Rostov-On-Don (Russia): Sunday threw the World Cup wide open. After Mexico had stunned defending champions Germany there was more surprise in the offing as Switzerland held five-time winners Brazil to a 1-1 draw.
Much had been written about Tite’s Brazil and how meticulously they had prepared to forget the humiliation of the 1-7 defeat they had suffered four years ago. Football critics had waxed eloquent about the new-look Brazil and that they had the talent to go all the way.
However, against a workmanlike Switzerland, all of Brazil’s talent were of no avail. The Swizz worked hard as a team, had three persons always shadowing Neymar and finally managed to come off with a point in a game where they had been written off.
Brazil’s tag as pre-tournament favourites looked justified in a dominant first half capped by Philippe Coutinho’s wonder strike to open the scoring.
However, Brazil paid for their failure to kill the game off when Steven Zuber powered home an equaliser from Xherdan Shaqiri’s corner five minutes after the break.
Coutinho had been handed a central role behind Neymar, on his first competitive game for four months, Gabriel Jesus and Willian in a line-up filled with attacking intent from coach Tite.
- This is the first time since 1978 when they drew with Sweden 1-1, Brazil have failed to win their opening World Cup game
- Neymar against whom Switzerland committed 10 fouls became the most fouled person in a World Cup game since 1998
The five-time world champions went about their task of erasing the memories of a 7-1 thrashing by Germany on home soil four years ago purposefully early on.
Paulinho passed up a glorious chance when his scuffed effort off a cutback from Marcelo from close range was turned behind by Yann Sommer.
It seemed a matter of time before Brazil’s pressure paid dividends and the opener arrived in stunning style on 20 minutes.
After Mercelo and Neymar had the Swiss defenders scampering with a lovely bout of passing, a hasty clearance landed on the feet of Barcelona’s record signing on the edge of the area. Coutinho was quick to react and in trademark fashion bent the ball crashing in off Sommer’s far post.
Neymar looked bright despite his lack of match practice as he teased the Swiss defence provoking yellow cards for Stephan Lichtsteiner, Fabian Schar and Valon Behrami.
However, Brazil failed to build on their lead as Thiago Silva and Jesus headed off target from dangerous corners and were made to pay early in the second half.
Switzerland had offered barely any attacking threat before levelling when Zuber took advantage of a gaping hole in the heart of the Brazilian defence to head home Shaqiri’s corner.
Forced back onto the front foot, Brazil turned to Neymar for a moment of inspiration but he could only blast into the side-netting before Coutinho sliced wide with a much simpler opportunity than the one from which he opened the scoring.
Brazil were unhappy that Zuber wasn’t penalised for a slight push on Miranda for the equaliser and felt hard done by again when Jesus tumbled under a challenge from Manuel Akanji inside the area with Mexican referee Cesar Ramos unmoved.
Tite’s men ended as they had begun with a series of chances for a late winner as Neymar and substitute Roberto Firmino headed straight at Sommer before Miranda dragged a shot inches wide.
All I can do is to try and play football… there are four officials on the ground to protect me. Neither can I retaliate… nor can I protest. I will just have to continue to play my game
And deep into added time Schar’s outstretched leg turned a goalbound effort from Silva wide as Switzerland held out for a vital point.
Switzerland managed to get the point from Brazil because of their ability to chase the ball continuously. For a side that did not have any control on the middle third in the first half, the second session saw Lichtsteiner, Shaqiri and Xhaka slow down the pace of the game and not Brazil play their crisp passing routine.
Xhaka also played another role – he was the first man always to challenge Neymar, thereby allowing the other defenders the time to regroup. It paid off as Neymar, who started brilliantly slowly faded away as the game progressed. And that had a telling effect on Brazil’s fortunes.
The match proved another point. This time skill alone will not help any team to win the World Cup. This will be an event where speed and power will play an influential role as Mexico showed against Germany and Iceland against Argentina.
In fact, it can very well be a tournament of surprises. The beginning doesn’t look good for many of the favourites.
Can they strike back?