Neymar's return, goal caps easy Brazil win vs. Croatia in World Cup warm-up
LIVERPOOL, England -- Three quick thoughts from Brazil's 2-0 win over Croatia as both sides continue their preparations for the 2018 World Cup.
1. Neymar caps return with goal as Brazil win
It was the first time in over three months that Neymar set foot on a pitch and it only took 24 minutes from there for him to announce that he was back after injury.
A dour warm-up game was lit up by the mere presence of the world's most expensive footballer, let alone his impact on it. Introduced at half-time to a rapturous reception in a near-full Anfield, Neymar scored the game's opening goal in the 69th minute, dancing and weaving through Croatia defenders before rifling the ball into the roof of the net.
The goal itself and his celebration -- a tall jump, appearing to release the frustration of the past few months -- were emphatic.
There is no guarantee that the Paris Saint-Germain forward will be completely match-fit by the time Brazil play their World Cup opener against Switzerland on June 17. But early indications suggest the 26-year-old has recovered well from his fractured metatarsal and ankle sprain.
Fortunately for Brazil and head coach Tite, the absence of Neymar no longer means the team simply cannot function. Roberto Firmino scoring Brazil's second goal on the day with a tidy finish in the dying seconds was a timely reminder of that fact.
Indeed, Brazil go into Russia as one of the favourites and free from the pressure of hosting the tournament, which culminated in the humiliating 7-1 defeat to Germany in the semifinals back in 2014. Tite has built a team that is more balanced than the one Luiz Felipe Scolari put together four years ago. However, it's one that still possesses an abundance of talent, worth its weight in gold, that can turn games.
Neymar, Philippe Coutinho, Willian and Firmino, who came on as a second-half sub, all have the opportunity to freely express their attacking instinct, which is only possible because of the strong base behind them that includes Casemiro and Fernandinho.
Always a decent watch during major tournaments anyway, Brazil look like they mean business in 2018.
2. Coutinho returns to Anfield but plays second fiddle
There were boos -- not wholesale, but clearly audible -- when Coutinho's name was read out in the lineups. Liverpool supporters are still not over the manner in which the he headed for Barcelona in January, and Sunday marked the Brazilian's first time back at Anfield since that infamous £142 million move.
While Liverpool were getting over the loss of their influential No.10 and reaching the Champions League final, Coutinho was slowly adjusting to life at the Camp Nou. His impressive five-month stint at Barca have set him up for what's hoped will be a promising first full campaign in light of Andres Iniesta's departure.
Those supporters in yellow on Sunday loudly cheered every touch by the playmaker. They know, like everybody else in the footballing world, that Coutinho is someone who very much has the ability to light up this summer's World Cup. But Coutinho was largely upstaged by Willian, whose Chelsea future remains uncertain this summer. Drifting in from the right-hand side, Willian left Croatian players embarrassed at times having been beaten by his incredible footwork.
Brazil are well-set for Russia. If one sublime attacking player has an off day, another one of their sublimely talented attacking players can simply pick up the slack. Some of those Liverpool fans booing on Sunday perhaps wish they still had one of them on their books.
3. Croatia can't afford to squander their talent again this summer
Considered dark horses in nearly every tournament they enter, Croatia have never actually progressed out of the group stages in World Cup since the turn of the millennium. That, in theory, should all change in Russia though, despite their difficult group. But the fact it is never definitive or seemingly assured is part of the problem. Off-the-pitch matters have ultimately influenced performances on the pitch in the past.
Appointing relatively unknown coaches like Zlatko Dalic, who replaced Ante Cacic partway through the qualification campaign, raise questions back home as to whether they can get the best out of their world-class talents.
This Croatia team is talented and should therefore be a match for anyone in the competition. They will have to prove that right at the start of the tournament, kicking things off in their group with Nigeria, Argentina and then finally Iceland.
Nations will struggle to outgun a midfield of Ivan Rakitic and Luka Modric, while Mario Mandzukic, Mateo Kovacic and Ivan Perisic all make Croatia dangerous in the final third. Whether they can put all that together into a working formula remains to be seen.
Glenn is ESPN FC's Liverpool correspondent. You can follow him on Twitter: @GlennPrice94.