x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

No thrills from Dunga's Brazil

Goals from Maicon and Elano gave Brazil the widely expected victory, but the plaudits go to North Korea.

Elano celebrates after scoring Brazil's second goal.
Elano celebrates after scoring Brazil's second goal.

The points go to South America, the plaudits to North Korea. Goals from Maicon and Elano gave Brazil the anticipated victory, but not before the great unknowns threatened the most unexpected stalemate of all. The unlikely outsiders showed extraordinary defensive discipline before the favourites eventually prevailed. By the time Maicon broke the deadlock, North Korea, conquerors of Italy in the 1966 World Cup, seemed resilient enough to supply a second shock on the global stage.

North Korea's unusual preparations had included training in a public gym and discovering that a striker they had named among their three goalkeepers would not be allowed to play in an outfield position. Myung-won Kim was, unsurprisingly, not picked to start. For all the amusement at their expense that generated, however, the significance of a first World Cup in 44 years was apparent: the striker Tae-se Jong was in tears during the national anthems. Emotion apart, there was an understandable cautiousness about the ultimate underdogs. Manager Jong-hun Kim set his side up with a back five.

In effect, a challenge was set to Brazil: break us down. The side ranked first in the world - 104 places above their opponents - began with hints of flair, but struggled to do that. The first stepovers, from Robinho, came in the second minute; the first backheel, from Luis Fabiano, seconds later. Flicking and tricking their way through the blanket defence, however, was no simple matter. Initially Robinho was the most inventive, drifting infield from the left with purpose. He linked up with Fabiano to drill a snap-shot at Myong-Guk Ri. A tame effort from Elano apart, it was the first involvement for the goalkeeper.

He was tested more by Maicon, the right-back whose swerving 25-yard shot was parried. Brazil, though, found themselves restricted to long-range efforts, thanks to the organised congestion in front of Ri. The opposite full-back, Michel Bastos, was equally shot-happy. Each was predictably prominent, but Brazil's supposed inspiration was rather more anonymous. For Kaka, the first 45 minutes was a gradual introduction to the tournament.

His North Korean counterpart's contributions, however, were rather more memorable. At times as isolated in attack as his country is in the world, Jong nevertheless provided a swift, skilful outlet up front and, following a solo run, drew a save from Julio Cesar. Essentially, however, the action was concentrated at the other end. When Bastos drilled a free kick narrowly wide and Robinho's crisp half-volley whizzed past the goal, the Korean resistance continued. Nevertheless, it was evidence the Brazilians' radar was being fine-tuned.

It brought a breakthrough that was both spectacular and cruel. Maicon, overlapping in trademark fashion, appeared ill-served by Elano's pass, sending him closer to the byline. It led Ri to anticipate a cross. Instead, the Inter Milan player thrashed a swerving shot that, from an acute angle, bisected goalkeeper and near post. In an instant, it brought reminders of the great attacking right-backs that have been a Brazilian speciality, from Junior, Josimar and Jorginho through to Cafu and, now Maicon.

The goal, inevitably, resulted in more space for Brazil as North Korea were forced to adopt a more ambitious approach and, after a deft ball from Robinho, Fabiano should have added a second. Instead, he blazed over. The lead was duly doubled, however, when Robinho's perceptive pass afforded Elano the chance to slide in the second. Belatedly, the side in yellow started to look like Brazil. Their opponents never gave up though and with two minutes left Yun-nam Ji rifled in a shot to halve the deficit and give North Korea a goal and a reward for a stirring display. * Compiled by Richard Jolly Man of the match: Robinho

Group G
Country M W D L GF GA Pts
Brazil 1 1 0 0 2 1 3
Portugal 1 0 1 0 0 0 1
Ivory Coast 1 0 1 0 0 0 1
North Korea 1 0 0 1 1 2 0