Neymar thunderbolt proves right foot is alright

Neymar celebrates with Roberto Firmino on his return from injury (pic: Reuters)

A run, dribble and thumping right foot shot dispelled any notion that Brazil’s star player might not be fit for the World Cup.

After rushing home to make sure I was back in time for kick off I was mortified to find out that the only channel showing the friendly match between Brazil and Croatia this afternoon was Liverpool TV. Not only am I an Everton fan, but watching anything on Liverpool TV requires taking out a full monthly paid subscription. My commitment to Brazilian football has its limits so I was forced to accept that I would have to miss this game.

Gutted, I trudged out of my flat to find somewhere better to sulk than at home, and would you know it, like some kind of miracle, within five minutes I stumbled across a local bar that did have a subscription to said club’s TV channel. So at least I managed to watch the second half there.

The big news from the first period was that Neymar didn’t start the game – Tite clearly plans to ease him back, but just how fit was Brazil’s star player? And how worried should everybody be? The first half sounded pretty drab and the few highlights of note belonged to Croatia: a Dejan Lovren header from a corner; and a shot from outside the box, saved by Alisson after Miranda sloppily gave the ball away. Brazil dominated possession, but they struggled to create chances.

I’ve said it before: Philippe Coutinho should not be playing out wide as one of Brazil’s attacking three in Tite’s preferred 4-3-3 formation; he needs to play in the centre, even when Neymar doesn’t play. Not only is he a lot more productive there, but other players, with more pace, are a more effective than him out wide. The difference between the Seleção’s first half and second half performances underlined that once again.

I know Tite’s hands were tied somewhat by the absence of Douglas Costa through injury and the decision to start Neymar on the bench, but against better teams, Tite likes to play Countinho in one of the wide positions and opt for three more defensively minded players in his midfield. That’s exactly what I thought he would do against Germany in March and that’s exactly what he did in that game. But is that really necessary against Croatia?

I’m not sure that there was anything wrong with Fernandinho’s performance, but he was the man to make way for Neymar at half time. Brazil simply don’t need a player of Fernandinho’s ilk alongside Casemiro and Paulinho against a team like Croatia. Brazil’s performance immediately improved and they created a series of half chances inside the first five minutes of the new half. Neymar would clearly make a difference to any team in the World – even if not fully fit – but not only did his pace allow Brazil to start stretching Croatia, but it allowed Philippe Coutinho to pull the strings from midfield. Meanwhile, Willian was having a blinder on the right flank and had Croatia’s left back on toast. Every time I see him play I wonder why he is not a guaranteed starter for Chelsea.

I can’t comment on the first half, but what stood out to me from Brazil’s performance was just how comfortable their players are at taking the ball in nearly any area. There are five things that happen: 1/ they get fouled; 2/ they’ll flick it to an opponent who is running into space and an attack is born; 3/ they take it, turn and start running into space with pace; 4/ pass it back; 5/ give it away. I’ve watched the Seleção a lot in the last few months and I see mostly 1s, 2s and 3s. Sometimes there can be 4s (but there always is in friendlies). There are never very many 5s. The skill and ability to do this is what got me hooked on Brazilian football, and why I think that this team can win the World Cup.

From Brazil’s point of view, the most pleasing aspect of today’s game was Neymar’s performance and return from injury. He wasn’t perfect, but he didn’t shirk any challenges and wasn’t afraid to run straight at the opposition and take a foul if necessary. He may not be fully match fit, but by stretching the opposition with his running and dribbling and so comprehensively smashing the ball into the net, he showed that he is back and Brazil can count on him. Even a not fully fit Neymar is one of the best players in the world.

Gabriel Jesus had a disappointing game and Roberto Firmino, who scored Brazil’s second goal after great work from Casemiro, will be pushing him hard for a starting place. Another player pushing hard for a starting spot is Marquinhos, who came on for Miranda, and looked solid for the 20 or so minutes he was on the pitch. Danilo did okay at right back. He is athletic, solid and gets forward, although he doesn’t do things with the same panache as Dani Alves. Fagner, out injured today, will probably replace him next week.

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