Ken Early: Neymar and Samba boys struggling to find rhythm

Brazil leave it late to get past stubborn Costa Rica in Group E St Petersburg clash

Brazil 2 Costa Rica 0

As the clock passed 90 minutes at the Saint Petersburg stadium, it looked as though we were about to see the first scoreless draw of the 2018 World Cup. If it had ended that way, the match would have proved that in football, you don't actually need goals to have incredible entertainment.

Brazil against Costa Rica had been one of the best matches of the World Cup, a game of attack against defence that in the last 15 minutes became an all-out psychological thriller, with Brazil’s histrionic star Neymar and the Dutch referee Bjorn Kuipers as the chief antagonists.

The exaggerated “get up” gesture with which Kuipers dismissed a Neymar free-kick appeal in the first half showed that the referee was in no mood for any nonsense, and he had already dismissed another couple of appeals by the 78th minute, when the tense mood of the Brazilian fans suddenly crackled into full-blown rage.


A sweeping Brazil move ended with Neymar, eight yards from goal, nudging the ball away from Giancarlo Gonzalez, who appeared to grab at the front of the Brazilian’s shirt as he fell to the ground. Neymar’s face contorted with horror and indignation, his arms spread wide to draw attention to the outrage that had been committed upon him, and he slowly sank backwards to the ground.

Kuipers whistled and appeared to indicate a penalty, but something - perhaps the stagey nature of Neymar’s fall, perhaps a disembodied voice in his ear - made him think again, and he ran to the halfway line to consult the replay, which revealed that Gonzalez had merely brushed against Neymar, and had in no sense pulled him down.

A few seconds later Kuipers was running back to announce that he had changed his mind, and Costa Rica restarted play with a free kick as the Brazilian majority in the stadium vented their fury. Their anger was beside the point. The salient fact about this incident was that Neymar had the chance to shoot from a fantastic position, and chose to take a dive instead.

Neymar was booked a couple of minutes later for flinging the ball into the ground to protest Kuipers stopping play so that a Costa Rica defender could receive treatment. For neutrals the sight of Brazil losing their heads was rich with both comedy and drama. For all that it can be funny to see the frustration of a cosseted star who for a change isn’t having things all his own way, you also had to have sympathy for the situation in which Brazil’s players had found themselves. It didn’t matter that they had dominated the game. There is no country more merciless when it comes to World Cup failure. If they could not score in the few minutes remaining, they knew it could haunt them for the rest of their lives.

On paper Brazil look the best-balanced team in the tournament, with two outstanding creative players in Neymar and Coutinho backed up by a supporting cast of powerful and experienced footballers who also happen to have great technical skills.

And yet for the longest time at the stadium in Saint Petersburg it somehow didn’t work. There was something a little mechanical, a little too predictable about them, something a little inhibited, as though they feared the consequences of failure. It was a long way from the smile-on-your-face football with which Brazil used to be associated long ago.

They improved after Douglas Costa replaced Willian at half-time, but the ball would not go in: Gabriel Jesus headed Costa’s cross against the bar, Coutinho saw his shot from the edge of the area deflected wide. When a defensive error gave Neymar the chance to shoot from the edge of the box, he tried to swerve it into the top corner rather than making sure he got it on target, for a spectacular near-miss.

And then, in the first of six minutes of injury time, the breakthrough came. Marcelo’s deep cross was headed back across goal by the substitute Roberto Firmino, Gabriel Jesus tried to control it, and the ball fell beautifully for Coutinho, who was arriving at the perfect moment to stab the ball with his toe through Keylor Navas and into the net.

For Neymar, who chose to step away from the top level of the game apparently to escape the shadow of Lionel Messi, the goal may have been a bittersweet moment: here he was congratulating a man Barcelona had signed with the money PSG had paid them for Neymar, and who had just rescued Brazil’s tournament with his second goal in two games. Those becoming acquainted with Brazil for the first time at this World Cup could be forgiven for assuming that the real main man in this team was Coutinho.

Neymar decided to take out his frustrations on Costa Rica and humiliated one of their defenders by arrogantly flicking the ball over his head, the sort of move that thrills the crowd and generally invites physical retribution by the opponent. Costa Rica had bigger problems though, and as they streamed forward in search of the equaliser, they left gaps at the back which Brazil quickly exploited. A 97th minute counter attack ended with Douglas Costa squaring for Neymar to volley into an empty net.

At the final whistle Neymar collapsed to his knees at the halfway line and covered his face, his shoulders heaving with sobs, and stayed in this pose for nearly a minute. It seemed an extraordinary display of emotion considering that they had merely won a second group stage match that they were always expected to win. If you want to give Neymar the benefit of the doubt, it was perhaps understandable that the relief of winning and finally scoring, after the long recuperation from injury that led to the tournament, had burst some inner dam of pent-up feeling. Now that Brazil have overcome their initial jitters, maybe they’ll start showing us what they can really do.

Brazil (4-2-3-1): Alisson; Fagner, Thiago Silva, Miranda, Marcelo; Casemiro, Paulinho (Firmino 68); Willian (Douglas Costa 46), Coutinho, Neymar; Jesus (Fernandinho 90). Subs Not Used: Cassio, Pedro Geromel, Filipe Luis, Renato Augusto, Marquinhos, Fred,Taison, Danilo, Ederson. Booked: Coutinho, Neymar.

Costa Rica (5-4-1): Navas; Gamboa (Calvo 75), Gonzalez, Acosta, Duarte, Oviedo; Venegas, Guzman (Tejeda 83), Borges, Ruiz; Urena (Bolanos 54). Subs Not Used: Pemberton, Smith, Colindres, Campbell, Wallace, Azofeifa, Waston, Gutierrez, Moreira. Booked: Acosta.

Referee: Bjorn Kuipers (Holland).