MNA Sports Desk: On a breezy afternoon by the Gulf of Finland Brazil beat Costa Rica 2-0 at the St Petersburg Stadium to ease their route towards the knockout stage of Russia 2018.
The goals were both scored in injury time, the first by their best player on the day Philippe Coutinho, who came haring through a crowd on to a touch from Gabriel Jesus to poke the ball through the legs of Keylor Navas and send the yellow-shirted stands into a fever.
As the clock ticked down Neymar added a second, the Costa Rica defence finally parting after some fine, dogged efforts. Brazil’s captain celebrated like a World Cup winner after stabbing the ball into the net from Douglas Costa’s cross. And it was an eventful day all round for Neymar, who grumbled and moaned and threw himself to the floor, and might have been sent off in the second half for a combination of dissent and diving.
At the final whistle the world’s costliest player could be seen weeping dramatically on the pitch, shoulders shuddering, hands shielding his visage from the world. Indeed.
Brazil have four points in Group E. A draw with Serbia will guarantee progress. This game will be remembered for Coutinho’s fine driving efforts in central midfield and for some well-timed substitutions by Tite. But it will also be coloured by Neymar’s preposterous antics, and for a sense of lost focus at various stages.
A turning point seemed to have arrived around the hour mark as the referee Björn Kuipers of the Netherlands, finally snapped. As Brazil defended a corner Kuipers could be seen telling Brazil’s captain to be quiet in the way an exasperated father might speak to a sullen and spoiled teenager.
Seventeen minutes later Kuipers was finally beaten into submission. No doubt it wears you down. As Giancarlo González brushed the Neymar abdomen with his hand Brazil’s captain toppled backwards in ludicrous fashion, a dying sapling swept away by a mudslide. Kuipers gave the penalty. Neymar lay on the floor being nursed by his teammates, as though finally victorious in his battle with injustice.
Out of his sight Kuipers trotted off, looked at the VAR screen, and reversed the decision. He should also have booked Neymar for cheating. But well-played Mr Kuipers. A penalty would have been reward for superstar strops and generally graceless behaviour. A Brazil World Cup campaign is a notch in the nation’s pop-cultural history. It deserves better than this.
This World Cup has been waiting for a statement performance, for one of the more celebrated teams to decide that in fact this tournament is there for the taking if somebody can get the thrusters lined up. This wasn’t it from Brazil, at least not for the opening 85 minutes.
Hopes had been high at kick-off. The stadium in St Petersburg is a stunning thing with a roof fanned out around steel girders of dizzying scale, ranged above the pitch like an iron giant cradling his fingers.
Brazil did press hard at the start, Coutinho shooting just over after Bryan Ruiz had given him the ball. The blue shirts were slow through midfield, porridge of sideways passing. It was Costa Rica who should have taken the lead on 12 minutes, as Celso Borges shot low and hard but past the left-hand post from a cut-back from Ruiz.
Neymar began to intrude, writhing and leaping at every challenge. He is targeted for rough treatment but he invites it too, never once hiding his disgust and his distraction.
Again he went down, this time after “putting a hat on” Cristian Gamboa (nicking the ball over his head) a terrible humiliation in Brazilian football. Again there were chunterings to the referee, constant close-ups of that pained Neymar face. This is a different player right now to the sprightly warrior of 2014, transformed into a mardy drama magnet. Life moves pretty fast, Neymar old boy. If you don’t stop rolling around once in awhile, you could miss it.
As the teams penetrated the dressing rooms at half-time Neymar approached the referee and prattled on some more. Clearly he has rushed his way back to this tournament. But he doesn’t deal with rustiness well. And he was overshadowed by Coutinho here, who was the hub of the team and who should be given as much leverage as he likes to make the game up in front of him.
Tite took off Willian at half-time and put on the more direct Douglas Costa. Suddenly Brazil was surging forward, Gabriel Jesus heading powerfully on to the bar from a Costa cross. The ball bounced out to Coutinho whose shot was deflected just wide by Gamboa.
Tite twisted again, bringing on Roberto Firmino for Paulinho. Neymar shot wide of the post on the run with space in front of him. And moments late he was finally booked, this time for a pathetic hissy fit after a foul. Two late goals disguised a distracted performance that improved as the tempo rose but Tite will have plenty to ponder from here.
Other Games of the day:
Nigeria (2) – Iceland (0)
Nigeria has moved into second place in the World Cup’s Group D after beating underdog Iceland 2-0 on Friday thanks to two goals from Ahmed Musa. The African nation struggled in the first half and was fortunate to not concede, but Musa went on the counter with Victor Moses in the second half to score the winning goal before putting the game away late, placing his team in a great spot while also giving Argentina life.
Then Musa left his defender in the dust and juked out the goalkeeper for the 2-0.
Gylfi Sigurdsson skied a VAR-confirmed penalty kick with 10 minutes to go, and Iceland could not recover, staying on a point with Argentina.
The win for Nigeria means the team can move on if it beats Argentina, but it could also draw and advance as long as Iceland doesn’t beat Croatia.
Iceland (vs. Croatia) and Argentina (vs. Nigeria) will both be looking for a win in their final group stage match while hoping the other doesn’t win. If both win on Tuesday at 2 p.m. ET, they’ll be hoping to top the other on tiebreakers, where Iceland has a slight advantage in goal differential after two games played.
Switzerland (2) – Serbia (1)
A last-minute Xherdan Shaqiri breakaway goal handed Switzerland victory Friday as they came from behind to defeat Serbia 2-1 in Kaliningrad.
The win puts Switzerland in pole position to make it out of a tough Group E that contains five-times winners Brazil but they were pushed all the way by the Serbs.
It was a sweet victory for Shaqiri and fellow Swiss goalscorer Granit Xhaka, who along with team-mate Valon Belrami were booed relentlessly by Serbia’s fans throughout.
Shaqiri, Xhaka and Belrami trace their roots to Kosovo, a former province of Serbia, a fact which had stoked tensions before the match.
Both Shaqiri and Xhaka pointedly celebrated their goals by making an eagle gesture with their hands, viewed as a symbol of defiance.
However, some were quick to take to social media to point out that the gesture could be seen as provocative, had no place in a football match, or was simply stupid.
Serbia raced out of the blocks, funnelling possession to Southampton winger Dusan Tadic on the right flank, who troubled Switzerland with his crossing all match.
An Aleksandar Mitrovic header forced a smart save from Swiss keeper Yann Sommer after four minutes.
Seconds later, Tadic took the ball past left-back Ricardo Rodriguez, cut back on his favoured left foot and delivered a majestic cross that Mitrovic duly buried with his head.
In a frenetic first half, Switzerland had more of the ball but were sloppy with it, giving away possession in advanced positions and sending Serbia on the break.
Lazio’s highly rated Sergej Milinkovic-Savic fizzed a right-footed shot narrowly wide of Sommer’s right post on 15 minutes, and Mitrovic almost scored with a spectacular bicycle kick that went the same way minutes later.
Switzerland, who came to Russia ranked ahead of the likes of France and Spain, felt their way into the game as the first-half progressed.
On the half-hour mark, Steven Zuber cleverly teed up Blerim Dzemaili but the Hoffenheim man got his feet in a muddle and Vladimir Stojkovic was able to parry away.
But it was Serbia, who beat Costa Rica 1-0 in their Group E opener, who nearly went in two up.
Nemanja Matic missed a glorious chance to double the lead just before the break when Tadic’s in-swinging corner found him unmarked at the back post but the Manchester United midfielder couldn’t sort his feet out.
Matic said during the build-up the team was expecting a “hellish” encounter with the Swiss, who in their game with Brazil fouled star forward Neymar 10 times alone.
Switzerland grew in stature after the break and was rewarded with a spectacular equaliser courtesy of Xhaka’s 52nd-minute piledriver.
They had the better chances in the second period, with Shaqiri’s curling effort from the edge of the area grazing Stojkovic’s bar on the hour mark.
Coach Vladimir Petkovic brought on attackers Breel Embolo and Mario Gavranovic in a bid to force a winner, and Gavranovic forced a smart save from Stojkovic from a close range effort with 10 minutes remaining.
But it was Stoke City winger Shaqiri who struck the decisive blow, breaking through Serbia’s offside trap to slot home calmly as the 90 minutes wound down.
Serbia will now need something from their final Group E match against Brazil, while a draw against Costa Rica would see Switzerland through.