Neymar returns as Brazil rediscovers its World Cup groove

When Neymar limped off the pitch in tears and injured his right ankle late in Brazil’s opening win in Qatar, it became so quiet you could hear a World Cup trophy drop.

Brazil might have the best collection of football talent on the planet, however A selection, the country’s national team, is pretty much Neymar and Friends: That group stage win left Brazil 26-1-4 in the last 31 games Neymar started. Without him, Brazil stuttered, sharing their next two games and scoring just once.

Brazil got Neymar on Monday and back his groove that will probably change the direction of this world championship. It certainly changed Brazil, who scored four goals in the first 36 minutes in a 4-1 win over South Korea, wowed 43,847 mostly yellow-clad spectators at Stadium 974 on the shores of the Arabian Gulf and earned a date with Croatia in the quarter-finals, the Round that wiped out Brazil’s last World Cup.

“Neymar certainly gives us a competitive edge,” said Brazil assistant coach Cesar Sampaio. “He makes us different on the pitch. He is the driving force.”

Neymar’s injury, which threatened to sideline him for the remainder of the tournament, left the team idle. Training without issue on Sunday, he was cleared for Monday’s start and Brazil was back on track.

“I only knew for sure after the last training session,” said Tite, Brazil’s manager. “The medical staff had already cleared him for the game. Nothing needed to be said.”

With their talisman at their back, the Brazilian giants played again with the pride and arrogance that had made them big favorites at the World Cup, scoring more goals in the opening 13 minutes of the last 16 than in the last two groups combined.

Vinicius Junior got going, catching a loose ball that went over the goal in front, settling it down with his right foot and hammering it in from well inside the left edge of the box in the seventh minute. Six minutes later, Neymar doubled the lead with a penalty.

After French referee Clement Turpin called for the foul on Jung Woo-young, Raphinha snatched the ball and stood still to await confirmation of the penalty kick. When the time came, he passed the ball to Neymar, who stuttered and then beat Korean goalkeeper Kim Seung-gyu in the bottom right corner.

Neymar controls the ball in front of South Korea's Hwang In-beom (left) during Monday's game.

Neymar controls the ball in front of South Korea’s Hwang In-beom (left) during Monday’s game.

(Martin Meissner/Associated Press)

The goal was the 76th of Neymar’s international career and left him behind Pelé on Brazil’s all-time list. He is still three behind Pelé in terms of World Cup trophies, but that gap could also narrow if Brazil continue to play like they did on Monday.

Richarlison made it 3-0 in the 29th minute – the fastest 3-0 lead for a Brazilian team at a World Cup – and seven minutes later helped set up a Lucas Paqueta goal that sent South Korea praying for half-time. It was Brazil’s most complete performance since the 5-1 win over South Korea in June, when Neymar scored twice on penalties.

“In addition to his technical ability, he also motivates other players,” Sampaio said of the Neymar factor. “Neymar is technically at the forefront. Some players have different skills. Neymar is technically at the forefront.”

Credit has to be given to the Koreans for coming back after the break – and for slowing down the game, earning them a reward in the 76th minute when Paik Seung-ho scored, Brazil’s lead took a goal and Korea’s dignity returned a little. The Koreans could have scored a few more goals had it not been for two spectacular saves from Brazil goalkeeper Alisson.

Neymar came out in the 81st minute to protect his ankle and with it Brazil’s World Cup hopes. This time he took his seat in the dugout with a smile instead of tears on his face.

“The night of the injury was a very difficult night,” said Neymar on Monday. “I thought of a million different things. I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to play again at this World Cup.”

At the post-match press conference, he thanked everyone from Gott and his teammates to Brazil’s fans and team coach Ricardo Sasaki, who accompanied him to the media meeting.

After the game, Neymar walked onto the pitch without shoes or foot wraps, carrying a banner saluting Pelé, who is reportedly in end-of-life palliative care at a Brazilian hospital, which has only announced that he is recovering from one Respiratory infection made worse by COVID-19. It was a fitting tribute from a young man enjoying some of his greatest days to a legend who may be in his last.

Neymar could soon overtake Pele in goals, but the three World Cup titles make Pele unassailable as a legend. However, Neymar would like at least one and he could get that this month.

“I’m happy to be back. I’m happy to have played well,” said Neymar. “I wasn’t in pain. I’m very satisfied. But we have to strive for more.” Neymar returns as Brazil rediscovers its World Cup groove

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