So good so far, Qatar’s hospitality was tested and somewhat frayed at the edges when Brazil were in the house on Thursday. Though Argentina could have a slightly different view, with an uneven blue-green strobe light running across the highest tier, the Lusail is an magnificent cauldron that can hold nearly 90,000. As the national anthems were being belted out, many were still at the gates, the marshals ensuing that they queued and waited their turn.
Selfies taken, videos made, those who had got in – Brazil fans were converging at different metro stations from 4pm headed for the one that is 10 minutes away from Lusail – made their presence felt by cheering every time the five-time champions had the ball.
They did that when Richarlison scored in the 63rd minute, to kick-off the dream Thiago Silva and Tite had spoken of one day prior. They did that again when Richarlison added to his tally with a 73rd minute side volley, off a pass from the outside of the right boot by Vinicius Jr, that was straight out a game of beach volleyball back home. In seven internationals this year, Richarlison has scored nine goals showing what a tall, strong No. 9, of the kind Juergen Klinsmann likes, can add to a team loaded with attacking talent.
And they did that when Marquinhos took the ball away from Sergey Milinkovic-Savic like any central defender is expected to. Or when Raphina tackled near his penalty area. Or Casemiro, who imposed himself on the midfield, regaining possession after Danilo had lost the ball. When Lucas Paqueta lost the ball and needed Casemiro’s help, well that too was a cause for celebration.
And when Vinicius Jr sped past right-side midfielder Andrija Zivkovic to enter the box, oohs and aahs echoed off the tiers. As it did when Neymar Jr’s corner-kick curled wickedly towards goal and needed the hand Vanja Savic-Milinkovic to keep things level. Or Neymar’s shot from range that was stopped by the goalie.
If Serbia thought they were up against the world and not 11 players from a country once known to produce giants of the game with assembly-line regularity, who could blame them. Milinkovic-Savic was booed while lining up a goalkick and that coursed through the stadium till a red shirt was dispossessed. Then it turned into a roar of approval. Not even the bald-headed goalkeeper’s collection off Vinicius Jr after a superb Silva pass got the appreciation it deserved.
Yet though Brazil fizzed with attacking intent, played passes delightful and electric in their build-up, moves being garnished by the occasional back-heels, Serbia hung on, not in desperation but with determination. Two minutes from the 45, Neymar was surrounded by four players near the centre-circle but managed to break free and find Raphina who was then prevented from arrowing the ball in by a superb piece of shielding by Strahinja Pavlovic. Yes, Aleksander Mitrovic was starved off supply but this was some adroit defending from Serbia. Look no further than Filip Mladenovic’s tackle in Neymar early in the second half.
By then though Brazil could have been ahead. Raphina latched on to a poor pass from the goalkeeper who then had to compensate with an excellent save. Playing behind Richarlison, so much has been spoken about Brazil going into the World Cup with not one but three genuine No.9s, Neymar had more space to operate and showed his class with a driving run down the inside left channel before Nemanja Gudlej brought him down and was booked.
Soon after, Alex Sandro fired from distance into the upright. Brazil were slowly tightening the noose but nothing calms nerves better, gets a campaign going than a goal. Neymar moved in, drew three players to him and found Vinicius. Vinicius fired at goal, the keeper’s palm directing the ball towards Richarlison who tapped home. After Richarlison’s second goal and even though he and Neymar were taken off, Brazil used Milinkovic-Savic’s goal for target practice, then keeper being tested by Fred before Casemiro hit the upright. Casemiro’s performance showed that Brazil can be solid in defence even when they were spectacular in attack, a combination not seen since 2002.
After the goals, Brazil congregated near a corner to celebrate with fans. They could have chosen any corner, really. For anywhere Brazil play in a World Cup, it feels like home.
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