MEXICO had hope, some genuine hope, more than just cautious optimism that they could get a long-awaited first victory over Brazil at a World Cup, that they could for the first time since 1986 they would advance to the ‘quinto partido’ or the fifth match at world football’s showpiece tournament. In four matches before this, they had never beaten Brazil; in the last six World Cups, this last-16 stage had proven to be their undoing.
In their last World Cup match against the five-time world champions, four years ago in Brazil, Mexico had held the hosts to a goalless draw. Riding on their 1-0 upset of Germany in their opening match at this World Cup, the Mexicans were confident that they could shock another of the favourites and go one better than last time when a superb Guillermo Ochoa had frustrated Neymar and company. In a breathless opening here at the Samara Arena on Monday, they had looked quite capable of doing that but then Neymar turned on the style and Brazil coasted past them 2-0, leaving the Mexicans to contemplate a familiar failure.
Brazil seemed rattled by Mexico’s pace early on but they settled down and picked the Mexicans apart in the second-half with Neymar scoring in the 51st minute, putting the finishing touches to a move started by him, before he set up substitute Roberto Firmino late on to put Mexico out of their misery. It was a performance that illustrated coach Tite’s influence on this Brazil team. Defensive solidity is paramount; Brazil know they have the players who can score aplenty at the other end.
Just like they did with their superbly-worked opening goal. Neymar picked up the ball wide and then ran straight almost parallel to the goal, drawing away Mexico’s defenders with him. And then, in an instant, he opened up a Mexico defence that had been so excellent to that point with a clever backheel to Willian. Having drawn the defenders away, his movement opened up space for Willian who drove into the box and sent in a low cross that a sliding Neymar tucked away.
Mexico never really recovered from that. They can play some spectacular football at times but their lack of ‘Plan B’ has seen them be at the end of some heavy defeats in the past. This could’ve been another of them if it hadn’t been for Ochoa who, just like four years ago, kept denying almost every Brazilian on the pitch. He saved from Phillippe Coutinho, from Paulinho, from Willian. With his saves, he would’ve hoped to inspire his team-mates on the other end of the pitch.
Instead, it was Brazil who kept coming back and he helplessly looked on as Brazil wrapped it up a minute from time through Firmino. Neymar got behind the Mexican defence and tried to find the far corner, only for Ochoa’s fingertips to put the ball into the path of an onrushing Firmino to tap it in.
While it should’ve been Neymar’s goal and assist that should’ve been the talking point after the match, it was instead his antics that came into sharp focus: his outrageous reaction during the second half as Mexican Miguel Layun picked the ball from between his legs as he lay on the pitch. Television pictures showed a slight brush on his ankle but his reaction seemed like he’d been run over by a car.
Moments later, with the referee finding no fault by Layun in the incident, Neymar was back on his feet and running perfectly.
“Unfortunately we wasted a lot of time because of one of the players,” Mexico coach Juan Carlos Osorio said at the post-match press conference. “I think it’s a shame for football. It’s a men’s sport and there shouldn’t be so much acting.”
The rest of the press conference followed that theme. Asked by a reporter that the replay showed a slight touch by Layun, Osorio responded: “I respect your opinion.” Asked further, specifically about Neymar’s play-acting, Osorio said, “I didn’t mention him. It’s your interpretation. I’m entitled to give my opinion. I did not mention him.” Finally, he said: “There were incidents in the match where there was very little contact and every time the referee stopped the game.”
It was those stoppages that Osorio blamed for Mexico losing momentum. “The intensity decreases at some point and the referee has a lot to do with it,” said Osorio. “He allowed too many ‘fake’ faults.”
Neymar was asked about Osorio’s comments but it was the moment Tite took charge. “The hierarchy stands,” Tite said. “The coach talks to the coach, the athlete to the athlete. I will answer that question. I saw what happened. You can analyse the video.”
Neymar, meanwhile, said: “All this talk is an attempt to undermine me than anything else. I don’t care about the criticism because this can influence my attitude. There’s too many people talking anyways. I need to help my team, I have to play I have to play.”
At the end of it all, Tite praised Osorio’s work and for making it an absorbing contest. “It was a great match considering the number of opportunities created,” he noted. “Osorio has done beautiful work and it’s why this was a beautiful match that excited me.”
Mexico were mesmerising in the opening 20 minutes, so good that Tite had a concerned look on his face. Brazil aren’t used to facing such opposition, opposition that comes at them so relentlessly as the Mexicans were coming. The game was only two minutes old and Mexicans had already blocked two Brazilian passes in midfield. Paulinho, who makes those surging runs through the centre, was forced to be in line with Casemiro, who sits ahead of the defence.
Down the left, Carlos Vela was terrorising Fagner every time he got the ball. Going past the Brazilian full-back was never a problem for Vela. The only issue was with the final ball. Apart from Neymar’s shot which Guillermo Ochoa palmed away, it was all Mexico. They were creating all sorts of angles, they were making all sorts of runs with the ball and off it, trying to carve open Brazil. On top of that, such
was their pressing that Neymar was forced to drop deep to try to create space for himself.
Osorio had spoken before the match about attacking the Brazilian full-backs and his team was doing exactly that and finding joy. On the other side of the pitch, it was Hirving Lozano who was isolating Filipe Luis and then running past him. There was one moment in which he left Luis for dead but, just like with Vela on the other end, the final ball was missing.
Neymar’s first real chance came halfway through the first half, the gifted striker showing some nifty footwork to go past two defenders before seeing his effort saved by Ochoa. Instead of Neymar, it’s been Coutino who has been Brazil’s leading man at this World Cup but his passes were being cut, his shots at goal being blocked or sailing wide.
As the half wore on, Mexico’s intensity deceased and the game opened up for Brazil. Gabriel Jesus finally got some service and saw two shots blocked. Osorio had vowed on Sunday that Mexico wouldn’t stop attacking Brazil but he was also vary of the goal-scoring threats posed by Brazil. Mexico hadn’t taken the lead by half-time but crucially hadn’t fallen behind either.
The plan was nearing perfect execution. But then Brazil scored just six minutes into the second half and Mexico didn’t have an answer.
Published in Dawn, July 3rd, 2018