Suddenly playing without its star, Brazil survived its first match after Neymar's suspension, beating a sleepy Venezuela side 2–1 to advance to the quarterfinals of the Copa America.
SANTIAGO, Chile — The final group game of this year’s Copa America took place at the Estadio Monumental in Santiago this evening, with Brazil overcoming Venezuela 2–1 and advancing to the knockout stage while sending La Vinotinto home in the process. Without its attacking inspiration Neymar, Brazil was industrious and busy throughout, and looked comfortable after Thiago Silva, using a crisp volley from a Robinho corner, then Roberto Firmino, finishing off a slick team move, gave the Seleção a 2–0 lead.
But Venezuela, which had been uninspired for most of the match, suddenly sprung to life in the second half, and Nicolas Fedor gave Noel Sanvicente’s side hope of getting the point it needed to advance with a diving, scrambled header with seven minutes left. It was too little too late, however, and Venezuela will now head home, with at least the memories of that stirring win over Colombia in its opening group game to reminisce over. Brazil, meanwhile, goes on to face Paraguay in the quarterfinals in what is likely to be a fiercely competitive encounter.
Here are three thoughts on Brazil's win:
Without Neymar, Brazil emphasizes the collective
For all the histrionics surrounding Neymar’s suspension following his petulant rush of blood to the head against Colombia, the Barcelona star’s absence from this game at least gave Dunga a chance to test one of his most passionately held beliefs: that Brazil will stand or fall based on its collective strength, rather than the individual brilliance of its best player.
Since taking the job last year, Dunga has stated on more than one occasion that there is “no room for individuals” in his side, and stressed that Brazil needs to learn to show “humility” if it is to reascend to the footballing summit.
He will have been pleased, then, by this evening’s display, when Brazil was hard-working and balanced, at least until Venezuela’s late rally. Willian and Robinho scurried around diligently, reducing space and tracking back to lend a hand to Fernandinho and Elias in closing down the opposing midfielders, Filipe Luis and Daniel Alves got forward to support the attack and the central defender Silva swept in the opening goal with a sweet volley from a Robinho corner. For the most part it was a disciplined and sober display, a far cry from the overwrought drama seen at last summer’s World Cup and against Colombia a few days ago.
It was also, however, a long way from the creative flair which the world once associated with the canary yellow shirt. All the dour emphasis on collectivity has a price, and without the sparkle provided by its creative talisman Neymar, Brazil was dispiritingly pedestrian for much of the game, even against a Venezuelan side with little in the way of attacking firepower.
With most of the team’s best moments coming through the industry and dynamism of Willian, both Neymar’s replacement Philippe Coutinho and Firmino were largely subdued, although the latter did score a neat second after good work from the aforementioned Chelsea midfielder down the left. That summed up Brazil’s day: effective and tidy, without ever scaling great heights. With a place in the quarterfinals now guaranteed, however, it is unlikely Dunga will care much about that.
Lack of firepower thwarts Venezuela
Until Nicolas Fedor’s late strike, the fact that La Vinotinto had scored only one goal in almost three group games tells its own story. While the fast and rangy Salomón Rondón looked promising at times in this tournament, notably when scoring the winner against Colombia, he would need to have emulated the sporting miracles of his hero Michael Jordan (the striker wears Jordan’s No. 23 when playing his club soccer at Zenit Saint Petersburg) to overcome his side’s attacking limitations.
The team’s lack of punch was in evidence again here during a soporific first half when, needing a goal after Silva’s opener for Brazil, the closest Venezuela came to scoring was when fullback Gabriel Chichero’s floating cross almost deceived Jefferson. Venezuela improved a little in the second half, most notably when a Juan Arango free kick forced Jefferson into a difficult save and when Fedor’s goal gave his side hope near the end. Ultimately, though, Brazil’s lead rarely looked under much threat, with Sanvicente’s midfield lacking the guile, pace or power to fashion chances for Rondón up front.
Soccer in Venezuela, a country formerly better known for beauty contests and baseball, has improved greatly in recent years, undoubtedly helped by the competitiveness of South America’s long World Cup qualifying schedule. The team reached the semifinals of the 2011 Copa America, and when it beat Argentina early in the qualifiers for the 2014 World Cup, the future looked bright.
But Venezuela’s form has been inconsistent since then, with a number of key players, such as midfielder and captain Juan Arango, beginning to look a little long in the tooth. Fresh blood may be required if the side is to remain competitive during the next set of World Cup qualifiers that begin in October.
Real action starts now
With only four out of 12 teams going home at its end, the group stage at the Copa America is an odd beast. Of the tournament’s “big four” of Chile, Brazil, Argentina and Colombia, arguably only the host has been truly convincing, with a casual-looking Argentina allowing Paraguay to fight back for a 2–2 draw in its opening game, then coming under late pressure in both its subsequent matches against Uruguay and, remarkably, Jamaica. Even when it had Neymar, Brazil has looked workmanlike and ordinary but hardly expansive, while Colombia came dangerously close to going out.
There are a number of likely reasons for the big boys’ struggles: the tiring effects of a long European club season on many of their top players, the sturdiness and resilience of supposedly lowlier rivals, plus a degree of complacency brought on by the knowledge that qualification for the knockout phase is a relatively straightforward task.
That is all set to change in the quarterfinals, with mouthwatering clashes such as Chile vs. Uruguay and Argentina vs. Colombia to look forward to, while Brazil’s protestant work ethic will be tested by Paraguay’s perhaps even greater industriousness. And unlike in the group stage, any carelessness or slip-ups are now likely to prove fatal.