Brazil’s 2-0 win over Croatia at Anfield will not go down as a classic by any means, but the Paris Saint-Germain star ensured those who were there will remember it. His goal, smashed home in front of the Kop, settled matters in favour of Tite’s side.
A fortnight before the World Cup favourites get underway in Russia, their talisman has returned. And judging by this 45-minute cameo, he’s ready to make up for lost time.
Introduced as a half-time substitute for Fernandinho, the 26-year-old was a blur of sharp, instinctive touches and clever movement. An ideal game to come into perhaps, given the pace of it – although some of the tackles flying in from the Croatians gave new meaning to the idea of a ‘friendly’ international – but impressive nonetheless.
Then came his moment. Just under 20 minutes remained when Philippe Coutinho collected possession centrally and drove for the penalty area. Drifting to the left, Neymar took the pass, cut inside onto his right foot, delayed once more and then lashed a shot home via the underside of the bar. The celebration which followed spoke of relief as much as delight; each and everyone of his team-mates joined him.
Brazil know how important he is to their chances in Russia. Without him they’re a decent side, but with him they’re the team to beat. Few players at the tournament have his skillset, few relish the big occasion like he seems to. His presence will bring extra gears out of the likes of Coutinho, Willian and Gabriel Jesus, too.
The ankle injury suffered playing for PSG in late-February is behind him, his recovery said to have gone as smoothly as possible. We will see whether he is able to sustain his levels through the intensity of a tournament, but the confidence he played with here suggests he will. After opening the scoring, he twice went close to adding another, first with an ambitious free-kick and then with a fierce angled strike.
Elsewhere, it was interesting to note the reception given to Coutinho upon his first return to Anfield since leaving Liverpool for Barcelona. ‘Mixed’ is the best description, though there were as many cheers as boos when his name was announced prior to kick-off. His performance, playing from the left of the front three, was a sloppy one. He looked better when drifting central, and happier with Neymar and Roberto Firmino on the field alongside him.
Willian offered more, while captain for the day Jesus was anonymous. Firmino, who drew the loudest cheers all afternoon, staked his claim for a starting place with a superbly-taken goal in stoppage time to wrap up the game. How Liverpudlians would love to see their all-action No.9 given the chance to shine on the world stage this summer, after a brilliant season at club level.
There will be some debate as to the right balance in this Brazilian side, with their starting midfield of Casemiro, Fernandinho and Paulinho looking a little prosaic and one-paced here. One of those, surely, will miss out when they get underway against Switzerland on June 17?
Either way, Neymar will change the dynamic, and the mood. He’s back in business at just the right time. The favourites have got their favourite back, and the World Cup will be all the better for that.