BUENOS AIRES // It was harder than expected, but Brazil have reached the Copa America quarter-finals and are starting to show their favourites tag to win the South American championship.
Brazil and Paraguay clinched the last two remaining quarter-final berths; Brazil defeated Ecuador 4-2 with two goals each from Neymar and Alexandre Pato to top Group B, and Paraguay drew 3-3 with Venezuela. The Venezuelans had already advanced.
Brazil has won the last two Copa America titles — and four of the last five — and will face Paraguay in the weekend quarter-finals. They drew 2-2 in the group stage.
Argentina plays Uruguay, Colombia is against Peru and Chile faces Venezuela.
"It was the type of match we needed," Pato said. "It was like a final to us and we had to win it no matter what. We did it and advanced in first place, which is what we wanted."
Brazil and Argentina had both only managed draws in their first two group games. But when it counted, Lionel Messi delivered for Argentina — a 3-0 victory on Monday against Costa Rica — and Neymar and Pato stepped up for Brazil to build momentum going into the last-eight.
"I like the way he played," Brazil coach Mano Menezes said of Neymar. "He came back to mark on defence too. It's important for him to play this role in the national team, too.
"We have confidence in [the young players] and we know they can continue to improve during the Copa America.
"I am working with my players to make them better - that will always be the approach," he said, repeating his mantra that the goal is to be ready for the 2014 World Cup.
"I have extraordinary players," he added in reference to the likes of two-goal stars Neymar and Pato as well as effervescent wingback Maicon.
Menezes brushed off as "one of those things which happen in football" Ecuador's opening goal when goalkeeper Julio Cesar let through a tame effort from Felipe Caicedo.
Argentina have the advantage of playing at home, but faces pressure to deliver their first major title since 1993.
Brazil are under less duress, playing with a mix of youth and experience and building a side for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
Brazil finished with five points in Group B, level with Venezuela but ahead on goal difference. Paraguay, who allowed two late goals in a draw with the Venezuelans, advanced with three points as one of the two best third-place teams in the three groups.
Chile were the best team in the group stage, but now Brazil and Argentina look like their earlier tournament blues has ended going into the final eight.
"We played with that will to win," Pato said. "Everybody expects Brazil to always play a great match but it's very hard, all teams want to beat Brazil's national team, and today it wasn't different. Now it's time to get back to work. It's a new Copa America."
Brazil went ahead twice, from Pato in the 28th minute and Neymar in the 48th. But Ecuador equalised each time with Caicedo, the former Manchester City striker, scoring in the 37th and 58th. But when Pato scored again in the 60th, there were no more comebacks with Neymar sealing the match in the 76th.
"We leave a bit sad," Caicedo said. "We had the character to rally two times. We could have tied again, but we lost our concentration. We left Brazil too much space, and you can't do that."
The loss will put pressure on the Ecuador coach Reinaldo Rueda, with reports that the Costa Rica coach Ricardo La Volpe might replace him.
Venezuela picked up a good psychological boost in the draw against Paraguay with two goals in the last five minutes from Grenddy Adrian Perozo and Nicolas Fedor.
Venezuela have been the surprise of the tournament. The country is better known for great baseball players, and is the only team in the 10-member South American confederation that has never played in the World Cup.
Cesar Farias, the Venezuela coach, offered reporters a 15-minute lecture after the match, upset that his team is often written off as the weakest in South America.
"This is a team that works hard, has put in lots of hours, played lots of games and is asking for respect," Farias said.
Defender Daniel Alves said that the gloves were now off with Brazil having emerged from a difficult start which brought draws against the Venezuelans and Paraguayans.
"Now the competition really starts," said Alves of Barcelona. The win was, he admitted, "a weight off our minds."
Referring to the upcoming meeting with the Paraguayans, he added: "Paraguay are tough rivals but I think we have an opportunity. We mustn't get obsessed - a new Copa is just starting."