Home fans asking themselves how Brazil would fare if their star did not shine got the answer in the 0-0 draw against Mexico
In the past few months Brazilians have been asking themselves how their team would fare on a day when Neymar did not step up. The answer came in Fortaleza: they are much less lethal and much more jittery if their top scorer in the last four years does not escape his markers or produce moments of individual brilliance.
Before the tournament started the Seleção’s third group game against Samuel Eto’o and Cameroon on Monday was not given a lot of importance but after a failure to score for the second time in five World Cup ties Brazilians will be excused for feeling a bit uneasy when assessing their chances at their second shot of home glory.
Against a team that was fortunate not to miss out completely on the tournament Brazil’s quest for a first World Cup title at home suffered a setback. It is hardly reason to despair and the 0-0 result still keeps the Seleção top of Group A on goals scored, whatever the result between Croatia and Cameroon. But failure to score cannot be solely pinned on the Mexico goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa’s man-of-the-match display. Brazil struggled, even though they played better than in last week’s 3-1 win over Croatia.
The fifth World Cup game between Brazil and Mexico showed how much things have changed in Latin American football since they first locked horns, curiously in Brazil 1950. Then a 4-0 drubbing opened a series of 11 goals scored and none conceded.
The goalless draw in Fortaleza caps a remarkable past couple of years for the Mexicans against the nation they learned to worship after they watched Pelé and co waltz round the pitch in 1970. Since the turn of the century Mexico have won six and drawn two out of 12 meetings with the Brazilians – and that does not include their triumph at the London Olympics, played mostly with under-23 players.
It is true the Mexicans spent the first 30 minutes pretty much sitting back and expecting to catch Brazil on the break, unlike the much more determined start the Croatians had made in São Paulo last week – when they exhaustively exploited the spaces left by Dani Alves on the right. Instead the Mexicans relied on long shots and waited for Brazil with two lines of four which the hosts struggled to get through.
But this is the scenario Brazil are likely to find almost every time they step on the pitch in this competition. Which is why Hulk’s troublesome left thigh, which forced him to sit out the Fortaleza game, could have become a blessing-in-disguise moment. Ramires’ arrival gave Brazil a bit more invention than the Zenit player could bring. While providing well-needed muscle in Luiz Felipe Scolari’s high-pressing system, Hulk lacks Ramires’ speed and touch, which are more useful for the situations Brazil will need to be more inventive than the opponents trying to mount walls in their way.
However, the yellow card picked up by the Chelsea player at the end of the first half for upending Paul Aguilar forced Scolari to change his plans. The possibility of a red card became real in a game of speed and stamina and his departure for the unleashing of Neymar perhaps had more weight than the need of spreading play a bit more. It could have been a precious chance for Ramires to make his case for a return to the starting XI but the afternoon ended with echoes of 2010, when a silly booking picked up against Chile in the round of 16 took him out of Brazil’s quarter-final against the Dutch.
The match started interestingly for Premier League fans. Three out of the five England-based players were deployed only in the first half – it would have been four had not Paris Saint-Germain paid a world-record fee to take David Luiz out of Chelsea.
His former team-mates Oscar and Ramires tried to spur Brazil on but the Seleção also improved from their nervy start last week, thanks to Paulinho snapping out of the apathy that marked his display in São Paulo. Ironically, though, it was the QPR outcast Júlio César who ended up getting more airtime thanks to the 13 shots Mexico fired in his direction.
That shows Brazil were exposed, especially in the second half. But even José Juan Vázquez’s 41st-minute shot, which dipped dangerously to Júlio César’s left, was more speculative than the result of organised pressure. In Bernard Scolari had a delicious throwback to the days Brazil played with wingers. His presence, however, did leave Brazil more open and the Mexicans took advantage to dominate play and put the Seleção on the back foot for most of the second half.
It was Brazil who had the better chances but Ochoa frustrated them on a couple of occasions, including a Gordon Banks-type save from a Neymar first-half header.
Fred, as in the game against Croatia, produced little upfront, apart from a near miss in the first five minutes. Oscar, after a promising start, was silenced by severe vigilance from the Mexicans and Brazil were seen resorting to long balls for Neymar and Bernard in their pressing for a winner.