Ns News Online Desk: There was joy for Brazil in Moscow, and also schadenfreude at one remove as the five-time champions progressed to the knockout stage of Russia 2018 with a defeat of Serbia on the same afternoon Germany were beaten in Kazan and exited the tournament. A projected last-16 meeting with the nemesis of four years ago can now be safely placed away in the box of horrors.
Brazil will instead travel south to Samara to play Mexico as Group E winners. And for all the triumphalism towards the end of this game – the cheers as they shuttled the ball around between some dogged, tiring Serbians – there will still be just a little unease about the latest generation to wear that heavy gold shirt.
Brazil played well in phases here, their best moments when Phillip Coutinho controlled the tempo and combined with Neymar and Gabriel Jesus. But there were also periods where Brazil looked callow, lacking in presence in central midfield, where Nemanja Matic and Sergej Milinkovic-Savic were able to dominate the space. The Spartak Stadium is a tight ground by the standards of this World Cup, clamped beneath the usual needlessly huge roof, a crown of vast grey tubing swooping around all four sides. On a steamy, close night in Moscow there was the usual din of horns and whistles, the distinct tone and texture of the Brazilian World Cup caravan.
There was a tang of anxiety too. Brazil have stuttered in patches at this tournament, and defeat would have sent them out at the group stage for the first time since Pelé was kicked around the fields of England. It was the team’s emotional state that had preoccupied the Brazilian press, the opening question at Tite’s press conference centring on exactly what degree of crying was acceptable, what were the official team blubbing guidelines.
Brazil were unchanged and in yellow shirts again here, a wonderfully potent piece of World Cup iconography whatever the current virtues of those inside them. Serbia made three changes, Milos Veljkovic, Nikola Milenkovic and Adem Ljajic coming into a team that needed to win. And Serbia were brusque and powerful in the challenge, although Brazil’s early casualty, Marcelo, left the field unexpectedly complaining of illness, to be replaced by Filipe Luís.
Serbia spread the red shirts across the full width of the pitch, looking to pile deep crosses in on Brazil’s under-sized full-backs. Matic and Milinkovic-Savic played close together in the middle and at times and simply walked through the yellow shirts in an angsty, bitty start for the five-time winners.*Which Neymar would we see here after the paroxysms of St Petersburg? It is worth remembering Brazil’s No 10 remains in recovery, clawing his way back under the lens towards match sharpness. With 24 slow-burn minutes gone he produced his first little moment of grace, jinking around Milinkovic-Savic with a smattering of fairy steps, then combining in the tiniest of spaces with Gabriel Jesus to force a shot.Five minutes later the same combination should have made the opening goal. Neymar whipped a lovely long pass inside Antonio Rukavina. Jesus galloped in on goal, cut inside, then saw his right-footed shot blocked.
Ljajic was booked for a trip on Neymar that drew a series of gymnastic rolls down the touchline, combined expertly with stricken shriek and waving arm. The opening goal was coming, Brazil’s central three beginning to snap together with a little more urgency. It arrived on 35 minutes, product of another divine intervention from Coutinho, arguably the midfielder of the tournament to date. Serbia had been closing his space near to goal, forcing Coutinho across the pitch on to his left foot. Finally he dropped deep and picked a dream of a pass over the top. Paulinho timed his run perfectly and got a toe to the ball as Vladimir Stojkovic rushed out.
Brazil’s players celebrated with a prolonged 10-man huddle, drawing a few pointed words from Matic. And as Serbia trooped off the task looked ominous, with a need to press in search of two goals likely to leave Brazil with space for their lithe forward runners to exploit.Neymar should have killed the game 10 minutes into the half as Brazil did exactly that, breaking from a corner though Coutinho, who played a fizzed through pass to Neymar. He delayed. Stojkovic got down well to save.For a while Serbia began to assert their midfield strength. On the hour mark Alisson fumbled a low ball in from the right and saw the ball fall just out of reach of Aleksandar Mitrovic. Matic was dominating the centre, helped by the fact Brazil more or less leave that whole area to Casemiro and Paulinho, who were hustled by a crush of red shirts. Fernandinho came on with 25 minutes to play to help wrest back some control, and within three minutes it was 2-0. Mitrovic tried to cling to Miranda as Neymar’s corner came in but only succeeded in falling over at the near post. Thiago Silva filled the space and bulleted his header high into the net from four yards out.