FORTALEZA, Brazil -- Nothing was pretty about Brazil's 2-1 win over Colombia. The performance on the pitch was hardly convincing, but uglier than all was the news of Neymar's fractured vertebra that will force him out of the remainder of the tournament.
To overcome the valiant Colombia and clear the quarterfinal stage for the first time since 2002, Brazil played like one of Luiz Felipe Scolari's club sides that were so feared in cup competition. Opponents knew they were ready to win ugly and be cynical. That was perhaps the biggest change in the Selecao's behaviour from last week's nerve-wracking penalty win over Chile. It worked, despite a chaotic final 10 minutes after James Rodriguez & Co. tried to mount a heroic comeback.
Rodriguez himself felt that change. Fouled relentlessly by the Brazilians thanks to the very accommodating Spanish referee Carlos Carballo, who also allowed Juan Zuniga a free pass to whack opponents -- his knee in the back of Neymar the cherry on top -- the little playmaker will bear the bruises that prove how much more Brazil wanted to leave Fortaleza with the win.
Albeit more organised on the pitch, the Selecao still struggle in some well-known facets. At least Fred was able to hold up play a bit longer against Colombia than he has so far in this tournament, but the time has come for him to go. Brazil still gave away too much space in midfield, and the lack of quality in the final third complicated a game they could have put to bed in the first half. But it was a gutsy step forward, earning them a date with destiny and Germany in Belo Horizonte.
Much more heroics will be needed on Tuesday. A silly yellow card means captain Thiago Silva, who played with a point to prove after Brazil's emotional display against Chile had been widely criticised, will sit out only the country's second meeting with Germany in the history of the tournament -- the first being the 2-0 win in Yokohama 12 years ago that secured the World Cup trophy.
Worse is losing Neymar. Yet Brazil managed to play without him in Fortaleza -- the Barcelona man had one of his worst games for the Selecao in some time.
Like a team willing to scrape through a tricky Libertadores Cup game -- the tournament Scolari won twice in the 1990s -- Brazil latched to the opportunities they were given. Once again, dead-ball situations pulled them through -- their past three in the tournament have been scored on set pieces. Unlike in previous tournaments, though, they did not hesitate from hoofing the ball forward.
Fernandinho was immense, and Paulinho -- returning thanks only to the suspension of Luiz Gustavo -- showed some glimpses of the box-to-box player so instrumental in the Selecao's 2013 revival. In some moments, Brazil resembled the calf-biting bunch that made Spain look so ordinary in last year's Confederations Cup final. Replacing Dani Alves with Maicon provided some defensive cover that's often been missing on the right side throughout this tournament, with the Roma man adding muscle against a Colombian side whose use of the wings had proven quite a threat.
Brazil will have to devise a plan for the semifinals against a German team that disposed of France very professionally at Maracana. Their last meeting, a 2011 friendly in Stuttgart, ended with a 3-2 win for Schweinsteiger's lot that flattered Brazil immensely -- the Germans toyed with Mano Menezes' side for most of the 90 minutes.
The good news is that Luiz Gustavo, arguably one of Brazil's most important players in this competition, will return from his one-match suspension for yellow-card accumulation. That's welcome news for Brazil's midfield, but his presence in training will be equally important after spending two years among the Bayern contingent that populated Die Nationalmannschaft. The suspended Silva will likely be replaced by a current Bavarian regular, Dante, no matter how tricky it will be to have the leonine David Luiz playing on the right side of defence.
The Selecao, nonetheless, will draw confidence from this result. They dug in and laboured a hard-earned win when many doubted their resolve after all the sobbing in Belo Horizonte.
Neymar out of the World Cup
- Ex-ref blames FIFA for Neymar injury
- FIFA to investigate Neymar injury
- Referee Carballo faces criticism
- Jones: The morning after the night before
- Duarte: The World Cup's crushing loss
- World Cup Tonight: How will Brazil cope?
- Young: Brazilian media reacts
- Uersfeld: German media reaction
- Lang: Five players who must step up
- Neymar injury dampens celebration
Without Neymar, the Brazilians have a massive problem, one that will test their resolve more than anything these players have faced in their careers so far. Just like 20 years ago in the U.S., few people will appreciate ugly wins. A quick perusal of social media after the Colombia game revealed as much.
Yet Brazil live to fight another day. In David Luiz they now have somebody to give the opposition something to think about from free kicks. Hulk, despite that feeble first touch, had perhaps one of his best displays for the Selecao in the first half. Of course, the attacking quartet can be reshuffled to center around Oscar and perhaps bring Willian into the picture.
Yes, Brazil have big problems. But the fire in their bellies has been rekindled, and that can never be a bad thing. Few people in the host country will mind, especially without the talents of Neymar, if they beat Germany 1-0. You can bet on that.