Finally, at the very last, with the furies circling and a nation pleading, Brazil found their moment of salvation. Grace came in the first minute of injury time via the toe of Philippe Coutinho, through the legs of Keylor Navas, to a cacophony of catharsis. Nil-nil at 90 minutes became 2-0 by full-time, and so Brazil’s first win of the World Cup arrived like rain in the desert: not at all, never, and then all of a sudden, and all at once.
They had earned this moment. Even as the missed chances began to pile up on either side of the Costa Rica goal, even as the prospect of going winless in their first two games loomed ever larger, never did Brazil threaten to implode in the way their neighbours Argentina had done the previous evening. Instead they simply turned up the volume, turned up the heat, and went again, until finally Costa Rica’s five-man defence finally buckled. Perhaps, indeed, there is more backbone and maturity in this team than previously thought.
Having seen a crucial penalty decision overturned by VAR late on, Neymar ultimately got his moment of grace too, scoring Brazil’s second goal in the seventh minute of injury time. But after the litany of opportunities that had gone begging at his feet, there were others more worthy of praise here. Namely the magnificent Coutinho, again linking the midfield and attack with verve and intelligence, drifting into the spaces created by Neymar and Marcelo, combining well with both. Gabriel Jesus was a persistent thorn up front. Right-back Fagner enjoyed a sparkling World Cup debut. Coach Tite’s substitutions sharpened Brazil’s attacking threat without messing their structure. Late though they left it, there was plenty to like about Brazil here.
What of Costa Rica? Having looked so organised in the first half-hour, countering Brazil on a number of occasions, they began to fade as the game went on, their instinctive caution forcing them ever narrower, ever deeper, inviting wave upon wave of Brazilian attack. Only the brilliance of Navas kept them in the game so long; the surprise quarter-finalists of 2014, sadly, will go out at the first stage this time round.
And after a fairly even first quarter, Brazil soon began to establish terms. Neymar, Marcelo and Coutinho started to gel on the left, Paulinho started breaking in between the lines, and the chances began to flow. Neymar let himself down with a heavy touch when clean through. Marcelo went just wide with one of his trademark scudders. Jesus had a goal disallowed for offside.
And Brazil carried that momentum into the second half, just as Costa Rica began to look a little leaden, a little flustered, perhaps even a little tired. Certainly the gaps were beginning to open far more frequently than in the early part of the game, and stretched out by the introduction of Douglas Costa for the ineffectual Willian at the break, Brazil really should have opened their account in that 10-minute spell after half-time. Neymar, Coutinho, Jesus off the woodwork, Neymar again, Coutinho again: as the chances began to pile up, as the indomitable Navas seemed to stand a little taller with every save, it would have been easy for Brazil to heed the impending signs of alarm, to suspect that the Fates of football might just be working a double shift.
But to their credit, they showed few extrinsic signs of panic, even as time leaked away. With a quarter of the game remaining, Roberto Firmino came on for Paulinho and Brazil turned the screw a little further. Neymar, having scarcely got a inch out of right-back Cristian Gamboa all game – legally and not – put a peach of a chance into the stands from 18 yards after Gamboa’s error. Then, with 12 minutes remaining, the opening: a Brazil counter, Neymar jogging the ball to the left byline, cutting inside, and then suddenly stopping, flailing, tumbling backwards as if sinking into his favourite sofa.
What had happened was this: as Neymar cut inside, Giancarlo Gonzalez made a little grab of his shirt, barely even a grab, in fact, maybe more of a stroke. Neymar could easily have carried on his way, but instead he went down. The Dutch referee pointed to the spot. The gamble seemed to have paid off handsomely. The video referees, however, took a dim view of Neymar’s theatrics and referred the decision for review, which was overturned. Jesus pleaded. Neymar simply smirked, as if too cool to feel slighted.
Even then, Brazil continued to believe. And as the injury time board went up, Firmino rose like good bread to head the ball down to Jesus. His touch trickled into the path of Coutinho, who smashed the ball through the legs of Navas to put Brazil out of their misery. Six minutes later Neymar put Costa Rica out of theirs after a rapid counter-attack. And so the Brazilian show remains resolutely on the road: a win that they not only deserved, but for which they may well emerge all the stronger.
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