FORTALEZA, Brazil -- No goals doesn’t always mean no excitement. Brazil and Mexico fought out a thrilling 0-0 contest at the Estadio Castelao, with both teams trading punches throughout the game. That both sides were left standing at the end was down in large part to the goalkeepers – notably Mexico’s Guillermo Ochoa, who produced a heroic performance. This was one goalless draw that left no one complaining.
Here are three thoughts on the game:
Guillermo Ochoa was downright heroic
For all the cleverness and control of midfielders Jose Vazquez and Andres Guardado, Hector Herrera’s blistering shooting, and the work rate of fullbacks Miguel Layun and Paul Aguilar, this sturdy Mexican performance was built on the heroics of one man – goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa.
With the home fans producing a deafening racket and Brazil bossing the early play, it was essential that Mexico did not concede an early goal. That it did not was down to Ochoa. His first decisive save came after 25 minutes, when Neymar out-jumped Rafael Marquez to get to a Dani Alves cross. The Brazil star’s smart header seemed certain to go in until Ochoa sprawled to his right to knock it away just before it could cross the line.
Then, as the half drifted to a close, David Luiz and Paulinho broke into the box for a flicked-on ball, with the latter toe-poking a shot toward goal from close range. Once again Ochoa did everything right, making himself as big as possible and pushing the ball to safety.
There were more heroics to come in the second half, with the floppy haired goalkeeper, who plays his club football for Ajaccio in France but is set to be a free agent this summer, making a terrific save from a fierce Neymar volley as the light faded from the evening sky. Ochoa also saved a point blank, powerful header from the onrushing Thiago Silva in the final minutes as the home crowd pleaded for a goal.
Considering Mexico’s historical reputation for being talented but ultimately fragile – the country has lost 24 of its 50 World Cup finals games – this was an impressively resolute display of bend-but-don’t-break football. That Mexico did not break was in large part down to Ochoa.
Brazil endured through some struggles
Strip away Neymar, the fanatical support of its fans, and the mystique that surrounds the famous yellow shirt, and this Brazil team, while still highly talented, can look a little pedestrian at times. Sure, the team enjoyed plenty of possession against Mexico, and Neymar is a mercurial, scintillating talent, but for most of the game Brazil struggled to break down a resolute defense. The home side often looked vulnerable when El Tri came forward, particularly down the flanks, where Miguel Layun and Paul Aguilar were a constant threat, and through the neat control and powerful long range shooting of midfielders Vazquez, Guardado and Herrera.
It was a similar story against Croatia in the World Cup’s opening game last Thursday when Brazil struggled to turn the lion’s share of possession into clear cut chances, while at the same time looking far from impervious at the back – Brazil had 14 shots on goal to Croatia’s 10. Much has been made of the helping hand provided by Japanese referee Yuichi Nishimura in that game, and before Fred’s tumble in the box and Neymar’s subsequent penalty conversion after half an hour, Brazil had looked unconvincing.
Here, as Mexico peppered the Brazilian goal just after half time, and the visiting hordes turned up the volume, it was easy to worry about Brazil’s World Cup chances.
Brazil is hardly the only big name yet to set the tournament alight -- the troubles of Iberian Peninsula sides Spain and Portugal are considerably more serious -- but before the tournament kicked off local expectations were for an energy-conserving stroll through a relatively easy group before a crunch game against the runner-up from Group B, likely to be Netherlands, Chile or Spain. That has not proved to be the case.
Much of Brazil’s confidence was based on the team’s stirring Confederations Cup triumph last June, which the players and coach Luiz Felipe Scolari seemed to bring up at every press conference in the run-up to the World Cup. Brazil may be learning that the Mundial is a bigger, considerably more complicated venture – with more games, better and more motivated teams, and several thousand tons more pressure.
Wrong Said Fred
The root of Brazil’s toothlessness may lie at the center forward position. While the squad boasts a wealth of attacking midfield talent – youngster Bernard provided an immediate injection of pace when he came on at halftime, and Chelsea’s Willian has been flying in training – Brazil’s only two striking options are Fred, who plays for Brazilian side Fluminense, and Jo, also based in Brazil with Atletico Mineiro. Both fit well with Scolari’s system – they provide a strong physical presence, are good at playing with their back to goal, and provide a central pivot for the likes of Oscar and Neymar to buzz around.
Neither, however, represents much of an individual threat or is likely to change the game on his own, and both lack mobility and can look cumbersome, especially in a game filled with quick, skillful players such as this. Fred had an awful time this afternoon, repeatedly straying offside and proving ineffectual against a well-organized Mexican defense, and his replacement, Jo, didn’t fare much better. Both are finding that the step up from the Brazilian league to the World Cup is a big one.