MOSCOW — The most welcome rewards for Brazil Wednesday night as it won its first-round quartet for the 10th consecutive World Cup were intangible. After starting this tournament with a draw against Switzerland and a stoppage-time triumph over Costa Rica, the unconvincing Seleçao closed out the group stage by beating Serbia relatively easily, 2-0, here at the Otkritie Arena.
Brazil still would’ve finished first with a point, and its place in the round of 16 never really was in doubt. But favorites hope to grow into a World Cup, showing signs of increased cohesion, chemistry and maturity as the competition progresses. And crucially, the five-time champions managed that against the Serbs.
“It’s a team that’s growing stronger in the competition mentally,” Tite, Brazil’s manager, said of his charges.
Brazil scored early. It didn’t concede. Neymar, the talisman, focused more on action than antics and was both a creative and complementary force. Philippe Coutinho, who’s probably been Brazil’s best player, set up Paulinho’s go-ahead goal with a perfect, curling, “joga bonito” pass. And captain Thiago Silva was a stalwart at both ends, blocking Serbia’s most promising scoring chance before notching the back-breaker minutes later.
The Seleçao weathered an early second-half storm, closed out the match professionally and were more direct, dynamic and efficient throughout. On one level, it was the ideal way to end the group stage.
On another, however, Brazil still faces an uphill battle. The concern in camp ahead of next Monday’s round-of-16 showdown with Mexico in Samara will be its quickly deteriorating defensive corps. Already absent the injured Dani Alves, who was hurt last month, Brazil lost Danilo before Wednesday’s game. Marcelo then limped off at the Otkritie in just the 10th minute. That’s three outside backs lost on a team whose manager hasn’t shown much interest in squad rotation. Ten Brazilian players started all three group-stage games. They were much more productive Wednesday than against Costa Rica, but it's fair to wonder whether the reserves will be sufficiently integrated when called upon (a few always are).
The second potential problem is that Brazil’s reward for finishing first actually could turn out to be a punishment. If the Mexico that beat Germany shows up in Samara, that represents a tough second-round matchup. After that comes the rest of what’s shaping up to be a bracket of death. Belgium is the most problematic possible quarterfinal opponent. Colombia might also be waiting. If the Seleçao remain alive, they'll then face a semifinal against whatever battle-hardened team emerges from the brutal Argentina/France/Portugal/Uruguay quartet. The road to that sixth star is going to be rough.
On paper, Brazil would’ve been better off finishing second in Group E. But if it had, it would’ve meant that Wednesday’s game unfolded differently, and that would’ve left Tite in a far different mood. Rather than bemoaning the sort of group stage experienced by the sluggish French, the volatile Argentines, the leaky Spanish or the collapsing Germans, however, Tite could conclude his post-game press conference by announcing, “I’m going to have a drink tonight, a caipirinha. I’ll allow myself.”
Brazil’s even, professional performance engendered “consistency and confidence,” he said.
That’s more than the other pre-tournament favorites can say entering the round of 16. And it wasn’t a given for Brazil for Wednesday, especially after it had so much trouble cracking Costa Rica in a game that left more people talking about Neymar’s flopping and crying than about the dramatic stoppage-time goals. There was concern that this Brazil team was too imbalanced, and too beholden to its star, to really contend.
Against Serbia, at least, some of those worries were allayed. The Seleçao still attacked primarily down the left, even after Marcelo’s departure. But Neymar appeared eager to combine with Coutinho and the rest of his teammates, and he was the first to congratulate Paulinho when the midfielder scored the opener in the 36th minute.
Although Brazil had difficulty finding relief early in the second as the Serbs when on the hunt for the equalizer, it still maintained its composure and rarely was in any sort of defensive disarray. Thiago Silva made the one play that had to be made, blocking Aleksandar Mitrovic’s goal-bound header in the 61st minute. Seven minutes later, the Paris Saint-German star made a near-post run, got his head on club-and-country teammate Neymar’s corner kick, and the game was over. Serbia’s will was crushed, and Brazil cruised.
“It’s very difficult to play such an open game against a powerhouse of football such as Brazil. We simply were punished,” Serbia coach Mladen Krstajic said. “Brazil is certainly one of the favorites to win the tournament.”
Tite was unwilling to make such a claim, and stressed, “In terms of the evolution of the team, there’s still more room to grow.”
But, the World Cup is a process. For some sides, it starts too fast. Others never get going. Eventual champions improve as they progress. And although Tite said it was impossible to quantify the desired benchmarks, he claimed Brazil’s trajectory “is within what we were looking for. Comparatively speaking, they have grown during these three matches and from here, [we go] forward.”
The teams that have had better group stages don’t have championship pedigree. The ones that have pedigree aren’t necessarily showing signs of getting better. Serbia isn’t France or Spain, obviously. But those teams weren’t as pleased with their third game as Brazil was Wednesday night.