Why is it always about him?
Neymar might well ask the same rhetorical question that Mario Balotelli once had printed on his vest, when the former Manchester City star could not keep out of the papers.
Now it is Neymar who attracts headlines like flies around a jamjar, the centre of attention wherever he goes, the main talking point in St Petersburg from a game where did not even make the man-of-the-match contenders. That debate was between Brazil’s Philippe Coutinho, who finally broke Costa Rica’s resistance in the first minute of stoppage time, and Keylor Navas, who made a string of fine saves to keep the central Americans alive for so long.
The best of them was a spectacular tip-over from Neymar’s point-blank shot in the 56th minute, but there were plenty of other saves to deny Coutinho, Paulinho, Marcelo and Casemiro.
And mostly to foil Neymar. When you are the world’s most expensive footballer and you carry on your shoulders the hopes of a football-mad country such as Brazil, the pressure to deliver is immense, so perhaps it was no surprise that he broke down in tears at the end of an emotional roller-coaster.
He’d been kicked, booked, cheered, jeered and accused of cheating. And he also showed glimpses of the talent that is tempting Real Madrid to break all sorts of records to take him from Paris St Germain, with an outrageous ‘Rainbow Flick’ over his marker followed by a goal, his first in the World Cup finals since scoring against Cameroon four years ago.
This one was a simple tap-in at the tail end of stoppage time, putting a gloss on a scoreline that could have been so different if Coutinho had not finally broken through in the 91st minute. Up to that point Brazil were heading for a second successive draw, after being held by Switzerland in their opening game, and in danger of suffering an embarrassment similar to Argentina’s albeit not as severe as their great South American rivals.
Costa Rica needed at least a draw to keep their hopes of progressing alive, having lost to Serbia last week, and they went about keeping the Brazilians quiet in whatever way possible, by fair means or foul.
Neymar bore the brunt of some brutal challenges early on, and he was also guilty of leaving his leg on opponents as well. Cristian Gamboa escaped without a caution for upending Neymar twice in the opening minutes. But the Celtic full-back also set up Costa Rica’s best -and only - chance, when he burst down the right and cut back a ball for that Celso Borges should have done better with from 12 yards.
At the opposite end of the pitch, Navas was showing the form that earned him his move to Real Madrid four years ago after helping his country to the quarter-finals. The keeper may yet be replaced in Madrid by his opposite number here, Alisson, but Navas was in fine form. He was quick off his line in the first-half to save at Neymar’s feet and then smothered another close-range effort from the Brazilian, whose team-mates also struggled to find a way past the Costa Rica keeper.
Neymar thought he had won a penalty in 78th minute when he went down theatrically after Giancarlo Gonzalez’s hands brushed across the Brazilian, and Kuipers pointed to the penalty spot.
But after checking with the VAR officials, the Dutchman agreed that Neymar had fallen far too easily and overturned the decision.
Neymar’s frustration showed when he punched the ball into the ground after failing to win a free-kick, and he and Coutinho were both booked for dissent.
But the Barcelona star, who had scored a beauty against Switzerland, finally found the net in stoppage time. Roberto Firmino, on as a substitute, headed down a cross towards Gabriel Jesus, and although the Manchester City striker failed to control the ball, it fell into the path of Coutinho, who darted forward and stabbed it past Navas from close range.
The huge Brazilian contingent in the St Petersburg stadium went wild with delight and their players joined in. Six minutes later they were celebrating again as Douglas Costa, a second-half substitute for Willian, teed up Neymar to tap in his 56th goal for Brazil.
On the final whistle he slumped to the ground in tears. His coach Tite, who pulled a muscle celebrating Coutinho’s goal, said of Neymar: “I think the joy, the satisfaction and the pride of representing Brazil means a lot to him. He has responsibility, pressure and the courage to show it.”
Coutinho added: “Neymar had a difficult injury and went through a very bad patch. His joy at being back on the pitch is contagious.
“It was a tough game but we had the patience to play to the end of the game where we were rewarded with two goals.”
BRAZIL 4-2-3-1: Alisson 6; Fagner 6, Miranda 7, Thiago Silva 7, Marcelo 8; Casemiro 6, Paulinho 7 (Firmino 68); Willian 6 (Costa 46), Coutinho 9, Neymar 8; Jesus 7 (Fernandinho 90+3)
COSTA RICA 4-5-1: Navas 9; Acosta 6, Borges 6, Gonzalez 6, Duarte 6; Gamboa 7 (Calvo 75), Guzman 6 (Tejeda 82), Ruiz 7, Oviedo 6, Venegas 6; Urena 5 (Bolanos 55).
Ref: B Kuipers (Netherlands)
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