SAMARA, Russia, (Reuters) – Neymar barged his way into the World Cup limelight with a goal, an assist and another helping of histrionics as Brazil roared into the quarter-finals with a 2-0 victory over Mexico yesterday.
The Paris St Germain forward was both architect and executioner for Brazil, who inflicted a seventh straight last-16 exit on the central Americans, sliding home in the second half and then teeing up Roberto Firmino late on.
Yet the less attractive side of his game was also on display, as he writhed on the floor, seemingly in agony, after Mexico’s Miguel Layun had made the slightest contact with his ankle, before making an immediate and miraculous recovery.
That should not overshadow his generally positive performance, however, as the five-times champions beat an otherwise stubborn Mexico, whose World Cup began with such promise with a victory over champions Germany, but ended in familiar fashion in the first knockout round.
It was the seventh World Cup running that Brazil have reached the last eight, where they will now face Belgium or Japan, while Mexico have not made it to that stage since they hosted the tournament in 1986.
Mexico, who enjoyed an enviable recent record against Brazil having won seven of their previous 15 matches against them, were a threat on the counter in the first half but then faded without ever really being put to the sword. For all their quasi-mythological attacking traditions, this Brazil side have a pragmatism that keeps them in check in such a way that you cannot see them ever truly cutting loose at this tournament.
Having kept clean sheets in seven of their previous eight games, they were never going to commit men forward and allow Mexico to pick them off in the same way that Germany did in the group stage.
That is not to say that they were not under the cosh in the early stages, however, as Hirving Lozano had an effort blocked after two minutes, as did Hector Herrera, but as the first half wore on, Brazil got on top in the stifling Samara heat.
A glaring spotlight had been on Neymar after his opening three performances saw him miss a litany of chances, frequently squander possession and spend far too long on the turf. Yet he answered a number of questions with his display and a decisive finish early in the second half from a move that he had started himself.
It began when he darted across the edge of the area before a perfect backheel released the excellent Willian, whose low cross fizzed into the danger area where Neymar slid in to turn the ball home for his second goal of the tournament.
It was a choking blow for Mexico, who had been the better side for the opening half an hour, but it was not the manner of defeat but Neymar’s habit of constantly hitting the deck that most irked the Mexico coach. “Unfortunately, and it is a shame for football, we wasted a lot of time because of one player,” Juan Carlos Osorio said.
“It is a shame for all the people watching, all the children watching… There shouldn’t be acting. I think this had an impact on our pace and style.”
Brazil, who will have to do without defensive midfielder Casemiro in the quarters after he picked up his second booking, had to wait until the 88th minute to put the match to bed.
Neymar was the architect, crossing for Firmino, who is becoming something of a ‘supersub’ for Brazil, to tap the ball home.
Brazil coach Tite was unsurprisingly supportive of Neymar, dismissing accusations of playacting, while preferring to talk about his improving side, who seem to be finding their rhythm after a third successive 2-0 victory.
“The team still has to grow,” he said. “I wanted to repeat the standard of the last match and grow and that happened.”