The final match in Group E between Seleção (The Squad) and Beli orlovi (The White Eagles) was a neutral’s dream. The permutations for both teams were simple – they both could top the group, finish second or be eliminated depending on Switzerland’s result against lowly Costa Rica. Head Coach Tite has battled both his players and the country’s fans in the media after two less-than-convincing showings in the tournament so far. Two injury-time goals edged them past the Costa Ricans, meaning only a draw was needed at the Spartak Stadium in Moscow tonight to confirm their place in the second round. Serbia have also struggled – only a set piece saved them from drawing with Costa Rica and last time out they were soundly beaten by the Swiss. With so much on the line for both sides, there was the added problem of discipline with 3 players from each side running the risk of suspension for the knockout stages: Neymar, Philippe Coutinho and Casemiro for Brazil; Aleksandar Mitrovic, Sergej Milinkovic-Savic and Nemanja Matic for the Serbs. Big names!
Brazil started the brighter of the teams with Neymar and Coutinho linking up well to bring an early save from Vladimir Stojković. Then, in a huge blow for Tite’s men, the influential Marcelo was replaced by former Chelsea defender Filipe Luís – the Real Madrid wing back suffering an apparent back injury. Neymar forced another good parry from Serbia’s Partizan stopper before Gabriel Jesus raced through, beating the offside trap, only for his weak effort to be kept out also. Stojković then made the game’s first big mistake: a delightful through ball from Coutinho found the run of Paulinho through the middle of the Serbian defence, Stojković failed to get to the ball in time and the Barcelona midfielder poked the ball over him to give Brazil the lead. It was a moment of pure class from Coutinho in an otherwise drab first half between two sides out of kilter.
As the second half limped on, signs of the familiar Brazilian complacency at the back started to emerge and the game felt like a cup tie. The White Eagles forayed forward after clearing a corner to find themselves four-on-four: Torino’s Adem Ljajic worked his way into the box and played a one-two with Dusan Tadic – but the return pass was a complete waste and summed up the night for the Serbs up until then. Still the Serbs piled on pressure, however; Aleksandar Mitrovic had a strong shot blocked, before Sergej Milinkoviv-Savic fired wide from 15 yards. Another chance for Mitrovic went begging, the Newcastle forward caused huge problems for Miranda but headed low straight at goalkeeper Alisson. Seleção knocked the wind from the Serbian sails with twenty minutes left – Thiago Silva popped up in front of Nemanja Matić at the near post to head a Neymar corner past Stojković to send Tite’s side into the knockout stages. It was harsh on Mladen Krstajić’s side who had given it a good crack but lacked the necessary quality to really hurt the average Brazilian backline.
The critics remain but the fans will party tonight and celebrate Neymar and co topping the group. Brazil could really struggle against a pacy, counter-attacking side with lots of quality in the final third. Next up: Mexico, who have just that. A mouthwatering prospect for all football fans.
Man of the Match: Philippe Coutinho (BRA)
Best: Philippe Coutinho, Paulinho, Thiago Silva (BRA), Aleksandar Mitrović, Sergej Milinković-Savić, Nemanja Matić, Vladimir Stojković (SRB)