Brazil booked their place in the World Cup quarter-finals at the expense of Mexico in a tense round-of-16 clash in Samara, and the game will be remembered as the moment when Neymar truly arrived in this tournament.
Having watched his Paris Saint-Germain teammates Kylian Mbappe and Edinson Cavani make the difference for France and Uruguay respectively over the weekend, Neymar was tipped by Brazil captain Thiago Silva to live up to the standard they had set against a tenacious and dynamic Mexican side.
That did not quite happen, and it is clear that Neymar still has much more to give this World Cup. But he did start and finish the move that provided the game’s winning goal to take up the mantle of Brazil’s match-winner that has so far been held by Philippe Coutinho in Russia, before creating a second for Roberto Firmino late on.
Mexico coach Juan Carlos Osorio had promised to press Brazil high up the pitch, and his players delivered on his words. Brazil were pushed back and disrupted for much of the opening half-hour, the passing angles into their starry front four cut off. When he did get the ball, Neymar was invariably surrounded and bullied into giving it away.
But as Brazil grew into the game so did their chief threat. Neymar deliberately pulled wide on the left to isolate himself against Edson Alvarez – the unfortunate 20-year-old Club America defender tasked with marking him – and then attacked, one particularly glorious dummy sending him surging into the penalty area and forcing Guillermo Ochoa into a good save.
Neymar’s battle with Alvarez epitomised the ebb and flow of a frantic first half. One dribble from the PSG superstar was halted by a brilliant tackle in the box, another deft flick around the corner was met with a crunching kick to the thigh that earned the young defender a booking.
Many expected Mexico’s energy levels to dip as the match wore on in scorching Samara heat, but it was a moment of Neymar brilliance that undid them in the 51st minute. Commanding the attention of several defenders just outside the box, he released Willian with a deft backheel and then immediately raced into the penalty area to poke the Chelsea winger’s cross/shot into the net.
It was Neymar’s second goal of the tournament, and a far more satisfying moment than the 97th-minute tap-in he converted when three points were already secure against Costa Rica – a performance so full of histrionics and verbal outbursts that some in Brazil suggested he might be cracking under the pressure.
Mexico brought out the worst in him at times too, not least when he writhed ludicrously around the technical area after Miguel Layun had mischievously – but lightly – trod on his ankle. More importantly for Brazil, though, he also proved that he, rather than Coutinho, can be the one to deliver the breakthrough when it is most needed.
This World Cup has so far been a frustrating experience for Neymar, trying to recover his best physical form and technical rhythm while facing a succession of tough, disciplined opponents who rightly made him the focus of their defensive game plans. By half-time in Samara he had overtaken Spain playmaker Isco as the most fouled player in the tournament.
Despite their best efforts he looks athletically sharp and robust, even if his shooting from anywhere outside the six-yard box is not yet quite up to scratch. It will need to be in the quarter-finals, particularly if Belgium are Brazil’s opponents, but Tite can take great encouragement from the fact that Neymar is improving every time he takes to the field.
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