MOSCOW — There were some doubts about this Brazilian team in the group stage of the World Cup: a second-half lapse against Switzerland, 90 minutes of hard labor before taking down Costa Rica and, for a half-hour Wednesday, problems solving Serbia.
But really, was anyone in the vast soccer biosphere worried about Brazil?
In a 2-0 victory over the Serbs, the Brazilians played as if they were working out a few kinks before addressing the serious business ahead of them. The next step is the round of 16 and a Monday appointment with Mexico in Samara.
“There is still more to grow,” said Tite, the coach. “From here, it’s up.”
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Brazil needed at least a draw Wednesday to secure passage, and at the end of an electric night at Spartak Stadium, the yellow-clad Selecao was where it was supposed to be all along when this festival began two weeks ago — atop Group E and on a pathway to a possible sixth championship.
Paulinho scored late in the first half and, after Brazil survived a brief scare, Thiago Silva provided the clincher midway through the second half.
“We know how hard the World Cup is,” Paulinho said, “and today we took another step.”
Last Friday, Brazil had revved its engines in the second half against Costa Rica, playing the type of blinding soccer that could win a world title (though it waited until the waning moments to take the lead).
With each match, Brazil is building chemistry and cohesion. Neymar, an immensely talented attacker with a petulant streak, behaved himself against the physical Serbs. Goalkeeper Alisson faced light pressure most of the night.
Is Brazil at its best right now? Certainly not. But the pieces seem to be falling into place for the next stage of the month-long tournament.
“There is no 100 percent. That’s inhuman,” Tite said. “You are working on evolution and potential. You can’t quantify that. What I say is I try to challenge the players to grow. If they have reached a certain standard, I challenge them to go up, individually and collectively. My expectation — we’ve reached it. It’s an evolution.”
As the plan comes together, Tite admitted, “Sometimes I am not able to sleep because I have to think about the right chemistry and the right balance.”
A Brazilian reporter commented to him that he seemed more relaxed than anyone anticipated at such a high-stress competition.
“I’m apparently at peace,” Tite said. “I’m still going to have a drink.”
Desperate for points after a victory and defeat, Serbia was on level terms for most of the opening half. Brazil had to make an early adjustment when star defender Marcelo departed with an apparent back injury.
Neymar tested goalkeeper Vladimir Stojkovic, but for the most part, Serbia hampered his style by reducing his space and fouling when necessary.
Neymar embellished with the authenticity of a second-rate Hollywood actor, rolling 4½ times on the sideline after Adem Ljajic upended him. He and Serbian Coach Mladen Krstajic exchanged words.
Brazil’s breakthrough came in the 36th minute. Some 50 yards from the net, Philippe Coutinho surveyed his options like a chef strolling through a farmers market.
He spotted Paulinho, his FC Barcelona teammate, making a run through the heart of Serbia’s resistance. Coutinho lifted the ball with impeccable touch and weight to the top of the penalty area.
Instead of trying to bring it down, Paulinho let the ball do the work. He waited for Stojkovic to come off his line, then used a high first touch to stab it past the desperate keeper.
All was not well, however. Brazil was fortunate not to concede an equalizer early in the second half. For a spell, Serbia was in control. Scoring opportunities were a luxury before intermission, but now they were flowing.
The best came in the 61st minute when Aleksandar Mitrovic’s header was blocked in the six-yard box by Silva. Moments later, Alisson smothered another Mitrovic header.
Serbia’s moment came and went.
“We missed our chances,” Krstajic said, “and we were punished.”
Punishment was exacted in the 68th minute when Silva made a near-post run on Neymar’s corner kick and nodded the ball into the near side.
Their work was done here. And with each completed task, expectations in a soccer-mad country thousands of miles away continue to rise.
“We don’t live off expectations; we live off reality,” Tite said. “It’s a team that is growing strong.”
— Steven Goff
Serbia substitution: Jovic for Mitrovic
In the 90th minute.
Serbia substitution: Radonjic for Kostic
In the 82nd minute.
Brazil substitution: Renata Augosto for Coutinho
In the 80th minute.
Serbia substitution: Zivkovic for Liajic
In the 75th minute.
Yellow card to Serbia’s Mitrovic
In the 71st minute.
The Seleção spent the seven minutes prior fending off a Serbian attack. But in the 68th minute, Brazil won a corner and Neymar’s cross found Thiago Silva wide open at the top of the six-yard box, where he nodded a shot into the net. Brazil must be feeling mighty comfortable with this lead about its chances to advance to the knockout round.
Mitrovic gets another chance
He rose up over Fagner for a header in the 65th minute and put his head to the cross, but Alisson Becker, the Brazilian keeper, was there to smother the chance.
Mitrovic can’t equalize
Aleksandar Mitrović had a waist-high ball to head into an open net in the 61st minute off a savvy cross from teammate Antonio Rukavina. But Mitrović sent the header right into the feet of Thiago Silva, who fended it off.
Neymar denied on the breakaway
Brazil got off on the counterattack in the 57th minute and Coutinho played a ball across and around Serbia’s back line to find Neymar running in space. The winger got into the box, but Serbia’s defense forced him wide and keeper Vladimir Stojković blocked his shot wide and out of bounds.
Yellow card to Serbia’s Matic
In the 49th minute.
Halftime update: Brazil 1, Serbia 0
This was a half of ultimate Brazilian football, the patient, creative play that can deceive opponents into a sense of confidence, then in a flash take it all away. Serbia spent more than a half-hour seemingly neck-and-neck with the Seleção, until Brazil flashed its superior fundamentals and scored a goal that had been brewing. They took that 1-0 lead into halftime.
A win or draw for Brazil will put it through to the World Cup’s knockout stage. Serbia almost definitely must win to advance. But that looks unlikely if Brazil is able to possess the ball as it did in the first half, and convert passes through and over the Serbian defense.
Philippe Coutinho flipped a pass over Serbia’s back line in the 36th minute that Paulinho flicked over the head of the Serbian keeper into the net. The Serbian side looked stunned. Brazil celebrated the score, but carried on with business as usual. Just another half of Brazilian football.
Brazil can get on the scoreboard just like that. After more than a half-hour of possession football that lulled Serbia to sleep, the Seleção can strike in a hurry. Philippe Coutinho flipped a pass over top of the Serbian back line and onto the feet of Paulinho, who flicked a shot over the Serbian keeper and into the net.
Yellow card to Serbia’s Liajic
In the 33rd minute.
Brazil substitution: Felipe Luis for Marcelo
In the 10th minute.
Starting lineups announced
Brazil is a clear favorite not only to win Group E, but the entire tournament with international stars at nearly every position.
But its brightest star, Neymar, is not at the top of his game after sitting out three months with a foot injury — and the critics have noticed. Pressure seems to be mounting on the 26-year-old, who wept after his team’s late win over Costa Rica, although he later ascribed the tears to “joy” on his Instagram account.
“He is a gifted player, but is outside his normal standards — or he wouldn’t be playing like this,” said Brazil Manager Tite, according to the BBC. “He is only in the recovery stage.”
Serbia is talented, but not loaded like Brazil, and it likely needs a win to advance. A draw might get the Serbs through to the knockout round, but they’d need some help as well.
When: Wednesday, 2 p.m. Eastern.
How to watch on TV: Fox.
How to stream online: Fox Sports and the Fox Soccer Match Pass apps and FoxSportsGo.com.
How to watch in Spanish: Telemundo, NBC Universo.
How to watch in Canada: Bell Media’s TSN and CTV networks, the TSN GO app and TSN.ca/live.
- Previous results: Drew with Switzerland, 1-1. Beat Costa Rica, 2-0.
- What’s at stake: Brazil, tied with Switzerland atop the group with four points, can secure a spot in the knockout round with a win or a draw. A loss to Serbia, and a victory by Switzerland over Costa Rica in the other group match, would send them home.
- Notable: Danilo (thigh) is not expected to play; Fagner will replace him. Douglas Costa (hamstring) is out as well.
- FIFA world ranking: 2. ELO world ranking 1.
- Previous results: Beat Costa Rica, 1-0. Lost to Switzerland, 2-1.
- What’s at stake: A win by Serbia would allow them to advance to the knockout stage. A draw might do the same, but they’d need Costa Rica to beat Switzerland by more than one goal.
- Notable: If Serbia were to advance, it would be the first time doing so as an independent nation.
- FIFA world ranking: 34. ELO world ranking: 21.
Players to watch
Brazil striker Neymar (Paris Saint-Germain) is racing against time to recover from a foot injury. When he is at the top of his game, his almost balletic style makes him perhaps the top attacker in the world. Midfielder Nemanja Matic (Manchester United) has 18 goals in 26 games for Serbia this year. He can score from distance and is adept controlling the tempo of the game.
— Jacob Bogage
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