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St Petersburg madness lines up Neymar and Brazil with heroes of the past

22 Juni 2018 16:52

No nation is more synonymous with the World Cup and its defining stars than Brazil.

It is interesting, therefore, how much pain and anguish those hallowed names and their sacred jersey seemingly have to travel through.

Brazil are chasing an unprecedented sixth triumph in Russia – or more accurately wading in its vague direction after both goals in their 2-0 win over Costa Rica arrived stoppage time – four years on from their biggest humiliation.

The first of five World Cups came eight years after Uruguay inflicted the "Maracanazo" upon the hosts in their own 1950 World Cup final. It was Brazilian football's darkest day until seven German goals and a river of tears in Belo Horizonte.

Pele arrived as the teen sensation of 1958 and cemented his reputation as the greatest of all-time in 1970, but he spent the 1962 tournament as a winner stricken by injury and was brutally booted around English pitches to a group-stage exit in 1966.

Ronaldo's 2002 redemption song came after the seizure, team-sheet chaos and eventually meek surrender to France in the 1998 final.

Neymar now carries this blessed and cursed torch and it is tempting to wonder where Russia 2018 will lie for Brazil's star man on the country's extreme joy and despair spectrum – especially as he worked his way through delirious celebration and hysterical sobbing within a matter of moments as events in St Petersburg on Friday concluded in a surreal fashion.

Some of the pain was self-inflicted, while plenty was uncompromisingly dished out. Indisputably, Neymar had been through the mill.

Switzerland fouled him 10 times during their 1-1 draw in Rostov, setting an undesirable World Cup record, and there was more rough treatment for his twinkling toes and recently fused metatarsal against Costa Rica.

There were flashes of what coach Tite has proclaimed to be the 26-year-old's "genius" in the face of the tireless Ticos, but there were also heavy touches, ill-judged finishes before that coruscating finale.

Neymar's temper seemed thin inside the opening quarter of an hour as he was booted over by Johnny Acosta before being blundered into from behind by Johan Venegas.

A delicious pass down the inside left position to Gabriel Jesus displayed the world's most expensive player kicking into gear – the Manchester City striker would soon have a goal chalked off for offside and thump a header against the crossbar in the second period – and Neymar artfully left his most diligent enforcer Acosta on his backside.

The latter attack was driven by Paulinho, battering his way through the midfield traffic with the brutal efficiency of a St Petersburg taxi driver, and Barcelona team-mate Philippe Coutinho.

As long as Neymar grapples with bumps, bruises and the emotional strain, Coutinho appears the key to the Selecao's hopes and inspired waves of slick attacks as they began the second half sharply. There will be no Argentinian-style catastrophe with him around.

A goal-line clearance from Cristian Gamboa denied the ex-Liverpool man a far earlier opener and, by the time Neymar allowed Keylor Navas to save brilliantly by shooting too high from eight yards, there was clear distinction to be drawn between one sublime talent entirely in control of the game and another at its mercy.

You would not have backed Neymar to show the cool-headed ruthlessness Coutinho found for the gamebreaker in the 91st minute. He was seething from having a penalty denied by a VAR review and receiving a booking for petulant dissent.

The ex-Liverpool favourite spied rare space in the Costa Rica box after Jesus held up play just long enough. Cue another emptied bench and Tite sprawled on the turf in this World Cup of late drama.

In what remained of a berserk period of stoppage time, Neymar took the opportunity to loop a rainbow flick over Yeltsin Tejeda, complete a routine finish from Douglas Costa's centre and fall to his knees with the waterworks turned on at the final whistle.

Anger, flair, delight and tears. Whatever Russia 2018 holds for Neymar, Brazil are up and running in their own inimitable style.

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