While there is much speculation around the health of Neymar, the truth is five-time champion Brazil must also raise its play Friday when it faces Costa Rica in its second match in Group E play in St. Petersburg.
The PSG superstar, making his first start in over three months following foot surgery, took a pounding as the Selecao were held to a 1-1 draw by Switzerland. Neymar was fouled 10 times and jostled on countless other occasions, with three of those fouls drawing yellow cards.
While he did play the full 90 minutes, he was also noticeably limping at times due to a sore right ankle the Brazilian Federation insisted was not related to his previous foot injury and did leave a practice session early during the week. Neymar did, however, return Wednesday to be a full participant.
Costa Rica’s 1-0 loss to Serbia in its opening contest confirmed the surprise 2014 quarterfinalist has lost that element this time around. The Ticos were their normal obstinate selves defensively, with only a moment of inspiration by Aleksandar Kolarov separating the teams, but there was much to be desired from an offense that could not carve out many chances for an equalizer in the final 30-plus minutes.
Giancarlo Gonazlez spurned two quality opportunities in the first quarter-hour of the match, but Costa Rica finished with only three of its 10 shots on frame.
LAST TIME OUT
Philippe Coutinho staked Brazil to a 1-0 lead in the first half with a sumptuously curling 20-yard right-footed shot that banged off the right post and past a helpless Yann Sommer. That would be all for the goals as the Selecao were at times too nonchalant for their own good but also unlucky VAR was not consulted on a penalty shout when Gabriel Jesus was felled just before the final quarter-hour.
Marco Urena was also positive offensively, having one of Costa Rica’s best chances, and Christian Bolanos staked his claim to a potential starting spot for this match after a solid 30-minute appearance versus Serbia. Since their loss to the Netherlands on penalties four years ago counts as a draw in the World Cup record books, the Ticos had a five-match unbeaten streak come to end.
Brazil coach Tite announced Thursday he was going to keep his starting XI intact save Fagner, who replaces the injured Danilo at right back. The Selecao’s set-up is more of a 4-1-2-3 than 4-3-3 with Casemiro in a reserved role in front of the back four.
He’s also the only player on a yellow card, a reason why he was lifted on the hour for Fernandinho. Based on the rotating captaincy Tite employs, Thiago Silva will wear the armband for this contest.
While Costa Rica’s formation is listed as a 3-4-3, it would not be surprising to see Bryan Oviedo and Christian Gamboa drift back more often they did versus Serbia to give the appearance of a five-man backline. Oviedo is the only change to Oscar Ramirez’s starting lineup from their opening loss as he replaces Francisco Calvo at left back.
Tite made the observation that it will take Neymar five games to be 100 percent fit, which means the World Cup would not see the best of him until the semifinals should Brazil return to that round. Facing the always intense media crush that follows the Selecao, Tite denied he asked Neymar to alter his style to help the team.
Ramirez said he will not follow Switzerland’s game plan to be physical with Neymar, but he also did not rule out marking him with two men. He also denied reports the locker room is split but did not offer any elaboration if there were cliques on the team.
PLAYER TO WATCH
Brazil – Willian (MF)
If Brazil do win free kicks in Costa Rica’s final third, it may be on the Chelsea winger to provide a moment of magic. He was largely anonymous versus Switzerland since Neymar was on the ball so much but also a forgotten option to a degree as Neymar, Coutinho and Gabriel Jesus interplayed more with each other than with Willian.
Costa Rica – Giancarlo Gonzalez (D)
In addition to the unenviable task of trying to stop multiple quality scorers on the Selecao, Gonzalez has to do a better job finishing on those precious few chances Costa Rica will get in this contest. He squandered two chances versus Serbia and will be eager to atone for that, but he also cannot afford to get pulled out in central defense.
Per Ladbrokes, Brazil is a heavy favorite at 1-4 odds, with Costa Rica a 14-1 longshot to take all three points. The odds of the teams splitting the points are 9-2. Despite the foot injury, Neymar is still the top bet to get the first goal of the match at 12-5, while Jesus and Firmino are right behind him at 3-1. Urena is getting 14-1 odds as Costa Rica’s best option, though it’s longer than 11-1 for there being no goal-scorer.
While Costa Rica will try to replicate Switzerland’s stubborn defense in this match, Ramirez does not have the personnel in which it can keep possession and counter consistently against Brazil. There is a sharp fall-off from a Top 10 team in the world in the sixth-ranked Swiss and the 23rd-ranked Ticos, though Navas does obscure some of those issues.
The Real Madrid shot-stopper will have to be at his best in this contest, and his defense also has to not commit fouls in dangerous areas. The Selecao have too many capable players for dead-ball pieces to make Costa Rica’s life miserable. Man-marking Neymar with two players could also be a recipe for disaster since it is fairly certain Tite has expressed to his star he does not have to do everything and to rely more on his attacking teammates.
Like Neymar, Brazil appears to be a work in progress and this will be a test to see how it evolved from the draw against Switzerland because Serbia will not be a pushover. It may take until the second half, but the Selecao should get back on track with a 2-0 victory.
Brazil completes group play against Serbia on Wednesday in Moscow, while Costa Rica wrap with Switzerland the same day at Nizhny Novogorod.