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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 21 July 2018

Coutinho takes centre stage from Neymar as patience pays off for Brazil

Goals in stoppage time give the Brazilians a 2-0 win and their first triumph at the World Cup as they prevail over Costa Rica in Group E

Philippe Coutinho celebrates scoring Brazil's opening goal against Costa Rica. Buda Mendes / Getty Images
Philippe Coutinho celebrates scoring Brazil's opening goal against Costa Rica. Buda Mendes / Getty Images

Tite took a tumble, falling over on the pitch in incoherent jubilation. Slender wins against Costa Rica are rarely greeted with such relish; not when the victor is a superpower with Brazil, anyway.

But Brazil’s worst start to a World Cup since 1978 was beckoning; perhaps a first group-stage exit since 1966.

They looked set to keep their place among the list of the floundering favourites, perhaps not as imperilled as Argentina but certainly living on their nerves.

Then Marcelo crossed, Tite’s substitute Roberto Firmino won a header, Gabriel Jesus got a touch and Philippe Coutinho arrived at pace to finish.

Tite lost his footing in celebration and Brazil gained a foothold in the last 16 when Neymar volleyed in a 97th-minute second; it was another goal that involved one of Tite’s replacements, in Douglas Costa.

Two games, two goals: Coutinho’s tournament has started superbly. He is the second most expensive footballer ever and takes second billing in this side.

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It is not merely because the costliest is a teammate, either. Neymar has a capacity to overshadow everyone and everything else.

Coutinho got the crucial goal, but Neymar’s was the more emblematic display, symbolic of Brazil’s struggles, frustrations and eventual joy.

With a dozen minutes remaining, and an obdurate Costa Rica side holding out for a stalemate, Neymar’s seeming nemesis, Dutch referee Bjorn Kuipers, awarded him a spot kick. Penalties have been given by VAR.

This was the first overturned and, given Neymar’s histrionic reaction to the slightest of contact with Giancarlo Gonzalez’s arm, he may be afforded little sympathy.

He went down in stages, in utterly needless fashion and his propensity to exaggerate ultimately counted against him when Kuipers reviewed the incident. His reaction was one of a spoilt child, collecting a caution for dissent a couple of minutes later.

He risked accusations of hypocrisy when he accused Costa Rica players of going down too easily. That time-wasting ultimately benefited him: had stoppage time been shorter then Neymar would not have got the 56th international goal that put him ahead of Romario.

A comeback may be gathering speed. This was his fourth game back after a three-month absence and it began with signs of rustiness and profligacy; one missed chance was wasteful indeed. Yet if Brazil were initially underwhelming, they were at least persistent.

Neymar drew a brilliant save from Keylor Navas. Jesus had a goal disallowed when offside and hit the bar with a header. Christian Gamboa made a goal-saving block from Coutinho’s follow-up to the latter effort. It showed the collective commitment a rearguard action required.

Costa Rica were mediocre in defeat to Serbia. The 2014 quarter-finalists acquitted themselves rather more creditably but in vain. They could rue the glorious chance Celso Borges missed after a dozen minutes. Tellingly, it was fashioned on Brazil’s left flank.

Tite’s side looked lopsided, with attacks stemming from the side where Marcelo, Coutinho and Neymar operated, but also defensively susceptible there.

On the opposite flank, Willian offered too little until Costa replaced him. The pressure built and Neymar came close to boiling point but Coutinho, his understated sidekick, delivered when it mattered.