Brazil head into Friday’s World Cup quarterfinal against Croatia brimming with confidence after Neymar’s return inspired a performance laced with swagger and arrogance in the last 16.
Their eye-catching 4-1 victory against South Korea, which featured goals by Vinicius Junior, Richarlison and Lucas Paqueta as well as a Neymar penalty, sent out an ominous message to their rivals in Qatar.
The football, for 45 minutes at least, was free-flowing and full of joy, the players celebrating their goals by showing off their dance moves and even getting Tite, their 61-year-old coach, to join in.
So thrilling were the Selecao at Doha’s Stadium 974 that their performance drew comparisons in some quarters with the very best and most entertaining Brazil sides, from the 1970 team of Pele to the 1982 vintage led by Socrates.
Yet it was just one game, and it came after the five-time champions scored just three goals in three group matches and also lost to Cameroon, their first defeat in the opening round at a World Cup since 1998.
Brazil will surely settle for a simple victory without the exhibition football when they take on 2018 runners-up Croatia at Education City Stadium, mindful of results at recent World Cups.
Since they won their fifth title in 2002, Brazil have gone out each time to European opponents, including a 7-1 humiliation at the hands of Germany on home soil in 2014 and a defeat by Belgium four years ago in Russia.
“We are dreaming of winning the title, that’s obvious, but we have to go step by step,” Neymar said after the victory over South Korea.
“This was the fourth game. There are three to go but we are prepared. Our minds are focused on winning the title.”
Neymar returned to the starting line-up for the last 16 after suffering an ankle injury in the opening 2-0 victory over Serbia, while the return of Danilo at left-back was almost significant.
Tite has lost another full-back, Alex Telles, for the rest of the tournament but another, Alex Sandro, is training again and hopes to be back.
If that is the case then Danilo will switch over to right-back and Eder Militao should drop out of the side.
A step too far?
Croatia made it to the final four years ago after being taken to extra time in three consecutive matches and they required an extra half hour as well as penalties to get the better of Japan in the last 16 on Monday.
The fear now is that this game might be a step too far for Zlatko Dalic’s resilient side, who have much the same spine as four years ago and are still led by the 37-year-old Luka Modric.
“I think everyone in the world knows the value of Luka Modric. He’s our leader, our best player, and we’re proud to have him on the field,” said Mateo Kovacic.
“We are accustomed to very tough physical games in the Premier League and that’s something that we want to show against Brazil,” the Chelsea player added.
“We want to show our technical quality too but we want to show our physical quality in every duel and in possession.”
Whatever happens, reaching this stage on the back of their 2018 exploits is an achievement worth celebrating for the nation of just four million people.
But Croatia, who have lost just once since last year’s European Championship, believe they can compete and may use their Nations League win over France in Paris in June as an example to follow.
“We had a really good game there, with important ball possession too, and we need to keep the ball against Brazil,” said Kovacic.
“This is Brazil, we can follow that blueprint but it will be a different game.”
Friday, December 9
Game 57: 0030 (Next AM): Netherlands v Argentina, Lusail Stadium (Lusail)
Game 58: 2030: Croatia vs Brazil, Education City Stadium (Doha)
Saturday, December 10
Game 59: 0030 (Next AM): England v France, Al-Bayt Stadium (Al-Khor)
Game 60: 2030: Morocco v Portugal, Al-Thumama Stadium (Doha)