ‘essential’ to the nation’s hopes does not do his influence justice.
“I’m very concerned, it’s very worrying,” said Pekerman, who in a best-case scenario will only have a half-fit playmaker to select after another flare up of a nagging calf problem.
“It’s a very difficult situation for us. I do not know where he stands right now.
“I can’t say any more because I just don’t know.”
Rodriguez, of course, struck six times during the 2014 edition to fire Colombia to the quarter-finals for the first time. With them, he earned both the Golden Boot and a blockbuster move to Real Madrid.
This summer, the 26-year-old could only play the final 30 minutes in the opening reversal to Japan. But his virtuoso display against Poland, which included the pass of the tournament for Juan Cuadrado’s breakaway, spoke of his enduring ability – and importance.
Quintero’s impish skills have helped fill Rodriguez’s gap in absentia. His renaissance could be tested again versus England.