Neymar’s mesmerising talents and infuriating behaviour ensures attention rarely deviates away.
Football’s boy king, once again, made himself the centre of attention in Monday’s 2-0 round-of-16 triumph against Mexico.
A tap-in for the opener and raw burst of pace for the clincher evidenced preternatural talents of rare effectiveness. Less positivity can be attached to the playground behaviour that followed the lightest of touches from Miguel Layun’s boot on the touchline.
The circus that surrounds the 26-year-old does distract from the defensive brilliance that underpins Tite’s title favourites.
Doggedness and discipline are terms not typically attached to the Canarinho. This is one of the sport’s grave injustices.
It is a story that is repeated throughout Brazil’s record five World Cup triumphs.
There is no Pele without the great Hilderaldo Bellini or Carlos Alberto, no Romario without Dunga or Ronaldo without Lucio.
Similarly in Russia, Neymar and Philippe Coutinho are the headline acts – and rightly so. The boyhood friends have either scored or assisted all seven of the team’s goals.
Look deeper and Brazil also have three clean sheets in a row. Steven Zuber’s ability to outleap Miranda in the opening 1-1 Group E-draw against Switzerland is the only time vulnerability has translated into concession.
Vibrant Mexico enacted an examination of Brazil’s credentials. Carlos Vela, Javier Hernandez and Hirving Lozano remained up the pitch at all times as inventive – and bold – head coach Juan Carlos Osorio chose endeavour over reticence.
Collectively, the North Americans’ decision making left plenty to be desired. All too often, options out wide were ignored for a shot at Alisson’s goal.
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
But when these attempts came, collective strength created an impenetrable shield. Only one of Mexico’s 14 attempts was on target.
Centre-backs Thiago Silva and Miranda led the way with a combined five blocked shots.
The former was ignored by Paris Saint-Germain for February’s trip to Real Madrid at the same stage in the Champions League. What folly.
Silva’s tally of eight clearances in Samara was five more than anyone else clad in the famous yellow. Tite’s rare decision to allow the 33-year-old to retain the captain’s armband was fully justified.
In front of them, Casemiro was a colossus. His leading six tackles snuffed out danger at the source, while his instincts led to three clearances.
A supreme standard has been set for Manchester City’s Fernandinho to match when he takes his suspended colleague’s place for the quarter-finals against Belgium.
Tite’s use of the full-backs must also gain praise. With Mexico imbued with positivity, Fagner and Filipe Luis – both stand-ins for injured superstar colleagues – were tasked with holding tight and suppressing any attacking instincts.
Their work on the cover was essential to narrowing Mexico’s options on the counter-attack.
Similarly, Brazil’s alert supremo took the rare step of ordering both centre-backs to remain in their own half for corners once Mexico’s desire to keep at least three forwards in counter-attacking positions became apparent. This was an adroit and reactive observation that critically proved beyond Germany’s Joachim Low.
Only Belgium and Russia have outscored Brazil in this edition. With one goal conceded, Uruguay are their only peers when it comes to defending.
In 1994, the Selecao kept five clean sheets from seven matches. Eight years later, it was four from seven.
In 1958, it was three from six. Only in 1962 and 1970 does this rate drop below 50 per cent – two clean sheets from six games in the former and just one from six in the latter.
O Jogo Bonito (The Beautiful Game) supported by reinforced concrete beams. A winning formula, in any language.
Nacer Chadli rose from the substitutes’ bench to complete Belgium’s comeback from 2-0 down against Japan in the dying embers of injury time and enter World Cup 2018’s quarter-finals with an epic 3-2 win.
The Samurai Blue emerged from a scoreless first half to be two-goals ahead by 52 minutes through Genki Haraguchi’s breakaway and the outstanding Takashi Inui’s piledriver. A first entry into the last eight seemed set from that point.
But Roberto Martinez’s hotly tipped side weren’t done. Headers from Jan Vertonghen and Marouane Fellaini levelled things up by 74 minutes at Rostov Arena, before Chadli swept in a 94th-minute counter-attack to become the first nation since West Germany in 1970 to comeback from 2-0 behind in the World Cup’s knockouts.
Belgium will now play favourites Brazil in the next stage.
BELGIUM ARE ALL TOGETHER
Disaster and ignominy, to joy and relief.
De Rode Duivels rode a rollercoaster in Rostov. They, just about, emerged from the other end.
A great World Cup upset was avoided from the moment Martinez ditched his purist principles on 65 minutes, utilising a power play through replacements Fellaini and Chadli.
The key takeaway for Belgium will be the indefatigable spirit on show. Rumours of splits in the camp between Flemish and French speakers, plus an explosive mixture of egos, have bedevilled this ‘Golden Generation’.
Selflessness, exhibited most by striker Romelu Lukaku, is a positive takeaway from a disquieting night.
JAPAN’S TWIN INFLUENCES
The sight of Japan popping passes around a star-studded Belgium side is one to cherish within Asian football circles.
This return to the core Samurai Blue principles was behind April’s decision to dismiss the combustible and dour Vahid Halilhodzic.
But if the Bosnian was watching on Monday, Japan’s retention of a combative defensive shape spoke of a lasting legacy. Lessons this group first learned under current UAE tactician Alberto Zaccheroni.
Vitally, this was twinned by the cute possession and confidence on the ball that current incumbent Akira Nishino has been schooled in throughout his life.
This is a mix that should lead the Samurai Blue to success in January 2019’s Asian Cup – and beyond.
BELGIUM’S BAD POINTS
And now for the negatives.
The 3-1-4-2 formation utilised during Martinez’s two-year reign has sparked debate and discord. Its weaknesses were exposed to the globe by Japan.
Bundesliga pair Makoto Hasebe and Shinji Kagawa constantly picked gaps in the channels. It led to an uncomfortable night for Vertonghen especially, normally so unflappable for Tottenham.
The spaces vacated by wing-backs Thomas Meunier and Yannick Carrasco in transition will make the likes of Neymar and Willian salivate.
Furthermore, the approach makes ineffable playmaker Kevin De Bruyne – a vocal critic in the past – a relative passenger. His only real contribution was to spark the decisive final move.
Belgium possess significant weapons in Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku. But systematic weaknesses must be cured, or it’ll be their eventual undoing.
Here are our player ratings for the Selecao:
Allison – 6: Well protected by his back four, he only had one save to make and distributed the ball well.
Fagner – 6: Limited attacking impact and struggled early against the pace of Vela, but more solid later on.
Thiago Silva – 7: Mature and commanding in the centre of defence, showing his experience by organising Brazil’s back line with authority.
Miranda – 7: Regularly beaten in the early exchanges but soon gathered his composure as Mexico lost their spark.
Filipe Luis – 7: Very solid job at left-back, far less rampaging than usual starter Marcelo but solid and steady.
Paulinho – 6: Solid if unflashy job between the penalty areas, making some good defensive interventions and trying to support the attack.
Casemiro – 7: Showed his savvy with some important blocks and interceptions in front of the back four. Booked and will miss the quarter-final.
Philippe Coutinho – 7: Very quiet early on but an increasing influence as Brazil took charge, firing in several efforts. Replaced near the end.
Willian – 7: Limited initial impact but produced a nice assist for the opener and was more and more dangerous as space opened up.
Gabriel Jesus – 6: Linked play cleverly but faded in and out of the game. Place may be under jeopardy after Firmino’s goal.
Neymar – 8: Always dangerous, twice coming close before superbly fashioning and finishing the opener, and then creating the second.
Fernandinho – 7: Replaced Paulinho for the final stages to strengthen the midfield and started the move for the second goal.
Roberto Firmino – 7: Came on for Coutinho at the end and netted the second to secure the win from two yards.
Marquinhos -NA: Came on in stoppage time as a time-wasting sub.