Neymar and Brazil press on but must beware curse of the favourites

by Keir Radnedge, AIPS Football Commission Chairman

MOSCOW, July, 2, 2018 – Brazil have played Mexico five times in World Cup history. They have yet to lose or even concede a goal. The latest exposure of El Tri to this one-way traffic saw Brazil, still not fluent but efficiently superior, reach the quarter-finals of the 2018 finals by 2-0 in Samara.

Neymar scored the first goal and provided the second for substitute Roberto Firmino. For the seventh successive time the second round was the end of the line for El Tri.

Mexico take Brazil games very seriously. They still glory in the Olympic Games gold medal victory in London in 2012 and they started brightly with Carlos Vela, Hirving Lozano and Chicharito Hernandez all running on super-octane petrol. But Brazil, while never fluent, gradually played their way into the game and kept Mexican keeper Gabriel Ochoa on his toes in the 10 minutes up to half-time.

Mexico’s coach Juan Carlos Osorio had started with veteran Rafael Marquez, appearing in a record-equalling fifth World Cup, as holding midfielder. But at the interval Osorio dared on an attacking change with the replacement of the 39-year-old by Miguel Layun. If the idea was to seize back the initiative, it failed badly.

Brazil moved up a gear and took the lead after five second-half minutes. Neymar ran right, drew the Mexican defence and then delivered an exquisite backheel which allowed Willian to run wide and cross so the world’s most expensive player could stretch out a foot to put Brazil ahead.

Opponents know that, if they fall a goal behind, they invite Brazil to start bossing the game. Ochoa was forced to fine saves from Paulinho and Willian before a Neymar shot on the turn skimmed wide for a corner off the boot of Hugo Ayala.

As the clock ran down so the Mexicans began to play the man as much as the ball. This played into Brazilian hands, giving them – and Neymar in particular after a sly stamp by Layun – the excuse to indulge in time-wasting histrionics. Here, if anything, this Brazil displayed a weakness of immaturity: the champions of 1958, 1962, 1970, 1994 and 2002 would have focused on a killing second goal instead.

Belatedly, it did arrive but it took two late substitutions to achieve it: Fernandinho, on for Paulinho, set Neymar free and when his shot deflected off Ochoa’s toe it was Firmino, on for Coutinho, who prodded the ball over the line.

The premature exits in Russia of Germany, Argentina and Spain have left Brazil ever more favourites to win a World Cup full of fun football. To win a record-extending sixth Cup, Brazil must win three more matches. But this Brazil team are far from perfect. Even they are in danger in a World Cup of surprises.

Neymar & Co will go the Kazan on Friday for their quarter-final to confront a Belgian team who wrote another dramatic chapter into the story of this World Cup by hitting back from 2-0 down in the last 20 minutes to beat Japan 3-2 in Rostov-on-Don.

The Japanese players lay distraught on the pitch at the final whistle which came only seconds after Nacer Chadli had tapped in the Belgian winner from a counter-attack in the fourth minute of stoppage time.

No team had come from two goals down to win a World Cup knock-out tie since West Germany against England in 1970 – and the Germans needed extra time to complete the job.

Belgium dominated the first half without scoring and then went 2-0 down soon after the interval to goals from Genki Haraguchi and Takashi Inui.

Jan Vertonghen, whose mistake had led to Haraguchi’s goal, pulled one back with a header in the 69th minute. Substitute Marouane Fellaini equalised five minutes later and Chadli grabbed the winner after a swift counter-attack engineered by Kevin de Bruyne and Thomas Meunier.

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