Neymar continued to stamp his mark on this Confederations Cup with a fine goal and an even better assist as Brazil all-but booked their place in the semifinals with a 2-0 win over Mexico in Fortaleza. The result also means that Mexico will be eliminated from the competition unless Japan can beat Italy later on Wednesday.
Brazil profited from their scintillating opening to the match that led to a second memorable goal in two games from Neymar after just nine minutes. But Luiz Felipe Scolari’s side failed to build on their initial dominance and a bolder team than Mexico may well have made them pay. Instead, Brazil did enough to keep their opponents at bay before, in injury time, a stunning piece of skill from Neymar led to an assist for substitute Jo to get his second goal of the competition.
While there was much to admire, it was an encounter that also showed up the work that still needs to be done for both teams ahead of next year’s World Cup. By far the greatest question marks remain over Mexico. Juan Manuel de la Torre’s side were much improved from their limp showing against Italy but they again looked largely toothless going forward and the coach continued to search in vain for the right blend to supply Javier Hernandez. Brazil also have issues, with their midfield again failing to control proceedings as a side with pretensions to be the world’s best should. But, in Neymar, they have a player who appears to be relishing the responsibility of being the side’s talisman.
Surely influenced by the rising up of the people all over the country in recent days, there was a spine-tingling rendition of the Brazilian national anthem that continued to be belted out by both players and the packed crowd at the newly renovated Estadio Castelao long after the music had come to a halt. And Brazil carried that emotion into the match as they set about their besieged opponents with rampant vigor.
On more than one occasion in the opening minutes only last ditch defensive interventions by Mexico prevented an opening goal for the hosts, while a correctly raised offside flag also prevented a goal from Oscar. But for the second match in a row, the Selecao would have an early goal and once again it was a quality strike from Neymar.
There was also plenty to lament from Mexico’s point of view, with Dani Alves being allowed to get down the right side far too easily before his cross was met with a poor defensive header by Francisco Rodriguez that fell straight to a completely unmarked Neymar. One could only sit back and admire the quality of the left-footed volley from the new Barcelona signing, though, that took the ball low into the corner past Jose Corona.
A sumptuous chip form Dani Alves almost quickly doubled Brazil’s lead, while Neymar also soon went close to a to goal that would have eclipsed even his first. The forward’s initial chest control took him by two defenders before he unleashed a rasping left-footed drive that only just cleared the cross bar.
Somewhat inevitably, that initial pressure died down and Mexico began to get a foothold in the match. Indeed, Brazil faded dramatically as an attacking force as the first-half wore on, while Mexico began to enjoy plenty of possession. Yet, as has been their problem for much of this year, El Tri failed to pose much of a threat to the opposition goal. The one moment of danger they caused was when Marcelo inexcusably lost the ball twice in his own box to allow a blocked shot from Hiram Mier and then an effort by Gerardo Flores that went just wide.
Likewise, Brazil continued to struggle as an offensive force. The one exception was when Neymar got the ball in the mood to wreak havoc. The forward continued to be involved in almost everything positive that came from Brazil. A one-two with Hulk early in the second half got the powerful Zenit St Petersburg in down the left but he sliced a shot poorly wide of the near post with players waiting in the middle. Neymar then quickly looked to go it alone with a low drive across goal from a difficult angle that just went past the far post.
Brazil were struggling to control midfield as they would have liked; a problem that Scolari tried to correct by bringing on Hernanes’ passing ability alongside Paulinho and in front of Luiz Gustavo. But that still failed to allow Brazil to regain their early initiative and Mexico became increasingly dangerous in the final minutes.
The main threat was from crosses into the box with both David Luiz and Thiago Silva both having to be at their sharpest to deny Hernandez from being allowed to produce his trademark poacher’s finish. One has to wonder if things would have been different if De la Torre had been bold enough to bring on an extra striker earlier than two minutes before the end.
And, in the end, Mexico paid for failing to take advantage of their pressure. In the final minute of injury time an exhilerating bit of skill from Neymar took him through two defenders down the left of the box before he got his head up and squared the ball perfectly for the unmarked Jo to side-foot into the net.