Brazil hold their nerve
BELO HORIZONTE, Brazil -- Three thoughts from Brazil's 1-1 draw with Chile that ended in a penalty shootout win for the host nation.
1. All hail Cesar
When Chile substitute Mauricio Pinilla rattled the crossbar with 120 minutes on the clock, hearts were in Sahara-dry mouths. A match of raging intensity, a World Cup classic, would have to seek its conclusion in a penalty shootout. Goalkeeper Julio Cesar's tears did not look a good sign for Brazil. Instead, he was the hero, as the hosts won a shootout that defied belief. Five players missed, only for Neymar's dance of a spot kick to put Gonzalo Jara as last man up.
He missed, his shot hitting the post. A nation of nervous wrecks rattled with relief. Brazil go on; Willian and Hulk, who both missed, were saved from disgrace.
Belo Horizonte desperately did not want to be remembered like the Maracana in 1950. The fear was of commiserations rather than celebrations. A nation of 200 million shared those same worries; Brazil's progress from Group A had, aside from Neymar, been unconvincing. After a keen start, rewarded with a goal, the problems of the group stage revived. And almost disastrously.
Fernandinho was supposed to add drive where Paulinho had been pedestrian, but it only worked for a while. Manchester City's engine in the middle seemed ideal yet lost influence in a bitty second half; Ramires eventually replaced him.
Brazil deserved their 18th-minute lead. Neymar had already made several forays. His ruinous pace and body strength could always hold off defenders; their only means of preventing him were beyond the laws of the game, and the home crowd was soon barracking referee Howard Webb for his leniency. Bumps and bruises had their effect, and the young Barcelona star was not quite the same beyond the first half.
The prince of hearts first played provider from a corner. Thiago Silva read the ball's flight perfectly, and a combination of David Luiz and Jara bundled it home. To a man, Brazil's players ruffled Luiz's tousled locks; he claimed his first-ever goal in a Selecao shirt.
Then, calamity struck. Hulk and Marcelo's casual treatment of a corner allowed Eduardo Vargas to slot the ball across to Alexis Sanchez. The finish's progress into the net was agonising, and a nation writhed in pain as Julio Cesar was even slower as he failed to reach it. A hard-won lead squandered by sloppiness. Fred was similarly lax when, after Neymar wriggled though, he was slow to seize on a bouncing ball. It barely needs repeating that what might cost Brazil this title is the lack of a finisher to complement their shining star. Fred, lumpen and bewildered, has the potential only to be the fall guy. That "how is Fred?" was a leading Twitter trend was hardly surprising. The striker's removal for Jo, of Atletico Mineiro, was cheered to the rafters, only for Jo to make a horrible mess of Hulk's inviting cross.
Yet Hulk, enraged by the dismissal of what looked a legitimate goal and his earlier error, became a growing influence, his runs at tiring Chileans gaining in purpose, and venomous shots testing Claudio Bravo. When he missed his penalty, infamy beckoned, only for Neymar and Julio Cesar to save him, and a nation, the agony of exit.
2. An Englishman abroad
Howard Webb would be best advised not to take his holidays in Brazil. Or perhaps consider wearing a wig or false moustache when heading to the airport; Belo will not want him back. Denying Hulk what might have been a normal-time winner for handball -- it hit somewhere around Hulk's clavicle -- made him the least popular man in Brazil since Diego Maradona, though it's unlikely that furniture companies will be offering Webb the type of advertising deal the Argentine pariah currently has on Brazilian TV.
A flurry of bookings seemed inevitable, and especially after Fernandinho was carded for a lunge on Charles Aranguiz. Yet Webb, as his wont in his Premier League day job, and as in 2010's final, seemed happy to keep the game flowing when he might have been better served to start cracking heads. Eventually, the cards came out, and Luiz Gustavo -- rightly -- will miss the quarterfinal after his second booking.
Neymar was the frequent victim of harsh tackling, and had to limp to the sidelines in the early stages, which did the locals' nerves little good. Webb first made himself unpopular for denying a penalty claim when Hulk toppled in the box, though he might already have given a similar decision when Vargas was baulked at the other end.
By midway through the second half, the former cop was being booed for his every decision. He must have felt as if he were back at Anfield. Englishmen in Belo Horizonte might be best advised to practice their Australian, American or Irish accents.
3. Hoodoo Chile
Home fans had sung uncomplimentary songs about their fellow South Americans while also proclaiming that the "champions are back." A tabloid newspaper had led its front page with the departure times of flights to Santiago; it all rather tempted fate. After the Chilean national anthem was roundly booed, this was never a game to be played out calmly. Webb would always have his work cut out.
Chile were gutsy, with perpetual purpose, defensive effort led by the indestructible Gary "Pitbull" Medel. They were determined not to repeat the past sins of being Brazil's whipping boys on the way through.
Luiz Felipe Scolari's repeated stating of his fears of La Roja were borne out. Fernandinho and Oscar were bogged down by the battling of Marcelo Diaz and Aranguiz, and Gustavo had his work cut out with the impish Arturo Vidal, who belied fitness concerns against him with a performance of energy and invention.
Aranguiz might even have given Chile the lead, only for Julio Cesar to make up for his previous mistake by pulling off a fine and crucial save. By the end of the 90 minutes, their legs looked gone, and Vidal had departed, only for their threat to be revived in time added on. Desperate, nervy tackling was needed from the Brazilian defence to see out normal time.
A brave effort eventually went unrewarded.
John Brewin is a staff writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JohnBrewinESPN.