Richarlison’s stunning double sinks Serbia to get Brazil up and running
Yes, Brazil: that’s pretty much how we remembered you. This is a new generation of Brazilian players, a new era and a new World Cup challenge. And yet by the same token this was a classic Brazilian tournament performance: the sort that feels as if it is being put on for our benefit. On a still night in the giant golden ark of the Lusail Stadium, the tournament favourites played the game you expect from tournament favourites: solid, expansive and embellished with the sort of effortless brilliance that makes other countries furrow their brow a little.
The match had three distinct periods. In period one Brazil started pretty tamely, perhaps even uncertainly, picking away at Serbia with tempo but not a great deal of poise. As the second half progressed they began to warm to the task, cathartically breaking the deadlock with a goal from Richarlison. In the final half hour they simply cut loose: riotous skills, relentless waves of attack and an early goal of the tournament contender from Richarlison, who scored his second with an outrageous bicycle kick.
It was Vinícius Júnior and Neymar who combined for Richarlison’s goals, and this trio – with Raphinha also plugging away gamely on the right – look on early evidence like the most balanced and deadly attack in Qatar: pure trickery and pure speed, with a sharp cutting tool up front. Casemiro was a masterful string-puller at the base of midfield.
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Alex Sandro had a superb game at left-back, which was reckoned to be one of Brazil’s problem areas. Serbia were actually pretty good for 45 minutes. By the end, however, they looked not just beaten but broken, having been made to chase light beams.
And it is not as if Brazil are automatic favourites to win these sorts of games any more. Their World Cup record against European teams since 2010 now reads: played nine, won three, drew two, lost four. Every tournament they seem to sweat a little more, fight a little harder, stand out a little less.
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But this, perhaps, was a reminder that Brazil are at their best when they play with that little dash of imperial arrogance, the fearlessness and verve that pokes teams in the chest and asks: well, how many stars on your badge?
And of course, they can play with a little bit of devil too. Serbia got the sort of game they wanted: aggressive, physical, spicy and often spiky. Neymar got his usual kicking for being Neymar, and ended up limping off 10 minutes from time. But no team with Casemiro, Thiago Silva, Richarlison and Raphinha in its ranks is ever going to shirk from a battle. At one point Raphinha tackled Filip Mladenovic and then simply glared at him, just to make sure he knew he had been tackled.
Meanwhile Andrija Zivkovic was sticking to Vinícius like an environmental activist gluing himself to a London road junction. Vinícius came a little deeper. Zivkovic followed. Vinícius drifted right to the touchline. Zivkovic followed. Vinícius tracked inside. Zivkovic followed. Later that night, as an exhausted Vinícius climbed into bed at the Westin Doha Hotel, he would find Zivkovic already in there waiting for him, a despicable smile creasing across his face as he rolled over and took most of the duvet with him.
Few chances, then, but some moments of promise for Brazil. And like the stubborn pistachio at the bottom of the bag, Brazil probed and scraped and prised and pulled, and eventually worked Serbia loose. There had been openings for Neymar and Sandro before finally Neymar coaxed the ball into the penalty area with a delicious drop of the shoulder. Vinícius took over and curled a shot at Vanja Milinkovic-Savic; Richarlison cleaned up the rebound.
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And for the rest of the game Brazil were simply inexorable. Casemiro rattled the bar. Tite flexed some of the awe-inspiring muscle on his bench: Rodrygo, Antony, Gabriel Martinelli.
But the game had already seen its crowning moment. With 11 minutes remaining, Vinícius nonchalantly teased over a cross with the outside of the boot. Richarlison flicked the ball up in the air with his toe, flung himself skywards, his blond head rotating on its axis like a light show, before smashing the ball in with a pure capoeira swipe: a goal straight out of a soft drink advert, filmed in one clean take.
Tite talks a lot about balance: between attack and defence, flair and resilience, exuberance and focus. This was a performance to make flesh out of his words. If one was being critical, perhaps Brazil could have made a little more of their dominance later on. But really that would be griping for the sake of it. Three points, broad smiles and a familiar swagger that felt like a favourite band playing all their old hits. Welcome back, lads.