FORTALEZA, Brazil -- Irony, sweet irony; the Seleção actually played a better game than they did last Thursday against Croatia but ended the afternoon with a 0-0 draw and a lot of soul searching to do instead of a win.
More than the failure to score and the fact they were dominated by Mexico for long periods of the game -- thankfully, Miguel Herrera's team had poor aim with their array of long shots -- Brazil will now be asking themselves if they can really live without a plan B to put ahead of Monday's encounter with Cameroon in Brasilia.
Regardless of what happens on Wednesday when Samuel Eto'o and Co. face Croatia in Manaus, Brazil will enter the last round of Group A games in pole position to secure the first qualifying spot -- they lead the group on goal difference. (Grimly, this is the first time since 1978 that Brazil has gone into their final group game without a spot in the next round already secured.) Nonetheless, the result in Fortaleza against a Mexican side that arrived as discredited given their horrible qualifying campaign has already started to ring alarm bells.
Tuesday was one of those days Brazil fans always feared: the day Neymar didn't (or couldn't) open his bag of tricks. It's true that the Barcelona man and Seleção top-scorer was denied by a wondrous Guillermo Ochoa save, one that many people at the Castelão saw kissing the net. Oscar too had a promising start, serving Fred late on for what should have been his first goal of the campaign.
Speaking of the goal-poaching devil, Brazil's first choice centre-forward once again failed to be a threat and while Jo showed more moves, the Seleção's number nine problems were once again laid bare for all to see. The fact that Mexico's goalkeeper also won the man of the match award can also serve as a caveat -- he would have stopped any striker in that form -- but only a little one: the Seleção didn't convince their fans (or critics) that they're capable of performing under pressure.
Despite not dominating possession a great deal in the first half, Brazil faced an opponent waiting patiently for them with two lines of four players ready to smother the attacking threat. They were content to wait for their own openings that Giovani Dos Santos and Oribe Peralta could exploit. In this sense, Luiz Felipe Scolari's decision to sit the injured Hulk and bring in Ramires looked interesting; the Chelsea man is a more resourceful player in his ability to distribute the ball.
Yet Ramires picked up a 45th minute booking around the time that Turkish referee Cuneyt Cakir was losing his patience with both sides' steady stream of fouls. The prospect of a more rugged match in the second half -- and the obvious possibility of a red card -- forced Big Phil to bring in the mercurial Bernard instead.
"Ramires is an impetuous player and there was a real risk he could be sent off. That would have definitely prevent from winning the game," Scolari reasoned after the game. In hindsight it looked the right thing to do but Brazil would still have captain Thiago Silva booked not long thereafter. Bernard has also proved to be an ace up Brazil's sleeve when they need more pace with which to open up opposition, but he is neither Hulk nor Ramires when it comes to closing down play when the opposition has the ball.
Then, Mexico decided to attack Brazil and put the heat on. As their nervy Confederations Cup semifinal versus Uruguay showed last summer, Brazil are not comfortable being pushed back. If general stats will show Brazil "won" the possession game 57 percent to 43, the fact is that Mexico bossed much of the second half.
"We have played a very good team and people tend to forget that facing the Seleção is an adrenaline injection for any side in the world," Silva argued. Once again Mexico's long-range shooting let them down but one has to wonder if more dangerous opposition would not have seized the day.
It is still premature to worry about Brazil's chances of reaching the round of 16. Unless they manage to overcome Croatia in the searing Manaus heat, Cameroon will arrive in Brasilia with more pride than points at stake. The Seleção have never lost to African opposition in a World Cup and logic suggests this is unlikely to change. The problem is that developments in Group B could also bring some drama to the soap opera that Brazil's second shot at a home World Cup -- Holland, Chile, Spain or Australia are their potential round of 16 opponents.
Now is the time for Scolari and Brazil to worry about the lack of a coherent plan that doesn't include Neymar and Oscar bailing them out when the collective fails. Brazil were so impressive last year because they looked like a swarm rounding off opponents. At the Castelão on Tuesday, they looked slow and lacking in focus; although Paulinho looked more lively than he did versus Croatia, he ended up fizzling out like he did so many times for Tottenham last season. There is only so much ground that Luiz Gustavo can cover and he is another player on a yellow card that Brazil will line up in Brasilia alongside Silva. The other, of course, is Neymar.
It is no surprise that Mexico gave Brazil a hard game given their recent rivalry -- El Tri actually won six and drew two of their past 12 encounters. But a team that dreams of overcoming opponents en route to glory at the Maracana could, and should, have performed a bit more convincingly.