Long after the 2018 World Cup is done and dusted, the Group E match between Brazil and Costa Rica in Saint Petersburg on 22nd June will not be recollected with great fondness. Even if Brazil get spurred on by this win against Los Ticos and lift the trophy for a sixth time, it’ll likely be a footnote on their winning run, and if they flatter to deceive, not even that.
But the scenes after the final whistle were a bit surreal. The world’s most expensive footballer sat in the middle of the pitch, hands to his face, crying. Neymar let himself go in those moments with the world watching. It’s been a tough few months for him, no doubt. A broken foot, a surgery, doubts over his fitness and to add to all that, playing for Brazil at a World Cup – it’s a lot to take in. Those were tears of relief after a hard-fought 2-0 win.
“Not everyone knows what I went through to get here,” Neymar tweeted after the match. “Even parrots can talk, but walking the walk... not everyone does it. I cried out of happiness, overcoming, grit and desire to win. Things were never easy in my life, so why would they be now? The dream – no, the OBJECTIVE – is still alive.”
And the objective, presumably winning a sixth World Cup, is alive because, on the day, undistracted by Neymar and his antics in the 90 minutes before those emotional final moments, Selecao got their campaign in Russia up and running, because the supporting cast around him stepped up.
Poor first half
As has been the norm at this World Cup so far, the so-called smaller team made things mighty difficult for one of the favourites to stamp their authority on the tournament.
For the first 45 minutes, Brazil looked like a shadow of the team that is one of the strongest on paper. They dominated possession, but struggled to create chances of note. It was, in fact, Costa Rica who had the first and undoubtedly, the best chance of the half to score early on, when Celso Borges ran on to a cutback from Ruiz and shot wide off the target, when it seemed easier to test Allison in Brazil’s goal, if not score.
There were plenty of Brazil forays down the left flank, where Marcelo and Neymar linked up repeatedly with Coutinho joining in. Willian, on the right flank, cut a forlorn figure.
The reliance on the left wing was something Costa Rica dealt with well. Indeed, Brazil’s first corner of the match came in the 39th minute, the moment Marcelo switched play from left to right to find Willian in acres of space. It was evident then, that the team needed something more than a ploy to build play through Neymar.
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And in the second half, the game began to change in complexion with the introduction of Douglas Costa for Willian. It injected urgency, it introduced a directness from either flank that Costa Rica had to deal with now instead of just Neymar down the left. He would later turn provider for Neymar’s goal that sealed the game in the 97th minute. Roberto Firmino had a similar impact when he came on as well, involved heavily in the 91st minute goal scored by Coutinho.
But before all that, the PSG star was having one of those days where he was being kicked about, suffocated for space. At one point, his hissy-fits got so over the top that the referee gave him a dressing down that would not have been out of place in a school where the headmaster was dealing with an unruly child. Björn Kuipers was the man in-charge in the middle, and he was letting Neymar know that.
Then came the decision to award a penalty for what initially seemed like a shirt-tug on Neymar, which the replays showed was not the case. Martin O’Neill, analysing the match for one of the British broadcasters, made a cheeky remark that the referee would have derived some pleasure in giving Neymar the penalty and then taking it away from him; such were his antics. A yellow card for dissent would come a few minutes later and it was turning into a Neymar sideshow in a game that was going to end in a frustrating draw.
‘A new talisman’
But all this while, Coutinho was driving the game from the midfield. Away from the spotlight, without any shenanigans, he was dictating proceedings. He, in fact, had the best chance Brazil produced in the game in the 90 minutes, when he struck a rebound while running in from midfield and the shot was deflected away for a corner, with the defender having no clue about it. Gabriel Jesus might have hit the crossbar, Neymar might have had a few chances to beat Keylor Navas, but this was the moment Brazil looked like they will go ahead.
And then in the 91st minute, like he had done on a few occasions before, Coutinho charged in from the midfield and stabbed home a goal just when it looked like the Costa Rican defender was going to clear it and ease the pressure. Brazil have “a new talisman,” exclaimed the commentator on the world feed, and he was right. For the second game in a row, Coutinho was Brazil’s best player on the pitch.
Considering the fate of the other South American team, that is struggling to find a balance between building their play around Lionel Messi and using the other attacking options effectively, Brazil managed to do it in the second half against Costa Rica.
“He is resuming a process,” Tite said about Neymar. “He played the full match. He is a human being, he needs some time to resume his high standard. Before then there is a team that has to be strong and not depend on him.”
While he fell over more than times anyone could count, threw tantrums, scored the goal that could breathe life into his own campaign, and finally, brought the cameras towards him with the tears at the end. But unwavered from that all, Coutinho and Co delivered for Brazil.