Brazil and Neymar prevail in last-16 as Mexico once again fall short
SAMARA, Russia -- Three points from Brazil's 2-0 win over Mexico to put the Selecao in the quarterfinals, where they'll face Belgium or Japan.
1. Brazil ease to ominous win over Mexico
As their rivals fall away and get eliminated early from this World Cup, Brazil seem to get stronger and stronger. Tite's side look like they're hitting a crescendo at the right time on the evidence of Monday's performance, which saw Neymar and Roberto Firmino score clinical second-half goals. Meanwhile Mexico, so bright but so wasteful too, have fallen short at the second-round stage yet again and will be left to reflect on their failure to capitalise on early dominance.
Nobody could mistake exactly how much this clash meant to the Mexican team. They began like whirling dervishes, swarming around Brazil and wreaking havoc from wide positions. Hirving Lozano was unlucky to see Miranda block his far-post shot from one early chance; shortly afterwards, he teased a ball just beyond Javier Hernandez and there was a let-off for Brazil when Carlos Vela could not find Hector Herrera with a delivery from the left. Midway through the half, Herrera was denied by a defender after the same two players combined, and at that stage, Brazil were seemingly on the ropes.
All Tite's side offered in attack over the first 20 minutes was a drive by Neymar that Guillermo Ochoa flapped away, but they settled and soon became the more threatening side. Neymar began to have some joy on the left, with one weaving run resulting in a sharp save from Ochoa. The goalkeeper later parried a Gabriel Jesus effort after fine work from Neymar and by the break, there was a sense Brazil looked broadly in control.
Shortly after half-time, Ochoa saved again from Philippe Coutinho and the suspicion at that stage was that a goal would not be long in coming. It arrived via a beautifully executed move, Neymar back-heeling to Willian and then surging into the box to tap home his teammate's driven cross.
The goal tore Mexico apart, and just before the hour mark Paulinho could have put the game to bed but allowed Ochoa to make his latest stop when found alone 15 yards out. Ochoa then made his best save of the evening to deny Willian; it meant Mexico were still in the game, though they never really produced anything beyond huff and puff.
Brazil always looked more likely to finish them off on the counter and so it proved, with Neymar turning on the afterburners again to tee up a simple finish for sub Firmino as the clock ticked down. After early concerns, this ended up being a hugely satisfying evening for Brazil.
2. Mexico pay penalty for first-half wastefulness
A 30-second sequence in the second half summed up the difference between these sides and it was the kind of scenario that, when Mexico reach this stage of the World Cup, tends to repeat itself with unfortunate frequency.
When Jesus Gallardo surged upfield after a Brazil corner had been cleared, the Mexico full-back had Hirving Lozano completely open to his left. It would have been a fantastic scoring opportunity for the PSV star but Gallardo, perhaps blinded by the invitation to shoot after running 60 yards with the ball, blasted his effort high and wide from outside the area.
The chance had been wasted; moments later Brazil and Neymar took theirs, leaving Mexico to fall on the wrong side of the finest margins once again.
How frustrating this was for Mexico given that they contrived numerous promising situations without really opening up Brazil to land the killer blow. Early on, there was even a notion that they might run riot. It was evident immediately that this game's key battles would be fought down the flanks, with Lozano and Vela hungry to test a stand-in (and subpar) pair of Brazil full-backs, Fagner and Felipe Luis.
The former, in particular, had a torrid time in the first half-hour and it simply seemed a matter of exposing him until one of Mexico's wide men, who frequently switched flanks, could conjure up a decisive chance. Crosses fizzed across the box, control faltered at the key moment and final balls let them down; Mexico's indecision in the final third was summed up when Herrera hesitated after Vela had laid on a good chance. Brazil, in contrast, were far more lucid when it mattered.
Now Mexico must wait another four years to put things right. Their attempts to salvage an equaliser were spirited but frayed and they never really came close. By the end, it looked like the majority of their dispiriting run of last-16 exits: a game in which they contributed fully, but lacked the quality and killer instinct at either end of the pitch to match their opposition.
3. Brilliant Willian steps up for Brazil
This time it was Willian's turn to step up. Neymar made the headlines as ever but Brazil's World Cup run so far has owed plenty to stellar contributions from their supporting cast. On Monday, the Chelsea winger was outstanding, particularly during a second half in which he almost dragged his team through the gears single-handedly.
It was his turbocharged dash to the line, and perfect reading of Neymar's movements, that prised Mexico open and teed up the winner; Willian was consistently irresistible as space opened up after that vital first goal. His speed and strength took Brazil up the field several times as Mexico pushed for an equaliser, and were it not for Ochoa's fingertips, he would have been rewarded with a memorable second goal.
Willian grew stronger as the game went on and Brazil's front four, who began the tournament slowly, are starting to appear in sync. Neymar put in his best performance of the past two weeks here but it was by no means a solo show; he has been noticeably more disciplined in Brazil's last two games and here, he matched some jet-heeled, left-sided runs with the right passes at the right times.
Philippe Coutinho pulled the strings to increasingly good effect and if any indication of Brazil's attacking depth was needed, it was that they could introduce Firmino, whose late finish might put pressure on Gabriel Jesus ahead of their quarterfinal.
Who will stand up above everyone else next, when they play their last-eight tie in Kazan? That remains to be seen, but Tite has Brazil looking like a team aware of their responsibilities and eager to make their individual qualities tell. It is a potent mixture and on current evidence, it might just be one that takes them all the way.
Nick Ames is a football journalist who writes for ESPN FC on a range of topics. Twitter: @NickAmes82.