Battered and bruised by a barrage of Swiss fouls, Neymar hobbled out the Rostov Arena having failed to inspire the expected start to Brazil’s World Cup, after the pre-tournament favourites were held to a 1-1 draw by Switzerland.
The world’s most expensive player told journalists there was “nothing to worry about” regarding his latest knock, but there is concern whether Neymar can perform to the levels needed to lead his country to a sixth World Cup title, having not played any competitive football for four months ahead of the tournament.
Neymar’s season at club level with Paris Saint-Germain ended when breaking a bone in his foot in February.
To the frustration of many in the French capital, he spent much of his recovery time back in Brazil with the intention of getting in the best shape possible for a potentially career-defining tournament.
A stunning individual run and finish on his return in a pre-tournament friendly against Croatia and his 55th international goal against Austria a week later appeared to quash fears over his fitness.
But as many of the World Cup favourites have found so far in Russia, friendly performances mean little when the competition kicks off for real and Brazil were found wanting against an aggressive and well-organised Swiss side.
Neymar was fouled 10 times, more than any player in a single World Cup match since Alan Shearer 20 years ago, and provoked Switzerland’s three yellow cards for Stephan Lichtsteiner, Fabian Schaer and Valon Behrami.
Mexican referee Cesar Ramos’ handling of the Swiss tactics divided opinion among fans and commentators as some called for greater protection for one of the world’s best players, while many believed Neymar was too quick to go to ground.
“I was a little bit worried about the referee,” said Arsenal full-back Lichtsteiner.
“Every time they fell down it was a whistle, a foul. This was a bit of a challenge. You think ‘don’t be too aggressive’ because every time they go down it’s a foul.”
Given the success of Switzerland’s rugged approach, Neymar can expect more of the same against Costa Rica and Serbia with the pressure upped on Brazil to rediscover the form they showed in qualifying.
Brazil’s transformation in two years under coach Tite has been characterised by the speed of their transitions from defence to attack as Neymar combined to great effect with Gabriel Jesus and Philippe Coutinho.
However, after a bright start capped by Coutinho’s wonder strike to open the scoring, the game too often slowed down when it reached Neymar as he tried to humiliate Lichtsteiner rather than keep the ball moving.
For all the attacking talent available to Tite, Neymar remains the man Brazil turn to in times of need as the ball was shuffled out left to him time and again as the clock ran down.
However, with one of Brazil’s other major threats in Marcelo also operating down that flank, there is a risk that without the injured Dani Alves at right-back, Tite’s men become unbalanced and easier to defend against.
“It was very good teamwork on the right side: Behrami, Schaer and me. It was almost a perfect game. It’s important to have this teamwork,” added Lichtsteiner.
History shows there is still time for Brazil to recover. Switzerland beat eventual winners Spain in their opening game in 2010 and held finalists France at the group stage in 2006.
But Brazil need Neymar to get back up to speed as quickly as possible.