World Cup 2014 talking points: Where does Neymar injury leave Brazil?

Luiz Felipe Scolari does not have a like-for-like replacement for his superstar, Colombia’s James Rodríguez deserves the golden boot and Philipp Lahm is the talk of Germany

Can Brazil win without Neymar?

Leaving the Estádio Castelão, it was difficult not to feel that Brazil, after the initial burst of jubilation, may have lost their best chance of winning this tournament for the sixth time. The night before the match against Colombia, the main strip of Fortaleza’s beachfront was not a place where it was easy to get much sleep. Now, there was a strange lack of noise and celebration. A lot of the locals had headed to Clínica São Carlos instead, gathering outside the main gates to go through their repertoire of songs in support of Neymar, lying inside with a fractured vertebra and his face covered in a white blanket.

With a clearer head, the news is still a grievous blow for Brazil, but the damage does not necessarily have to be irreparable. Neymar has scored four times so far. He has had 18 shots at goal, created 13 other chances for his team-mates and had 241 touches in the opposition half. On each count, he is out alone as Brazil’s best attacker. So, yes, it is easy to understand why the immediate reaction was to suspect the worse for Luiz Felipe Scolari’s team.

And yet, Brazil have not reached this point just to raise a white flag because one player – admittedly, more than just a normal player – is injured. Willian is a £32m player with the energy to fit in seamlessly. That, in turn, could free up Oscar to play in the No 10 role where he does his best work. Or maybe Bernard could come in and we might see why Scolari has described the Shakhtar Donetsk player as having “joy in the legs”. That still does not lessen the significance of an injury that had the president, Dilma Rousseff, sending her own message of support to Neymar.

The 22-year-old has demonstrated in this tournament that his superstar status is fully warranted (just imagine Barça’s attack next season if Neymar clicks and Luis Suárez is playing ahead of Lionel Messi) and the really sad thing about his absence is that it deprives the World Cup of one of its real showmen.

Dante can fill in for the suspended Thiago Silva against Germany in Tuesday’s semi-final in Belo Horizonte. The problem for Scolari is that there is no like-for-like replacement for Neymar. All the options are, in some way, inferior. Yet nobody should be questioning Brazil’s competitive qualities. “Don’t forget, 18 months ago nobody believed in us,” Scolari said. “Ten or 15 days ago, nobody believed we would get through the group stage. Nobody believed we would get past the last 16.” All the best football sides have shown they can overcome setbacks. Brazil have to show they can be added to the list and, as setbacks go, this one is considerable. DT

Rodríguez deserves golden boot

It would be a fitting subplot to this thrilling, visceral, horribly involving World Cup if James Rodríguez got to keep the golden shoe he is currently eyeing rather disconsolately in the tournament departure lounge.

Despite some calculated rough-housing from Brazil’s midfield Rodríguez was still a startlingly mobile and incisive presence in Colombia’s narrow defeat in Fortaleza. There was one delicious piece of acceleration and a pass inside Marcelo in the first half that gave a thrilling glimpse of his talent. He made and also scored Colombia’s second-half penalty, and given another 10 minutes he might well have saved the game too. The question now is: what next?

Clearly, he’s not going to move to the Premier League. Real Madrid are said to be interested, and some form of step up, a realigning commensurate with his new-found status as an A-list star, seems likely. It will be a different role for him generally now. Rodríguez, like Neymar, was given little protection by the referee the Estádio Castelão. Brazil sought out the fringes of what was and wasn’t going to be permitted and parked their flag there. But this is likely to be Rodríguez’s lot from here on in, if he continues to play with such verve. This is the nature of football, and what makes it so thrilling too, moments of inspiration gouged out of a genuinely concussive and physical sport, the triumph of brain and grace over simple brawn.

Lionel Messi is a fine example of a player who has had to put up with similar treatment and has learned to survive it, rise above, play the referee, drag the game back his way. A tougher referee would have done the job for Rodríguez here, but he is a brilliantly intelligent footballer playing at a newly elevated level. He is too talented and too experienced already not to emerge much stronger from the experience. And he deserves that golden boot too. BR

Lahm becoming German obsession

Joachim Löw has been asked about Philipp Lahm more than any other player at this World Cup. The Germany captain or, more specifically, where Löw ought to play him, has become a national obsession. The clamour for him to be moved from his midfield holding role to right-back had been intense before the quarter-final against France in Rio de Janeiro. Löw made the switch and, unsurprisingly, he spent a portion of his post-match press conference talking about why he had done so.

The manager explained that because of the manner in which France packed the centre of midfield, he wanted to make inroads in wide areas; hence, Lahm at right-back and Thomas Müller, who had started as the centre-forward in the last-16 win against Algeria, on the right of midfield. It felt like a reactive decision, even if Löw was keen to stress that it showed how flexible he and the team could be, and it begged the question as to what he would do with Lahm against Brazil in the semi-final.

Lahm could help Germany to establish control of the possession and tempo in midfield. On the other hand, Löw will be wary of the marauding Brazil left-back, Marcelo. DH

The beginning and the end for France

It was the end of the road for France but in some ways it was also the beginning. In rounding up how he felt about leaving Brazil at the quarter-final stage, Didier Deschamps mentioned how there was sadness and frustration in the dressing room, but immediately stressed how keen he was to seize the positives. It has been a largely progressive tournament for Les Bleus. There is no need any more for World Cup conversations to be inextricably linked to the nightmare of South Africa four years ago. They have moved on now.

Deschamps spoke of a new group “born” when France qualified for this World Cup, and they did some growing up in Brazil. Not enough to overcome a Germany collective who are ahead of them of the development scale. But they have garnered considerable experience, particularly the young talents who took part in their first international tournament. “I’m quite proud of what we have achieved on the pitch and also behind the scenes. We have a lot of work to do with them but it is definitely promising,” said Deschamps. The journey to the Euro 2016 that they will host begins on the plane back to Paris. AL

Carlos Carballo and the missing cards

Two weeks ago, as the Spaniard prepared to officiate England’s second match of the tournament, against Uruguay, the Daily Express ran a story about Carlos Carballo. “EXCLUSIVE: Keith Hackett’s England alert over card-happy referee,” read the headline, with the man once in charge of English refereeing warning: “You must be on your best behaviour. This official’s card count is liable to be well above average. England have to be aware he has a very low threshold of tolerance on foul play. And where you might get a referee hesitating to apply a second yellow card he is only too happy to flash the red.”

Hackett’s warning could not have been more wrong. In that match Diego Godín, who had already been booked, swung his forearm into Daniel Sturridge’s neck with just under half an hour played but the referee was not at all happy to flash the red. Instead Carballo inexplicably kept his cards in his pocket, and there they have more or less stayed.

He seems to have a clear policy of avoiding all bookings until deep into the game. Godín’s first caution, earned for deliberate handball after nine minutes, is the only one Carballo has shown in the first hour of any of his matches in this tournament. In his first game he showed one other card, to Steven Gerrard in the 68th minute; in his second he booked Bosnia’s Muhamed Besic in the 77th minute and Iran’s Karim Ansarifard in the 88th; on Friday Brazil had conceded 25 free-kicks before Thiago Silva became their first player to be booked, in the 64th minute. Three further cards followed, and his leniency was evident again in the decision to show Júlio César just a yellow after he conceded a 78th-minute penalty.

Once players work out that a referee is likely to award a free-kick for the slightest perceived misdemeanour but will not book anyone no matter how many they concede, lawlessness is all but inevitable. It was not just in reckless attacking and sometimes free-form defending that Brazil v Colombia seemed a throwback to footballing times past – Brazil’s treatment of James Rodríguez recalled that meted out to Diego Maradona in 1982, and to Pelé in 1962 and 1966. Of the game’s two outstanding attacking talents Rodríguez was kicked out of the game for long periods, and Neymar left the field on a stretcher.

While Caballero and his assistants didn’t get any major decisions wrong, except perhaps the colour of Júlio César’s card, they messed up minor ones with enormous regularity and had an enormously negative impact on the game. Perhaps the tournament’s worst display of officiating, it was at least proof that error-prone officials don’t always come from minor footballing nations. This really has been a terrible World Cup for Spaniards. SB

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