Flashy Brazil relying on balance at the World Cup
By LUIS ANDRES HENAO and ANNE M. PETERSON
Jul. 03, 2018
SAMARA, Russia (AP) — While the focus is on Neymar's flashy scoring ability and his other antics in Russia, Brazil's steady progression at the World Cup has solidified the team's status among the favorites left in the tournament.
Nemesis Germany is gone. So are Lionel Messi and Argentina. Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal are out.
But for Brazil, the word favorite — "favorito" in Portuguese — is taboo.
"We feel confident but not like the favorites because we know that there are other quality teams that have great potential. The favoritism comes from the press and the fans," winger Willian said. "We want to remain firm in our goal, which is to move step by step and reach the final."
The five-time World Cup champions opened the knockout round on Monday night by defeating Mexico 2-0 for their third straight shutout in Russia. Neymar scored his second goal of the tournament in the 51st minute, and substitute Roberto Firmino scored in the 88th in Samara.
Neymar again grabbed attention for his theatrics after he tangled up with Mexico's Miguel Layun, who stepped on the Paris Saint-Germain star's right ankle. Neymar writhed on the field in apparent agony before popping back up and finishing the match.
Brazil goes on to face Belgium in the quarterfinals on Friday in Kazan. The Belgians are coming off a 3-2 comeback win against Japan in Rostov-on-Don.
Brazil was ranked second by FIFA upon arrival in Russia, but the team opened with a lackluster 1-1 draw against Switzerland. Since then, Brazil hasn't conceded a goal, winning three successive games 2-0.
Neymar, who had been recovering in previous months from a broken foot, gave the world-class performance that everyone hoped for on Monday. He has two goals and an assist in the tournament, giving him six career World Cup goals.
Other players have risen to the occasion, too. In the group stage, Philippe Coutinho had two goals and an assist and earned Man of the Match honors twice. Against Mexico, it was Willian who showed flashes of brilliance.
Additionally, the defense has been steady throughout, anchored by captain Thiago Silva and goalkeeper Alisson. The only other team remaining that has conceded just one goal is Uruguay.
Brazil has allowed just five shots on target at this World Cup, fewest of any team.
"It's a huge joy to be doing an excellent cup and to be growing with every game," Silva said. "I hope that in the next game of quarterfinals, we can even be better prepared because with the victories the trust automatically grows."
Defender Miranda echoed that sentiment: "We're growing in the tournament. We hope to continue this way. We need to grow even more."
Coach Tite has put an emphasis on balance since the South American qualifiers, and Brazil was the first team to earn its way to Russia. Brazil has yet to lose in eight matches this year.
Of course, the ultimate goal is to erase some of the disappointment of the last World Cup, when Brazil was embarrassed on home soil by Germany in a 7-1 semifinal loss.
"People have asked us a lot about Germany. I don't think we should worry about Germany and about what happened. Soccer is to play it, not to speak about it," Silva said. "We no longer need to focus on Germany because we don't have a way to change that story. We only need to think ahead now, game by game, and seize our opportunities."
Perhaps that approach will give Brazil a sixth star over its crest.
"I hope. I hope," Willian said about a sixth title. "It's going to be difficult. And like I said before, we have to continue this way, work hard and continue to improve ourselves."
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