Paulinho and Thiago Silva scored on either side of halftime as Brazil cemented its spot atop Group E of the World Cup with a clinical 2-0 victory over Serbia on Wednesday in Moscow.
The five-time champion finished with seven points, two better than Switzerland, but were sent to what appears to be the loaded half of the bracket as the Selecao will face Mexico in the round of 16 on Monday in Samara and could face France, Argentina or Uruguay should it get to the semifinals. It will be the second straight World Cup the teams will meet after playing to a scoreless draw in group play four years ago in Brazil.
Serbia, which needed a victory to advance out of the group, finished third on three points. The Orlovi were denied their first trip to the knockout round since 1998 when the country was known as Yugsolavia, and they have failed to advance out of the group stage as Serbia in two attempts.
While Brazilian fans had gotten an unexpected delight in watching Germany crash out of group play earlier Wednesday, feeling it was karmic retribution for the embarrassing 7-1 thrashing Die Mannschaft hung on them four years ago in the semifinals, there was little such worry the Selecao would join them on the sidelines.
But there was a moment of concern just 10 minutes in when Marcelo was forced off the pitch with what appeared to be a lower-body injury but turned out to be back spasms. Filipe Luis replaced the left back, but there is concern for Tite as Brazil started third-choice right back Fagner on the other side of the pitch due to injuries to Danilo and Dani Alves.
It was a cagey start without much in the way of scoring chances, with Serbia talisman Aleksandar Kolarov doing well to shut down Neymar after being put through by Philippe Coutinho in the 19th minute. Neymar would get a shot on target five minutes later, but Serbia keeper Vladimir Stojkovic did well to paw away his looping attempt from six yards as he tried to place it inside the right post.
Aleksandar Mitrovic, who gave Switzerland fits with his impressive physical hold-up play, found it tougher to find space against Brazil’s pairing of Miranda and Thiago, but did have a half-chance in the 33rd as he hooked a volley from 10 yards over the bar.
Brazil found its first goal almost straightaway after that. Barely over the midfield stripe, Coutinho raked a pass over the top of Serbia’s defense that Paulinho was able to catch up with after it bounced inside the penalty area and caressed it over Stojkovic from 15 yards with a touch of his extended right foot, letting it bounce neatly into the net.
Recognizing the urgency of needing to win, Serbia pushed forward, with Mitrovic heading right at Alisson in the 40th minute on a corner by Adem Ljajic. Neymar had one final quality chance right before halftime, curling a right-footed shot from 25 yards just over the upper right corner.
Serbia should have done better in a transition sequence in the 54th minute, but Ljajic’s pass to Dusan Tadic was behind the winger on the right, allowing Brazil to get numbers back and clear out the danger. Stojkovic again denied Neymar in the 57th minute after the Selecao raced forward on a counter following a corner, and a few minutes later, the Orlovi had their best chance to equalize.
Tadic held the ball up in the right channel and laid it off to Antonio Rukavina, who fizzed a right-footed cross into the penalty area. Alisson parried it right into the path of Mitrovic, who failed to pick out a corner with his header as it went righ at Thiago, who was able to calmly play it to his keeper.
Mitrovic got another chance in the 65th minute courtesy of Rukavina, but his downward header was not far enough from Alisson to cause the AS Roma No. 1 any issue. Brazil then piled on the pressure, earning a pair of corner kicks, and Thiago buried the second delivery from Neymar inside the left post with a bullet header from inside the six-yard box on that side in the 68th minute.
Brazil then did well to squeeze the life out of the game, owning possession while always threatening to find a third. Neymar came closest on two occasions, bouncing one effort with a volley over the bar in the 83rd minute and forcing a save from Stojkovic in the 86th.
The Selecao ran their unbeaten streak in World Cup group play to 15 matches (12-3-0) dating to their 2-1 loss to Norway in the final match of Group A in 1998 that had no bearing on them since they had clinched group honors.