Neymar the inspiration as Brazil march on to World Cup quarter-finals
The Paris Saint-Germain forward put in his best display of the tournament in Russia so far as he had a goal and an assist in the victory over Mexico
If one magnificent obsession has brought nothing but frustration, another may yet result in elation.
Mexico’s quest to reach a World Cup quarter-final on foreign soil came to its usual conclusion, with a seventh successive last-16 exit for international football’s most consistent team.
Brazil’s bid for redemption after 2014’s 7-1 defeat to Germany, however, has gathered pace.
Neymar’s attempt to exert the decisive impact that injury ensured he could not four years ago is looking better.
This time, he is getting fitter as a tournament progresses. His best display in Russia yielded a goal and an assist.
Brazil chalked up their third consecutive 2-0 win to look immune to the upsets affecting the other favourites and Mexico, as ever, went home when the quarter-finals had beckoned.
They found Neymar an irrepressible irritant. He endeared with his skills and alienated with his histrionics. Miguel Layun could have been sent off for standing on his leg, though Neymar overreacted to it.
Edson Alvarez and Carlos Salcedo were cautioned for fouls on him but despite a willingness to endorse the illegal, Mexico could not halt him.
Neymar served as scorer and supplier for the two goals. While he can seem a showpony, his trickery is not merely self-indulgent flicks and tricks. There is an end product.
A backheel to release Willian led to the breakthrough. The winger showed more penetration than he had done beforehand in the tournament with a direct run.
Whether what followed was a cross or shot was a moot point: Neymar turned it into the former by sliding in for a tap in.
When Neymar escaped in the inside-left channel, Guillermo Ochoa got a touch to his shot. Roberto Firmino benefited with the simplest of finishes. Neymar had set up Gabriel Jesus, too, when Ochoa had to parry a stinging drive.
Brazil’s first-choice forward is yet to open his account for the tournament, and the substitute striker Firmino’s goal may prompt calls for a change in the forward pecking order.
Brazil’s better work came on either side of the attack. Willian had not found form in the group stages and may have owed his place to Douglas Costa’s absence, but he excelled with a series of driving runs.
Neymar prospered in the inside-left channel and, after one slaloming solo run, he drew a fine save from Ochoa.
He was not alone in that respect. The Mexico goalkeeper delivered a man-of-the-match display against Brazil in the 2014 World Cup. He produced something of an encore with eight saves; only Ochoa himself, with nine against Germany, has made more in a game.
Phillipe Coutinho, Paulinho and Willian could all testify to his agility, yet their second-half shots were signs that Brazil were finding space more frequently.
They had been penned back earlier. Mexico began at pace. Yet it was energy against quality and when Mexico tired, Brazil’s greater talent told.
It has been allied with sturdiness. They have been professional rather than perfect but they are a team built on solid foundations.
Allisson had to tip a long-range Carlos Vela shot over but had little else to do. Brazil have only conceded six times in Tite’s 22-game reign and Miranda illustrated why with some telling blocks.
He allowed them to weather the early storm even if an ally, defensive midfielder Casemiro, will be banned for the quarter-final after being booked.
Mexico’s wait for a first World Cup goal against Brazil continues but at least an idiosyncratic side brought ideas.
Adventurous and able to press, they are a rarity in their capacity to play with a coherence of the club team.
Juan Carlos Osorio counts as one of the more original thinkers among the managers. He swapped his wingers, allowing Hirving Lozano to further bolster a burgeoning reputation by cutting in from the right and Carlos Vela to trouble Brazil right-back Fagner; he may lose out to Danilo for future fixtures.
Mexico also left three men forward when defending corners. It enabled them to break quickly. Yet their signature selection involved a rather slower player with the choice of Rafael Marquez in the starting 11.
The 39-year-old became the oldest outfield player to figure in the tournament’s knockout stages since Stanley Matthews in 1954 and the first to captain a side in five World Cups. He was also the first to leave this game, substituted after 45 minutes.
Unless Marquez abandons plans to retire, this was his final game. A career of astonishing longevity has been defined in part by last-16 exits.
Neymar hopes his will be defined when altogether bigger prizes are on offer.
Updated: July 2, 2018 10:27 PM