Updated: Jul 3, 2018
Mexico cornered their prey and moved in for the kill at the opening bell, but a rock solid defensive core took every punch. Then Willian turned on the jets, and the game turned with it.
As closed as yesterday’s games were, this was pure end-to-end action, and really a treat at that. Mexico stormed into their big games, full of belief that they were in fact the favorite, the better team, that each individual was better than the man across from him. It turned out to be enough against Germany, but not enough today. But take both of those first 20 minutes, where they hawked and won every ball and attacked the flanks with gusto. Chucky on a tear, Vela gliding with the ball, Guardado all pep and precision; twas a pretty sight. Mexico were something of George Foreman in Zaire, looking to throw the knockout blow early against the once and future king, and if they had been more clinical (like Vela on his trademark right-side chip), maybe they land that punch that turns the lights out. For whatever will come flying at Juan Carlos Osorio after today’s match, the plusses highly outweigh the minuses to me, in the most fundamental of ways: we got peak Mexico, just not for long enough. He can’t kick the ball in the goal--that’s up to the players. Starting Marquez as a defensive mid for a whole game was probably silly, and the Layun/Alvarez switch was chaotic; Layun didn’t show his qualities well during this tournament, which is all that I know of him. Osorio will get drilled for this, and it’s hard to believe he won’t be cashiered. It’s just a very demanding audience and the collapse against Sweden did him in (and rumor has him coming to coach the U.S. team, which would be great from a developmental side, and certainly add spice to an already heated rivalry). We need a Latino coach to takeover (Gerardo Martino at Atlanta United would be my first choice, but Osorio works, too). The one traditional weakness of Mexico was apparent: losing their marbles a bit after going down. I get why Neymar infuriates, but they needed a bit of calm and 100% focus instead of jawing at the referee. Finally, mad respect to Ochoa, who’s been fantastic all tournament, living up to the Jorge Campos little-man keeper legend status. He’s been a joy to watch throughout, stylish and truly in excellent form.
Not their day, in the end, but Viva Mexico!--you played with the pedal down, and there’s a style and heart there that I hope they keep at the center of their national program. If they do, the U.S. isn’t going to win a Gold Cup for a long time.
While Mexico had flaws, credit Brazil for the two elements every Cup winner must have. They got a fantastic backline performance, albeit after a tough start on the wings. Fagner, after a tough start, locked down Lozano, and Felipe Luis did his job on Vela (I’m not sure that them switching sides really helped them). Both backs actually got forward a few times to support the attack. Brazil certainly miss Marcelo, the best left back in the world, but oddly the stay-at-home quality of Felipe Luis might be a bit more what this particular team needs. Miranda was excellent, and Thiago Silva simply supreme. Forgotten by many is that Thiago was out on yellows for the Germany disaster at Belo Horizante; he would have kept them at leastfrom collapsing, I’d think. I got to watch him from high up in Autzen Stadium last year, and he reads the game so well, just makes it all look effortless.
The back two--and Casemiro--blocked so many shots, and at least one Silva just surely got his foot to as more measured first-time clearance than simply a deflection. They were eerily calm throughout, all steadying confidence, and in Casemiro they have one of the best as their shield. Losing Casemiro is a huge deal for the next match; Eden Hazard and De Bruyne are going to like their chances much more in his absence, if they can expel the demons that got into their heads today.
The difference maker today was Willian...well, second half Willian, who bagged the imposter who’s been wearing the highly life-like Willian suit for 3-and-a-half games. I think the announcer said something along the lines of “he’s put his jet pack on,” and indeed this was a performance that one would see of a superstar who decided to put the team on his back. He’s been very sedate all tournament, working really hard, but hasn’t really zoomed by anyone, as if his pace just wasn’t there anymore. Suddenly in the second half there he was, surging through multiple players, tearing into the open space. Credit to Neymar for rewarding his run all the way across the field with a highly functional rather than decorative backheel that cracked the entire backline--and Neymar for working off the ball to get to the resultant cross, ghosting in behind a Mexican defense that found its collective gaze transfixed by the backheel.
There’s a lot of calls for Firmino to come in for Gabriel Jesus. Firmino certainly has a more physical presence than Jesus, but that’s a toss-up to me. (And, can we stop calling him “Bobby?” I thought we’d resolved this when my baseball cards went from “Bob” to “Roberto" Clemente). While he hasn’t delivered a goal, he is putting in a huge shift defensively, sprinting back on defense, as are Willian and Coutinho. It’s great to see…but it’s also by necessity, because Tite is allowing Neymar to do almost no work defensively.
It’s a team still built around a brilliantly skilled player whose mental state seems fragile and priorities seem split: is it to win or to be the Style King, the Flicks and Tricks Emperor, the next Kardashian husband?
I don’t claim the latter, but Neymar poses the question every time he’s in a Brazil jersey. When he played on the frontline with Messi and Suarez at Barcelona, one didn’t see nearly so much standing on the ball or dribbling, but he worked as part of the greatest trident of attackers the game has ever seen. At PSG, the bubbling of egos with Mbappe and Cavani has never felt comfortable or particularly gelled. If I have a worry about Brazil, it’s in how much the team caters to his worst instincts, because with the talent of the front 5, more ball movement would help. At one point in the first half, he’s occupied two players, and has Coutinho cruising in on his right shoulder. There’s noboby in the world better at teeing up that shot on the right side, 25 yards out. Lay that ball off, and every Mexican who’s close to Coutinho has to come charging out, opening space for everyone else (including Neymar).
Then the histrionics. Admittedly he’s knocked up, and taking his lumps on the pitch, back from surgery that he’d take more time to rehab in any other case, I’m sure. Did his ankle hurt as much as he protested when Layun stepped on it? Obviously not. Dick move by Layun? Sure (he knocked him every chance he got), but Neymar’s antics aren’t helping him, but rather making it harder to tell when he’s really been ripped, and I’m surprised a Mexican player didn’t go all Marquez, circa 2002 Cobi Jones, on him when the game was lost. IIn Hell, probably everyone watching who doesn’t like Brazil and half the neutrals wouldn’t be unhappy if someone kicked the crud out of him. I’m not one of those people, but it’s like the braggart who can’t tell that he’s goaded--a lot of someones--too far and is about to get his lights knocked out. If he gets wrecked by a Mexican player sometime in Champions League or Ligue 1, nobody should be surprised. Neymar like any player should be protected--particularly in light of being savaged last Cup and by Swiss hacks this time--but Osorio was right to call him out for degrading the game. Someone on his own side needs to tell him to just play the game; he's extraordinarily good at it, after all.
And...he both created and scored the first, really, and blazed in to nearly score--and do enough with the cheeky early toe poke for Roberto Firmino to slot home for the second. He’s an amazing talent, one of those guys who has his own brilliant, inimitable style, uniquely unpredictable in how he might break down defenders. With this team behind him, no player is more likely to turn 1-0 into 2-0. He was the difference maker today, all his brilliance and flaws on display.
So, Brazil move forward as the team with the least question marks, with plenty of depth and confidence. Missing Casemiro is going to be a big deal, and it feels like Neymar could either make Brazil unstoppable or could eclipse them--and not in a good way. The former seems more likely.