New-look Brazil find another way to get the job done

Without Neymar, a Casemiro strike beat the Swiss and booked a last-16 spot. 
New-look Brazil find another way to get the job done

UNITED FRONT: Brazil's Casemiro scores his side's winner against Switzerland. Picture: AP Photo/Andre Penner

Brazil 1 

Switzerland 0 

Maybe they don’t need anyone to replace him? Maybe the greatest strength, and greatest danger for the rest of those hoping to win this thing, is that Tite’s newest version of Brazil can beat you in myriad ways.

The Seleção rustled themselves from a stodgy 70-odd minutes of frustration and Swiss stubbornness to make a little bit of history at Stadium 974. They did so without Neymar — and without anyone filling his void.

With fully six attackers — Richarlison, Raphinha, Vinicius Junior, Rodrygo, Antony and Gabriel Jesus — all failing to find or make the winning moment, it was Casemiro who strode forward and made it for them, swishing one past Yann Sommer to send Brazil into the last 16. In the process they became the first team to ever go 17 World Cup group stage games without defeat. Not bad for a night that at times was a hard watch.

It had been a swashbuckling Monday as the tournament’s final day of four staggered matches served up two absolute crackers, 11 goals among them, preceding Brazil’s reappearance. Then this confounding cup turned boring again.

Ankle injuries to Neymar and Danilo and Tito’s tactical response to them meant in effect that this would be an entirely different approach just four days after their first had, eventually, lit up the Lusail. Manchester United’s Fred came in for Neymar to form more of a true midfield trio. Danilo’s absence didn’t see the 39-year-old Dani Alves deputise but Eder Militao, the Real Madrid centre back refashioned out there. All told a bit of a step into the unknown.

Neymar is what they know best. He has been the dominant personality and presence in the Brazil team for fully a decade now. Once it became clear a couple of years out from the 2014 World Cup on home soil that all hopes would rest on his shoulders, this has been his team, with his shadow only growing broader and deeper across it. The national trauma brought about there by five words in the summer of 2014 — Neymar está fora do Copa — left deep wounds.

The scar tissue twitched and itched a little last Thursday when he limped off the field in the minutes after victory had been secured against Serbia. The close-ups of his rapidly swelling ankle were ugly but the news the next morning wasn’t as final as in 2014. He’d be back for the knockout rounds.

So under the Monday night lights of Stadium 974, there was a shadowless expanse waiting to be claimed. There it lay before them all. It was still there when Raphinha stood waiting to take a corner after 44 minutes. The same stadium lights flickered and dimmed and you wondered if it was because there was some kind of sensor out there that hadn’t been triggered across a terrible half of football. Not an activity sensor; it had after all been what someone who wants to try to justify spending 45 minutes watching it would call absorbing. But instead an excitement sensor. There’d been none of that.

Precious little of substance happened. Richarlison was properly released for the first time after 15 minutes but couldn’t find Vinicius Junior. A minute later he mis-controlled after lovely interplay from Eder Militao and Casemiro.

The best chance of the half came on 27 minutes when Raphinha cut in on his left foot and curled a devilish ball to Vinicius Junior, who was screaming in at the back post. But the Real Madrid man went with his right when his left would have been better and Yann Sommer clawed it away.

That was genuinely as good as it got. The biggest positive for Tite at the interval was Eder Militao looking composed and commanding on the right side of defence. But the attack needed a shake and got it. The ineffective Lucas Paqueta came out and Madrid’s Rodrygo in, which in effect was Tite going back to what worked against the Serbs with Rodrygo now in Neymar’s actual position.

All this time the Swiss had been doing Swiss things. Organising themselves and staying tight, patiently disrupting attacks and working damn hard. They began to creep further and brought the ball with them, which of course meant there was now greater space in behind too. Brazil’s professor still wasn’t happy. Out came Fred, Newcastle’s in-form Bruno Guimaraes in to try to spark things.

On 64 minutes, just two minutes off when their patience had told against Serbia, they thought they’d found it. The Swiss middle slept for a change and Rodrygo nipped on to a loose ball, fed Casemiro who threaded one through to Vinicius to finish in what is becoming trademark fashion. An explosion of canary yellow and a huge relief until VAR intervened. In keeping with a generally miserable night, it was in fact Richarlison who had been ruled offside.

They tried to keep the spark as the Swiss attempted to stifle it. But more often than not, they’ll catch you eventually. With seven minutes of normal time remaining, they probed the right side of the Swiss defence again. Vinicius jinked and passed inside to Rodrygo whose nonchalant flick found Casemiro. A swish of his right boot sent the ball rocketing and rotating into the goal. It may have taken a flick off Manuel Akanji's rear but had such a satisfying quality to it.

No one will have been more satisfied than Tite. His side didn’t answer the pressing question. Instead they showed that even if it takes them time, they have other answers. That should worry the rest.

Brazil (4-3-3): Alisson 7; Eder Militao 8, Thiago Silva 7, Marquinhos 7, Alex Sandro 7 (Alex Telles 86); Fred 5 (Bruno Guimaraes 58), Casemiro 8, Lucas Paqueta 5 (Rodrygo HT); Raphinha 6 (Antony 73), Richarlison 6 (Gabriel Jesus 73), Vinicius Junior 7.

Booked: Fred 

Switzerland (4-3-1-2): Sommer 7; Widmer 6 (Frei 86), Akanji 87 Elvedi 7, Rodriguez 6; Freuler 7, Xhaka 7, Rieder 6 (Steffen 59); Sow 6 (Aebischer 76); Embolo 6 (Seferovic 76), Vargas 5 (Fernandes 59).

Booked: Rieder.

Ref: Ivan Barton (SLV) 7 

Att: 43,649 

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