A second-half Neymar strike and assist for Roberto Firmino was enough to send Mexico home and book Brazil’s place in the World Cup quarter-final with a 2-0 win over ‘El Tri’ in Samara.
Brazilian number 10 Neymar played the role of hero and villain in the match at Cosmos Arena with his side’s opener on 51 minutes and then provided the assist for substitute Firmino to complete a second-half double that sank Mexico.
However, the striker did also take center stage for his play-acting skills throughout the game, and in particular in reaction to a 'challenge' from Mexico defender Miguel Layun, which drew criticism from fans and fellow pros alike.
When the action got underway in the torrid heat in Samara, the early moments produced end-to-end action that featured an early shot on goal by Neymar that Guillermo Ochoa palmed away.
For Mexico, Carlos Vela proved a constant threat from the left flank, the first evidence of that coming in the shape of a cross-field ball behind the defense to Hirving ‘Chucky’ Lozano. However, the hero in El Tri’s shock 1-0 win over Germany couldn’t maneuver enough space to find the goal and his shot was blocked.
It was the start of some good pressure from Mexico, with Vela again creating danger from the left and crossing the ball into the box to Hector Herrera, who sold a brilliant dummy but his shot was eventually blocked.
It wouldn’t have been unfair to say in a good chunk of the first half that Mexico overran the Brazilians, who retaliated with a combination from Philippe Coutinho and Gabriel Jesus, which resulted in a shot cannoning off Ochoa’s foot. Moments later and Jesus the carved out another chance on his favorite left foot, but Ochoa was equal to it again. Despite the early first-half action, both sides went into the break with the scores level.
After the restart Brazil began with more intent, sensing their tactical pressing of 4-4-2 when not in possession and Neymar drawing out the full back in attack had begun to frustrate Mexico.
Their persistence paid off when, on 51 minutes, Neymar cut inside from the left flank and laid off a beautiful backheel on the edge of the area to Willian, who showed a blistering turn of pace to drive the ball into the box and then cut the ball across goal. The Brazil number 10, who had continued his run into the area, was on hand to dive in and poke home from close range.
After the goal Mexico continued to push forward, Chucky Lozano leading the attack from his role as second striker, but Neymar had found his groove, providing a reminder of his presence by curling a shot over Ochoa’s bar. Mexico’s frustration was apparent when Hector Herrera was booked for bringing back a rampant Willian, who had had things go much his own way in the center of the field.
From then on, the two sides participated in an old-fashioned shootout. Paulinho should have done better from a fantastic cutback, but his shot was straight at Ochoa, before minutes later Vela curled a dangerous left-foot shot towards goal that was tipped over by Alisson.
At the other end, Willian fired an effort that this time forced Ochoa into a save from a shot surprisingly not directed down the afroed ‘keeper’s throat. Willian came marauding through midfield again, laying off to Neymar in the box, whose low shot was deflected wide.
Neymar’s play-acting reached bizarre new levels when, while sat on the sideline, Layun approached and the front of his boot appeared to touch Neymar’s lower leg. The ridiculous overreaction from the forward drew criticism from fans and fellow players alike.
Nevertheless it was Neymar who drove Brazil forward. The second goal was almost a carbon copy of the first, when Neymar turned provider, bounding down on goal before letting off a shot that was touched away by Ochoa’s foot, but only into the path of an onrushing Roberto Firmino for the substitute to double Brazil’s lead.
That’s how the score stayed as The Samba Boys booked their place in the quarter-final date on July 6 with a 2-0 win, despite the scathing criticism of their leading man.