Neymar's World Cup dream in tatters with 2026 return unlikely

Matthew Ashton - AMA/Getty Images

It looked like destiny. Neymar finally arrived at Qatar 2022, seemingly making the difference for Brazil as he stood head and shoulders above the rest with the Selecao's quest for a sixth star continuing.

A one-two with Rodrygo took him to the edge of the box, another with Lucas Paqueta released him into the area. He held his nerve to evade the goalkeeper and then slammed into the roof of the net – it had the outstanding ball control, confidence and poise we've come to expect from Neymar.

It was a goal only he could've scored in many ways. A work of art befitting its context; the strike that drew Neymar level with Pele as Brazil's joint-record goalscorer.

At that point, 106 minutes had been played; the only team to threaten from an attacking perspective were Brazil. This would surely be decisive.

And yet, here we are.

Croatia's fortuitous equaliser should have been a sign of luck deserting the Selecao; almost right at the end of extra-time, Brazil looked spent and stunned. If they had recovered from that and gone on to win, it would have been a showcase of the mentality of champions.

But Croatia, the kings of football endurance, go through to the semi-finals, with Neymar potentially never to be seen again in a World Cup.

It feels like we hardly saw him in this one, to be fair.

Injured on matchday one and missing for the following two games, Neymar returned to the team against South Korea. He played his part in that tremendous performance, scoring a penalty, but throughout you could argue he was playing within himself.

Given his injury, perhaps you could understand that.

Here, though, the Paris Saint-Germain star turned in probably one of the most disappointing performances on the pitch.

Deployed in midfield again as one of the two number eights with Lucas Paqueta, there was undoubtedly a sense of him trying to do everything himself at times.

Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised; this is Neymar we're talking about. He's never been unwilling to try the exuberant.

But against a famously obdurate Croatian midfield and defence, Neymar got little change. His forays went nowhere, his outside-of-the-boot crosses only found opposition defenders.

The functionality of Tite's setup was always likely to be tested to its limits here. When in possession, his team essentially resembled a 4-1-5 formation, leaving Casemiro an awful lot of work up against probably the best midfield trio left in the tournament. Before this game, Mateo Kovacic ranked fourth among midfielders (minimum 200 minutes played) for the most tackles (2.3) completed per 90 minutes; Luka Modric was eighth for the most recoveries (7.9); Marcelo Brozovic was fourth for passes completed (74.5).

In short, there's very little Croatia lack in the centre, and yet Tite resisted the temptation to change his system by introducing a more disciplined midfielder in place of Paqueta.

There were some early signs of encouragement for Brazil. Modric played an uncharacteristically poor pass to a yellow jersey in his own half early on, inviting pressure that led to a free-kick. Then, a few minutes later, Casemiro snapped in on his former Real Madrid team-mate on the edge of the Croatia box before Raphinha ran the ball out of play.

But that wasn't exactly in keeping with the rest of the first half. With Croatia generally deep and that stellar midfield trio putting on something of a clinic, Brazil had little luck threading gaps in the defence.

All three of Modric, Kovacic and Brozovic ended the first half with at least 50 per cent duel success rates, while the latter two each completed all of their three tackle attempts. By comparison, Casemiro won two of five duels, Paqueta came out on top in one of six – in terms of midfield competitiveness, there was no doubt this was going the way Croatia intended.

Granted, they weren't exactly creating chances of their own. But let's not forget, Croatia's modus operandi is to keep things tight. It's no coincidence that going back to Euro 2008, seven of their last eight knockout stage games at major tournaments went to extra time.

Brazil's performance after the interval was as if they'd suddenly had this same realisation about Croatia's ability to go the distance.

The tempo was higher, chances began to flow. But there was Dominik Livakovic practically every time, the Dinamo Zagreb goalkeeper's heroics central to Croatia forcing extra-time.

It was only going to take something special to beat Livakovic, and Neymar's beautiful goal before the extra-time interval brought with it celebrations enveloped in relief.

They'd done it, finally broken through Croatia's brick wall – given how the match had gone until then, there was only one way this was going to end. But Brazil's game management in response was dreadful, going from a three-on-three in attack to finding themselves outmanoeuvred at the back.

Bruno Petkovic's equaliser was helped by a massive deflection, sure, but you could argue Croatia's stubbornness defensively inspired that hint of fortune.

The gutting impact the leveller had on Brazil made Croatia's penalties success no surprise. They're seasoned in these situations.

Speaking before the tournament, Neymar was open about the likelihood of this being his last World Cup.

The only one of Brazil's first five penalty takers not to have his kick was him.

Neymar's absence at this crucial moment was rather fitting, helpless to prevent World Cup agony again.