Brazil frustrated, fouled by gritty Swiss in 1-1 draw as Neymar underwhelms
ROSTOV-ON-DON, Russia -- Three thoughts from a frustrating 1-1 draw for Brazil against Switzerland.
1. Brazil stumble to a point
Another game and another disappointing result for one of the World Cup favourites. A day after Argentina were held to a 1-1 draw with Iceland and with Mexico's celebrations for beating Germany still hanging in the air, Brazil drew their opening game of the 2018 World Cup with Switzerland.
Brazil looked comfortable after Philippe Coutinho's brilliant first-half opener, dominating play against a limited Swiss side that looked to frustrate them from the off. But five minutes into the second half, Switzerland equalised through Steven Zuber, and despite Brazil's best efforts, the Swiss couldn't be broken down. Tite's side will now face Costa Rica and Serbia to guarantee the top spot in the group, although ironically, after Germany's earlier loss, finishing first might mean playing the defending champions in the second round.
Switzerland clearly decided to test Neymar's constitution early on, with their more physical players taking turns to aim a few well-placed but unsubtle kicks at Brazil's No. 10 in his first competitive game since February following surgery on his right foot. Eventually Stephan Lichtsteiner was booked for a brutally cynical drag back on his neck.
Perhaps this is why Neymar was quiet in the opening stages, but the strength of this Brazil team as opposed to the one in 2014 is that they don't simply wait for him to do something. There are others to step up.
As if to prove that point, Philippe Coutinho gave Brazil the lead with an absolutely exquisite goal in the 20th minute, collecting the ball on the left corner of the penalty area and whipping a perfect shot off the far post and into the net. Those sort of strikes have become Coutinho's trademark, so brilliant in their execution that a goal looks like an inevitability when he pulls his foot back.
Brazil controlled the game almost completely, with Switzerland not so much feeding on scraps as sniffing around for crumbs. The problem was Brazil couldn't double their lead, and not long after half-time they were punished for that. The previously anonymous Xherdan Shaqiri powered a corner into the 6-yard box from the right, and Zuber nudged Miranda out of the way far too easily and headed past a helpless Allison.
Brazil tried their utmost to break through but were lacking a cutting edge. This has been a brilliant World Cup so far, and Sunday's final game brought another result that has added to its excellence.
2. Neymar can't haul Brazil to victory
It wasn't particularly surprising that Tite admitted on Saturday that Neymar wasn't 100 percent fit for the opening game of this World Cup. On the one hand, he could hardly say anything else with a straight face: After all, Neymar has not really played any meaningful football in four months after breaking his metatarsal playing for PSG. But Tite could have insisted that his man was feeling better than ever and ready to lead Brazil once again.
That he chose not to was perhaps a way of managing expectations. While it's true that Brazil no longer rely on their No. 10, he is still their biggest star and the man many still look to. Had Tite declared his man to be absolutely recovered, the pressure would only have increased.
It was clear, though, that Neymar wasn't himself. Not just his general fitness, which was clearly below what it could be, but his sharpness, a burst here and there that we might expect from a peak Neymar that was absent.
You could see that Neymar was acutely aware of his injury, fearing the worst after one of his many knocks, limping away from many robust challenges, a man terrified of another World Cup ending prematurely. At one point he even jumped away from a challenge, in a similar way to David Beckham -- who also missed the build-up to a World Cup with a metatarsal injury -- against Brazil in 2002.
But while he wasn't in peak form, Neymar seemed absolutely desperate to prove that he was. On more than a few occasions he shot or dribbled when he should have passed, looking to show that he can still be a man who wins games on his own.
When he had a late header saved, it looked like there were tears in his eyes as his final chance to show definitively that he was back disappeared. While this Brazil team no longer relies on him, there is still a little bit of Neymar that wishes it did.
3. Gritty Swiss do enough for a draw
The great and the cruel thing about international football tournaments is their randomness, how single moments can decide games and games can decide campaigns. Switzerland potentially came up with one such moment, a goal completely against the run of play that ultimately won them a draw and a bonus point they could not have counted on when the draw was made.
In many ways, they were lucky: They had a handful of meaningful attacks, and Zuber was lucky that the referee didn't spot his push to the back of Miranda that opened enough space for him to head home. But this was a grinding, frustrating, often nasty but ultimately excellent performance from the Swiss as they carried out exactly what they had planned.
Their intention from the start was to disrupt and annoy Brazil by playing a tight defensive line and kicking anything in a yellow shirt that moved, mostly Neymar. Of course, some might object to what you may call "anti-football," but what else were they supposed to do?
At the end, their fans, largely dotted around the end where they scored their goal, hugged each other in delight and relief. They got a draw with Brazil at the World Cup: That's something you try to grab by any means necessary.
Nick Miller is a writer for ESPN FC, covering Premier League and European football. Follow him on Twitter @NickMiller79.