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 was a hard watch.
“When we talk about the Brazil national squad, we are talking about the group. That is what important to get the title,” said Casemiro afterwards. “This year we have a wider range of options. Without even changing the team we have a way of changing the way we play. There is no doubt whatsoever that the options are much greater than 2018.”
It had been a swashbuckling Monday as the final day of four staggered matches served up two 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 that this would be an entirely different approach just four days after their first had, eventually, lit up the Lusail. Fred came in for Neymar to form more of a true midfield trio. Danilo’s absence didn’t see Dani Alves deputise but Eder Militao, the centre back refashioned. All told, a bit of a step into the unknown.
Neymar is what they know best. He has been the dominant personality and presence 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 by five words in the summer of 2014 — Neymar está fora do Copa — left deep wounds there.
The scar tissue twitched and itched a little last Thursday when Neymar 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. 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 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 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. The best chance of the half came on 27 minutes when Raphinha cut in on his left and curled a devilish ball to Vinicius Junior. But the Real Madrid man went with his right when his left would have been better.
That was genuinely as good as it got. The biggest positive for Tite at the interval was Eder Militao looking 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.
All this time the Swiss had been doing Swiss things. Organising themselves and staying tight, patiently disrupting attacks and working damn hard. 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 in and fed Casemiro who threaded one through to Vinicius to finish brilliantly. An explosion of canary yellow and a huge relief until VAR intervened. In keeping with a miserable night, it was in fact Richarlison who had been offside.
They tried to keep the spark as the Swiss attempted to stifle it. But more often than not, they’ll catch you. With seven minutes left, 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 was more satisfied than Tite.
“We joked it was like a chess game where all of the pieces had to be analysed before any move,” the manager said afterwards. “We do miss Neymar but there are other athletes. There’s a wide range of options because there is a whole four-year period of developing this. Who won today? The process.”
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.
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.
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).
Ivan Barton (SLV) 7.