Tearful Neymar did not get to save Brazil
Croatia 1-1 Brazil AET (4-2 on penalties) (Petkovic 116′ | Neymar 105+1′) (Vlasic, Majer, Modric, Orsic | Casemiro, Pedro)
EDUCATION CITY STADIUM — Brazil coach Tite became the second manager to lose his job on penalties, accepting responsibility for a shock defeat to Croatia in the World Cup quarter-final. Unlike Luis Enrique, who took 24 hours to read the room after Spain’s loss to Morocco by the same shootout mechanism, Tite invited the next man in to knock Brazil into some kind of shape.
Whoever that may be he might start by picking his best player to take the first kick in a shootout rather than the last. What is the point of a joint-record goalscorer if he is left unused? Neymar’s goal in extra time equalled Pele’s total of 77, yet the most prolific boot of this generation was stranded by a penalty order that awarded him the last kick.
The contest has to reach that stage for him to be a live agent, which courtesy of the failure of two of the four, one a centre half, prevented that possibility.
The outcome rendered Neymar a tearful mess. His goal was worthy of winning the whole thing and arrived at what appeared might be a decisive moment on the stroke of half-time in extra time. Croatia had offered little in attack and were clearly playing for penalties. With the help of a deflected goal four minutes from the end of extra time they were granted their wish, and once again demonstrated a preternatural comfort in the stress zone, helped of course by the bizarre decision of Tite to save his best until last.
The flaw in his theory went unacknowledged. “The fifth penalty is decisive,” he said. “There is more pressure on the players. The most mentally prepared are the ones that should take this penalty kick.” Doh. Tite was six years in the post. Given the criticisms that have flowed throughout the tournament over repeated changes in selection and in formations, he will not be missed.
“Overall we gave the best version of ourself. But we needed to be more effective in front of goal,” he said, defending a question that suggested there was a deficit in mental strength among the group. “We need to be ready to share joy and willing to share sadness. There is a new generation of players that will find strength in adversity. I understand I’m the most responsible but we are all responsible. It’s not about heroes and villains. There is no such thing in sports. Sometimes we win, sometimes we lose.”
When asked what he thought of Tite’s penalty line-up, Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic offered no answer other than a smile. He did claim, however, that as soon as it went to penalties Brazil knew they were beaten, the iron will and 100 per cent record of Croatia in World Cup shootouts presenting a psychological barrier they could never breakdown.
“When it comes to penalty shootouts we are favourites. The other team had already lost at that point because of our record.”
Neymar’s distress was obvious. At 30 this represented his best chance to adorn his career with a World Cup winner’s medal. Something the great Pele achieved three times. Luka Modric’s remarkable contribution at 37 demonstrates the longevity of the modern player providing he is prepared to observe the necessary discipline and commitment.
The problem here was not Neymar but the lack of quality around him. The selection of Raphinha on the right ahead of Antony was a mystery given the rings that the Manchester United winger ran around the Croatian defence on his appearance as a substitute. Other than Vinicius Jnr, Neymar was without a creative ally.
The midfield looked under populated with Casemiro and Lucas Paqueta outnumbered and outmanoeuvred by the remarkable Modric, the ultra-mobile Mateo Kovacic and the forceful Marcelo Brozovic.
Croatia’s tactics played out as planned. Cut the supply lines to Brazil’s forward line, squeeze Neymar for space and control the middle of the park. With masked jailer Josko Gvardiol, the centre-back of the tournament, locking up Richarlison and throwing away the key, Brazil could make no impression of the Croatian defence. It was tactical suffocation to which Tite had no answer.