By Neil Sands
Brazil and star striker Neymar rediscovered their attacking flair with a confidence-boosting 2-0 win over Serbia Wednesday to get their World Cup campaign back on track.
The victory fired Brazil into the last 16 and sent the Selecao’s fans into party mode at Moscow’s Spartak Stadium, raising hopes a sixth title is now a realistic prospect.
It was a stark contrast to their first two outings — a shock 1-1 draw with Switzerland and laboured 2-0 win over Costa Rica — that left Brazil needing a draw against Serbia to avoid a group stage exit.
But unlike defending champions Germany, who were eliminated hours earlier after losing to South Korea, the South Americans managed to produce when it mattered.
They comprehensively outplayed Serbia, peppering their goal while restricting their opponents to just one shot on target. Coach Tite said there was more improvement in the team who, in Germany’s absence, are now favourites to lift the trophy.
“We can take the pressure… for us, this is about getting stronger and growing,” he said.
Philippe Coutinho, who scored in the opening two games, again provided a dynamic presence, defending like a terrier and setting up Paulinho’s opening goal in the 38th minute with a superb long-range pass.
But it was Neymar who characterised the change in Brazil as they approach a round of 16 showdown with Mexico in Samara on Monday.
Concerns were raised about his emotional state when he sank to the ground sobbing after scoring an injury time goal against Costa Rica, with pundits in Brazil fearing he could crack under pressure to deliver in Russia.
Against Serbia he was far more positive, working hard to get involved in attack and delivering the corner that Thiago Silva headed home 22 minutes from time.
He responded to Silva’s goal with delight, thumping his chest and waving his arms to urge the fans to make more noise.
The 26-year-old showed no sign of the foot injury that sidelined him for months in the lead-up to the tournament and grew in confidence as the match wore in.
In the last 10 minutes alone he shot over the bar, almost lobbed the goalkeeper and took on three defenders in the box as the crowd chanted his name.
Neymar showed no frustration when he wasn’t rewarded with a goal of his own.
Instead, like the Brazil team as a whole, he looked like he was once against enjoying his football and took time out after the match to thank fans and blow them kisses. –AFP