By Roberto Firmino’s standards, it was a pretty unremarkable goal – and not least because he actually looked at the ball as he fired it into the Mexican net.
The Liverpool striker boasts something of a back catalogue when it comes to ‘no-look’ finishes, but the strike which sealed Brazil’s progress to the World Cup quarter-finals on Monday was different . It meant more.
It may well have been the moment ‘Bobby’ came from the sidelines to take centre-stage in Russia.
His timing could hardly be better. Brazil, the pre-tournament favourites, have made serene if unspectacular progress to the last eight. Now, to coin a boxing phrase, for the championship rounds.
Belgium will provide a stern test for Tite’s men. Friday’s clash in Kazan is the pick of the quarter-final ties , a meeting of two genuinely excellent, complete teams. The winners will have a huge chance of going all the way.
Big decisions await the Brazil coach. Casemiro is suspended, and will likely be replaced by Fernandinho in midfield, while Marcelo will be looking to return in place of Filipe Luis at left back. Fagner, given a chasing against Mexico, could find himself under pressure from Danilo in the other full-back position.
Perhaps the biggest call, though, surrounds the No. 9 position. Does Firmino get the nod, or will Gabriel Jesus retain the shirt?
Jesus has started all four of Brazil’s games so far, while Firmino has emerged from the bench in three of them. The Liverpool man has played just 38 minutes in total, and is set to start on the bench again as Jesus is set to retain his place in the starting line-up.
He’s made an impact in those cameo appearances, though. He could easily, with two late chances, have snatched a win against Switzerland in the Group E opener, while it was his climb (and Jesus’ touch) which led to Philippe Coutinho’s goal to unlock the stalemate with Costa Rica. And on Monday in Samara, he was there to put the seal on a hard-fought win against a lively-but-limited Mexican side. With Jesus yet to find the net this summer, Firmino could not have done much more.
He arrived into the tournament on the back of the best season of his club career. With 27 goals in all competitions, he has become the centre-piece of Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool side, the all-action centre-forward whose movement, vision and link-play allows the likes of Mo Salah and Sadio Mane to run riot. Klopp, privately, is amazed Brazil have not built their team around Firmino like he has.
That is not to denigrate Jesus, who at 21 is already established as one of the world’s most promising talents. And with seven goals in 10 qualifying games, he played a huge part in securing Brazil’s place in Russia too. He's an excellent centre-forward.
Tite, clearly, is a huge fan. He even handed Jesus the captaincy for the pre-tournament friendly with Croatia at Anfield – though it was perhaps instructive that the Manchester City man was quiet that day, with Firmino later emerging from the bench to score in front of the Kop with a neat lobbed finish.
The suggestion in Brazil is that Firmino’s tendency to drift across the pitch, and in particular towards the left flank, in part explains why his has been a bit-part role so far. The left, of course, is where the Selecao’s star man resides. And if Tite is to lead them to a sixth world crown, then getting the best out of Neymar is likely to be key.
But could Firmino help do that? There is little reason to think otherwise. At Liverpool he plays the role of facilitator, his selflessness enabling others to shine around him. Salah scored 44 times last term, Mane 20. Philippe Coutinho, Brazil’s best player at this tournament, managed 12 before his January move to Barcelona.
Ask any of those three, or Jordan Henderson or James Milner, Virgil van Dijk or Dejan Lovren, who Liverpool’s best trainer is and they’ll say it’s Firmino. As Klopp says; if he gave his players the freedom to pick their own teams at Melwood, then the former Hoffenheim man would be first pick. “He never rests,” smiled the Reds boss. "What a work ethic, what an attitude."
There are few centre-forwards like him in world football; so elusive, so good at pressing from the front, so smart with their positional play and so in tune with what their manager wants, tactically speaking. His productivity, questioned during his first two seasons on Merseyside, has rocketed in the past 12 months. He creates and he scores.
Certainly his movement could bring space for Neymar and Co. to exploit – though in fairness Jesus is also a very astute player in that regard – while his relationship with Coutinho is a strong one, on and off the pitch. Firmino’s hold-up play, though not always perfect, is superior to that of Jesus, who has years to smooth the rough edges in his game. The City man tends to prefer the penalty area, though working under Pep Guardiola will undoubtedly help him become a more complete player. A player, dare we say, like Firmino?
“Choices will end up happening,” Tite said after Brazil’s win over Serbia. Prophetic words. Ten days on, the time has arrived. And the case for Firmino over Jesus is getting stronger by the day.