It was a relief more than joy for Brazil players, who converged behind the goal after the game, where Casemiro had struck the winner earlier. They made a little jig with the fans before disappearing into the tunnel, even as the large travelling Brazilian contingent made out of Stadium 974 to celebrate their team’s qualification into the last 16 of the World Cup in Qatar.
Yesterday’s 1-0 win over Switzerland was far from comfortable for Brazil, the pre-tournament favourites. The Group G match was a dull affair in the first half as five-time champions failed to find the spark in the absence of their injured captain Neymar, with Switzerland sitting deep in defence but not posing any attacking threat either.
But Casemiro’s well-taken half volley – seven minutes from full time – broke Swiss’ resistance, just when it looked like the Europeans would take a well-deserved point. Brazil are now unbeaten in a record 17 World Cup group games, a run going back to 1998, when they lost 2-1 to Norway. They can top the group if they draw against Cameroon on Friday. For Switzerland, they need to beat Serbia or a draw would see them through to knockouts if Cameroon lose to Brazil.
All the pre-match buzz of Neymar’s importance to this Brazil side was laid bare as Tite’s men struggled to carve out a meaningful chance against a well-drilled Switzerland defence. This was a match calling out for Neymar’s dazzling pyrotechnics as Swiss coach Murat Yakin’s defensive structure frustrated the Brazilians.
Switzerland had an eventful day even before they reached Stadium 974 from their hotel, after being involved in a minor road traffic accident. The bus carrying the players had rammed into the police escort car in slow-moving traffic, while another car travelling behind hit the bumper of the bus. The collision was a minor one and it didn’t seem to affect Switzerland players when they took the field.
The last two times both teams had clashed at the World Cup, the most recent being in Russia in 2018, Switzerland had managed to hold Brazil to a draw. It looked for most of yesterday’s game, this too would meander into a stalemate.
This was after Tite had called upon all his attacking talent from the bench to break the deadlock. But it was Brazil’s ‘invisible man’ Casemiro, who showed up at the right time to carry his team to victory.
The Manchester United defensive midfielder curled a gorgeous right footer into the top of the right corner after receiving a pass from Rodrigo. The strike brushed defender Manuel Akanji’s backside slightly, but even then the ball was destined to beat goalkeeper Yann Sommer, who remained unmoved.
Despite their struggles on the night, Brazil have made their best start to a World Cup campaign since 2002, the last time they won the World Cup. But against teams that offer more attacking threat in the later stage of the tournament, Brazil will need to step up if they have to end their 20-year title drought.
“Thank God we scored that goal,” Casemiro said. “We were was an annoying game. The first aim was to qualify. That was really important in a group as difficult as ours. It was always going to be decided by little details but we knew we would have plenty of possession and thankfully we managed to get the goal,” the 30-year-old would admit later.
Casemiro believes despite Neymar’s absence, Brazil are a more complete team now than four years ago, when they crashed out of the World Cup in Russia in the quarter-finals. “Four years have gone by and there are new players,” said the former Real Madrid star.
To be fair, Brazil had been knocking at the door in the second period with Vinicius Jr the most likely to score or create a chance. The Real Madrid forward was a constant threat in the left flank and was unfortunate not to have a goal to his name.
The 22-year-old is destined for bigger things and he showed exactly why. For the Casemiro goal, Vinicius Jr had drawn three desperate defenders onto him, which allowed half-time substitute Rodrigo to create an opening.
At the hour march, Vinicius Jr had put the ball into the net only for VAR to rule it offside after Richarlison had wandered back from an offside position.
On the other hand for Switzerland, the lack of cutting edge in front of goal sealed their fate. Switzerland had six shots in total yesterday but none of them were on target, with midfielder Djibril Sow coming closest. In fact, Brazil led by two experienced centre-halves Marquinhos and Thiago Silva gave Switzerland striker Breel Embolo barely a sniff, with goalkeeper Alisson not having to make a single save at this World Cup yet. The 11 shots from Switzerland and Serbia have all been off target or blocked.
“We are competitive against bigger teams. I think we have proven that time and time again,” said Swiss coach Yakin, who left out his most creative spark Xherdan Shaqiri and replaced him with Fabian Rieder.
“We lacked a bit of courage going forward but there are a lot of good things to take from this,” he added.
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