SANTIAGO, Chile — This year’s Copa America witnessed its most combustible contest to date Wednesday evening as Colombia got its revenge for last year’s bruising World Cup quarterfinal defeat by Brazil with a thrilling, fiery 1–0 win over its rival.
Central defender Jeison Murillo got Colombia’s winner with a first-half strike, but the real story came after the whistle, when players from both teams came to blows and Neymar and Carlos Bacca were sent off, the former for head-butting Murillo. Here are three thoughts on the game:
Tempers—and Neymar—boil over
The ill feeling has lingered between these two teams ever since that bad-tempered clash in Fortaleza last summer, which famously saw Neymar stretchered off after Juan Zuniga tackled him violently from behind, snapping a vertebra and ending the Brazilian star’s World Cup. Many observers considered Brazil as much sinner as sinned against that night, however, with James Rodriguez in particular coming in for some fearsome treatment from the likes of Fernandinho and the Brazilian defenders.
The bad blood simmered below the surface here too, with both teams crunching into the tackle from the off, and there was a sense that an eruption was never too far away. It finally came at the end from Neymar, who had cut an increasingly frustrated and distraught figure as the game went on, punching angrily at the ball in the first half and later complaining that his hand had been stamped upon by Carlos Sanchez. The star shot the ball angrily at Colombian defender Pablo Armero after the referee blew his final whistle. As Murillo tried to lead him away, the Brazil star thrust his head at his opponent, then Colombia striker Carlos Bacca rushed in and shoved Neymar violently in the back. Both Bacca and Neymar were sent off.
The incident is likely to have greater consequences for Brazil than Colombia. Starved of service, frustrated by his teammates and feeling the pressure of being his country’s only world-class player, Neymar displayed not leadership but petulance when his team needed him the most. He will now miss Sunday’s crunch game against Venezuela, and assuming Brazil advances—which after tonight’s defeat is hardly a given—one, or possibly even two further games. After his heroics with Barcelona this year, the Brazilian superstar’s season may be coming to a miserable end.
Colombia invokes spirit of 2014
By all accounts, Colombia’s listless defeat to Venezuela last Sunday was one of the team’s worst performances since Jose Pekerman took over as boss in 2012. With Rodriguez unable to find time or space and Radamel Falcão appearing as ineffective for the national team as he did for Manchester United last season, Colombia was unrecognizable from the team that so caught the imagination at the World Cup last summer.
All that changed against Brazil. Interestingly, Pekerman made only one change from the Venezuela game, bringing in Teó Gutierrez for Bacca. Just as importantly, however, he tinkered with his midfield, switching to a diamond formation that gave Rodriguez more of the ball and allowed teammates Juan Cuadrado, Edwin Valencia and Carlos Sanchez to get forward in support, with Gutierrez also dropping back at times to give Colombia a pleasing movement and fluidity.
It worked a treat. Pekerman’s side was electrically vibrant throughout, attacking and defending cohesively and in numbers. Sanchez in particular was outstanding, distributing the ball intelligently, always providing an option when Colombia had the ball and, most importantly, harrying and pressing throughout. Neymar will still be feeling the after-effects of a couple of his bone-crunching challenges tomorrow.
The freezing, exposed stands at the Estadio Monumental in the shadow of the Andes could hardly have been further removed from the sweltering Arena Castelão in Fortaleza where these two rivals did battle (sometimes almost literally in what was a bruising contest) last July, but Colombia’s swift, intricate passing and movement, notably in the first half, brought to mind the team’s beguiling World Cup campaign. Pekerman will hope the spirit of 2014 can last for a few more games this Chilean winter.
Brazil's reliance on Neymar
Even before his sending off, this was not a happy evening for Brazil’s crown prince, and it may not be the last: the Seleção’s reliance on its Barcelona star is fast becoming predictable. “It was like watching two games in one. One between Brazil and Peru, with little to recommend it, and another, when the ball arrived at Neymar’s feet,” wrote one of the stars of Brazil’s 1970 World Cup-winning side, Tostão, after Sunday’s game, when the forward scored one and created the other of his team’s goals.
Neymar-dependency is all very well when Brazil’s No. 10 is playing at his peak, but it comes at a price. Neymar lost the ball 17 times against Peru and made the most inaccurate passes on his team with nine, a clear result of trying too hard, too often, instead of passing to a better positioned teammate.
There might be a very good reason for that: the quality of those teammates. Against Colombia on Wednesday, Dunga switched Diego Tardelli, Neymar’s ineffective partner up front against Peru, for Roberto Firmino, who had looked good in his previous appearances in friendly matches. It made little difference. Firmino was a virtual spectator, unable to find a way into the game as Brazil’s passes in the Colombian half went almost constantly astray during the first half. It was the same story for Willian, who had had a decent game in Brazil’s debut, and Shakhtar Donetsk youngster Fred, both of whom were subdued here.
Brazil improved slightly in the second half, but against a highly-motivated and well-organized Colombia team, it always looked like too little, too late. After his star’s sending off, Dunga now has much to ponder. If Brazil looked short of ideas with Neymar tonight, imagine what it will look like without him.