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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 12 December 2018

Neymar marks return with stunning goal as Brazil beat Croatia at Anfield

Paris Saint-Germain forward had been injured for three months and scored his team's first before Firmino grabbed the second on his home turf

Neymar, left, and Roberto Firmino, right, were the goalscerers for Brazil in a 2-0 win over Croatia on Sunday. Oli Scarff / AFP
Neymar, left, and Roberto Firmino, right, were the goalscerers for Brazil in a 2-0 win over Croatia on Sunday. Oli Scarff / AFP

Once again, the focus was on Neymar’s right foot. It had been in surgery and in plaster. Now it was on his right boot. A nation’s hopes may rest on it. Ninety-eight days after fracturing a bone, 24 minutes into his return came the proof that Brazil wanted. Neymar was back.

A jinking solo run, toying with retreating defenders, was capped with a rifled shot, its crispness highlighted as it flew in via the underside of the bar. With a showman’s fondness for the limelight, Brazil’s talisman capped his comeback with a cracking goal against Croatia. It was his 54th for his country, taking him to within one of the great Romario, and the context of a friendly could make it one of the more meaningful.

Neymar’s presence was a boon in itself. He was injured in February, playing for Paris Saint-Germain against Marseille. Brazil received reassurance with his reappearance.

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There was a minor scare when Neymar briefly held the precious foot after a challenge from Ivan Rakitic, but he was soon running again, elusively and with the ball.

Metatarsal sagas have dominated the build-up to past tournaments. If history is repeating itself, there is the potential for a happier ending. Perhaps this will not be a second successive World Cup determined by Neymar’s fitness: he was injured in the 2014 quarter-final against Colombia and, shorn of belief without him, Brazil lost 7-1 to Germany.

The supporting cast is stronger this time. Nevertheless, it was notable that Neymar’s introduction perked Brazil up and afforded his teammates more room. Willian, a specialist in playing well when others are not, had been the brightest of their front three in a subdued first half.

Gabriel Jesus had an undistinguished first game as captain. His replacement Roberto Firmino lobbed Brazil’s second goal, after Casemiro’s fine pass and to the Kop’s audible approval, thus pressing his case to be the first-choice centre-forward.

Jesus’ promotion from the ranks was one of Tite’s more quixotic choices, but a 16th win in 20 games owed something to the manager. While Paulinho had been purposeful before the break, he decided three defensive midfielders offered too much of a muchness and relocated the second most expensive footballer ever to bring on the costliest. From his deeper role, Philippe Coutinho provided the pass for Neymar’s goal.

Apart from a few boos, there was little acrimony towards Coutinho on his first return to Anfield, partly because this was not the normal Liverpool crowd and partly because they were richly compensated for his departure, to the tune of £142 million (Dh696m), and scarcely missed the Barcelona-bound flair player on their surge to the Uefa Champions League final.

Coutinho’s first-half display was notable for some wayward shooting in a game that had an odd juxtaposition of a relaxed tempo and some uncompromising challenges: Fernandinho’s studs connected with Sime Vrsaljko’s face, drawing a yellow card. The punishment in competitive football may have been more severe.

Brazil could also have been undermined by lax set-piece marking, with Dejan Lovren heading wide from a corner, or their own carelessness, Miranda gifting possession before Andrej Kramaric had a shot saved.

Croatia’s first-choice striker Mario Mandzukic ought to be sharper, but he was only a substitute, while the winger Ante Rebic also tested Alisson with a header.

Brazil should be forewarned, too, that other opponents will look to exploit the space the raiding left-back Marcelo leaves behind him while, as they were slow to close down a team as assured in possession as Croatia, more intensity will be required in the World Cup.

Brazil have Sunday’s friendly against Austria before facing Switzerland in Rostov. Neymar will not be Tite’s super-sub then.