As the clock ticked down towards full-time at the Zenit Arena on Friday, exasperation was the overriding emotion for Brazil in their Group E clash against Costa Rica. The Canarinhos had tried everything in their capacity, thrown the kitchen sink at their opponents yet that one, decisive, match-winning goal eluded them.
At the end of regulation 90 minutes, Tite’s men had 18 attempts on the Costa Rican goal — expertly manned by Keylor Navas — but not every one of those attempts was on target, and the scoreline still read 0-0. Some shots were somehow tipped and palmed away by Navas, some were tame ones, a few were blocked and the rest flew over or flashed wide harmlessly.
At the end of the game, Navas had made nine saves, all effected before second half stoppage time kicked in. As the Costa Rican players slowed the game down at the 90-minute mark, frustration almost boiled over for Tite. His Brazil — who had become the first team other than hosts Russia to qualify for this World Cup — were not supposed to draw two games in a row at the finals.
But then arrived the long overdue breakthrough.
Elite teams in international tournaments often face the issue of breaking through disciplined, organised defensive units. At this World Cup itself, we have witnessed Argentina and Germany fail to penetrate massed defensive ranks and suffer humbling consequences. Brazil, faced with a similar task against Oscar Ramirez’s Costa Rica, almost blew it until two late goals saved their day.
More than that, though, the 2-0 win has finally proved that Tite’s Brazil can crack hard nuts with relentless pressure and in-game tactical tweaks, always symbolic of champion teams.
Laboured first half that forced a rethink
Brazil, up against Costa Rica’s 5-4-1 defensive setup, were largely made to play in front of Los Ticos’ lines without penetration for majority of the opening half hour. With Costa Rica constantly overloading the wide players on the ball and centre-forward Gabriel Jesus up against three centre-backs, Brazil failed to create meaningful chances.
A slight tweak in formation that saw Neymar and Willian hug the touchlines as fullbacks Marcelo and Fagner tucked in-field meant Brazil were opening up spaces to shoot, something that was barely possible in the opening half hour. That resulted in increased activity in front of the Costa Rican goal but goalkeeper Navas wasn’t overly troubled by those low-quality, long range shots.
In the opening part of the first half, a largely static Brazil struggled to get into promising positions, thanks to Costa Rica’s 5-4-1 shape. Neymar tried to wriggle past on occasions but wasn’t allowed to, while Jesus upfront was a marked man who couldn’t get on the end of Coutinho’s passes.
To counter this, Tite shuffled his pack a bit, resulting in Brazil ending the first half with momentum on their side. Neymar and Willian remained very wide, taking Costa Rica’s wing-backs along with them, which opened central lanes for Brazil’s tucked-in full-backs as well as Coutinho and Paulinho. Jesus no longer had three centre-backs on him as space opened up in front of Costa Rica’s back line.
Learning that Willian wasn’t providing much from his right-sided role, Tite brought on Douglas Costa in the Chelsea man’s stead and the change paid instant dividends. Brazil were suddenly crowding the centre with as many as seven players, including the full-backs Marcelo and Fagner. Costa’s introduction meant Costa Rica were up against a more dynamic Brazil and ended up conceding 15 shots in the second half alone.
Later in the second half, another change — Roberto Firmino for Paulinho — totally committed Brazil to their 2-1-7 shape as they chased the opening goal. It was Firmino’s knockdown in stoppage time that created Coutinho’s goal, while Costa also earned an assist by squaring the ball to Neymar for a tap-in on the brink of full-time. The game-changing contributions from the two substitutes vindicated Tite’s decisions as strokes of genius.
Coutinho, the unsung hero
While all the noise circles around Neymar, Coutinho has proved to be the real star of the Brazil show. O Magico has now scored twice in two games, just rewards for his keen eye for goal. The Barcelona man had six shots on Friday, more than any other player on the pitch and is expected to add more goals to his tally from his slightly deeper position, considering his hyperactive shooting boots and penchant for the spectacular.
That Neymar is now among the goals also bodes well for Coutinho, who can carry on his impressive start to the 2018 World Cup in the shadows. Tite has been gushed about as a coach with clear ideas and the way he changed tack midway through the game by assessing the situation will certainly stand Brazil in good stead for the rest of this tournament.
Qualification to the knockouts remains the first target, but judging by their display against Costa Rica, the Canarinhos can be confident of staying true to their pre-tournament expectations.
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Updated Date: Jun 23, 2018 09:38:40 IST