REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
Goals from Neymar and Roberto Firmino were enough to see Brazil through to the quarter-finals of the World Cup at Mexico’s expense after a performance which brought as many questions as answers.
The five-time winners dominated the match and could have scored more but were never totally convincing, only making the game safe only once Mexico piled numbers forward in the final minutes of the game.
Neymar put the final touch to a fine team move early in the second half before Firmino profited from Neymar’s run to add a second late on.
Brazil will now go on to play the winner of Tuesday’s clash between Belgium and Japan, with the odds heavily stacked towards the former.
But what did we learn from the game that got Brazil there?
1 Functional full-backs leave Brazil missing a spark
Fagner and Filipe Luis likely did everything that was expected of them from manager Tite during this game; they kept a reasonably close check on Mexico’s wide attackers and got forward when the opportunity allowed. But something was missing.
Simply put, that something was Marcelo. While his defensive ability is questioned, there is no denying the fact that he offers Brazil a huge amount attacking down the left flank through his all-around dribbling, passing and shooting ability.
Luis’ forays forward did not scare the Mexican back-line to the same extent as the injured Marcelo’s would have done, and that had a knock-on effect.
Without the bouncy-haired pest making a nuisance of himself, the Mexican rearguard could focus more closely on Coutinho, restricting his shooting opportunities and allowing the back-line to sit deep without fear of being punished by his distance shooting ability.
Brazil need Marcelo back.
2 Mexican wingers’ side-swap yields mixed results
Juan Carlos Osorio sent his wingers, Carlos Vela and Hirving Lozano, out at kick-off on the opposite flanks to what we had previously seen in this tournament. The left-footed Vela was moved onto the left, and the right-footed Lozano onto the right.
Both players are perfectly capable of playing on both wings but there was a sense that they would have fared better as ‘inverted’ wingers, playing on the opposite sides.
On the counter, it was the wide players who provided the most potent attacking threat, rather than the central striker Javier Hernandez whose influence was restricted by the Brazilian centre-halves.
Vela and Lozano both wasted shooting opportunities in the first half, and both would surely have been more likely to trouble Alisson’s clean sheet if cutting inside onto their stronger feet.
3 Brazil rely on moments of magic
REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
For all their attacking talent, Brazil looked at times like a team relying on one of their star players to come up with a moment of magic, rather than a team that would break Mexico down as a unit.
Brazil’s gameplan was built on a solid defensive effort, but their attack rarely seemed entirely cohesive – rather, they seemed to be hoping for a special dribble from Neymar or a shot from range from Philippe Coutinho.
When Neymar opened the scoring early in the first half, it was from Brazil’s first real team move into the penalty area, and it was an excellent goal. Neutral fans would like to see more of that, admittedly cliched, samba combination play going forward.
4 Mexico continue to relish the big games
If all you had seen of Mexico in this World Cup so far had been their final group game, you would have assumed that they would have been little more than cannon fodder for the mighty Brazil this time around.
Against a hard-working, organised Sweden side, Mexico were awful. Against the five-time world champions here, they were much improved, though they never quite hit the same heights as in their win over Germany.
Mexico’s reliance on counter-attacking can cause them problems against the smaller sides but in knockout competition, it should serve them well.
Will this generation of players get another chance?
5 Neymar continues to be hard to love
There was something about Kylian Mbappe’s performance against Argentina at the weekend which seemed to unite the entire footballing world.
The Argentines, and possibly die-hard obsessive Messi fans, aside, everybody just enjoyed watching him play – neutrals willed him on, begging for another act to the show.
That might once have been true with Neymar, too. But ‘the boy wonder’ of the last World Cup looks more of a petulant child with each passing game, his largely disappointing performances coming with an unwanted side order of histrionics. He is making himself an increasingly difficult player to love.
Of course, you don’t have to be universally adored to become one of the greats. Cristiano Ronaldo is proof enough of that.
But after seeing Mbappe’s no-nonsense, focused, devastating performance on Saturday, so much of what Neymar brings to the pitch just seems unnecessary.
Brazil’s star man will be 30 at the next World Cup. Perhaps he might have grown up a little by then.
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