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Jun 12, 2014

Neymar answers Brazil's distress call

SAO PAULO -- In the end Neymar came out to play, just as Brazil so badly needed him to after a nightmare start in their World Cup opener against Croatia. He opened several accounts at the Arena Corinthians. His first tournament memento was a yellow card that looked harsh but still looked to have unsettled the Selecao, coming after only 27 minutes and with the team 1-0 down.

Two minutes later, however, the Barcelona striker brushed it out by scoring an equalizer that didn't look pretty in the execution -- he pretty much scuffed with his weaker left foot -- but still beat the keeper, Stipe Pletikosa. It was the third crucial goal Neymar has scored for Brazil using the foot that teammate Thiago Silva once jokingly mocked: "We have always teased him, saying his left foot is only good enough to step on the clutch when he's driving."

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From Neymar's left came a thunderous strike against Japan in the Confederations Cup last year, snapping his nine-game dry spell. It also hit the roof of Iker Casillas' net during Brazil's demolition of Spain in the same tournament. On Thursday, it helped bail Brazil out in their quest to exorcise their biggest World Cup demon.

Neymar did not have a vintage game. In fact, there were a couple of moments when his passing and accuracy let him down and when, in hindsight, his decision-making would have Luiz Felipe Scolari fuming. But when it mattered most, the Barcelona man delivered. It was not his fault that Fred went down as if floored by four horses instead of a gentle push in the back. Pletikosa almost saved the following penalty; Neymar hit it with enough pace but too much height. Nevertheless, he was withdrawn after 88 minutes with his first World Cup brace and an impressive Selecao account of 33 goals in 50 matches.

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As it turned out, his impact on the game trumped his personal statistics. At a time when Brazil looked dangerously anxious thanks to Marcelo's early own goal -- the first the Selecao have ever suffered in the history of the World Cup -- he took the responsibility that fans and media in Brazil sometimes doubt he can handle from game to game.

Brazil were no one-man team despite Neymar's brace. David Luiz fought like a lion at the back, while both Luiz Gustavo and Oscar sparked to action after weeks of lackluster displays. The Chelsea midfielder was brave to clash with bulkier opponents, just as he's shown during his time in England; Neymar could and should have given him a big hug for his work in disrupting the Croatian defense prior to Brazil's equalizer. And the third goal, no matter how unsettled Croatia were by Fred's soft penalty, was pure class.

Neymar lived up to the pressure of expectations and led Brazil to a vital win.
Neymar lived up to the pressure of expectations and led Brazil to a vital win.

Ultimately, Neymar owned that crowd, and for the fifth World Cup in a row, the Selecao escaped embarrassment in their opening game. Just like in 2002, they had to work hard and come from behind, even relying on a controversial decision. Scolari stated in his postgame news conference that it wasn't Brazil's fault. But he will be pleased to have seen his main jewel soak up the pressure and launch himself into the game without despair or any kind of messiah complex. Big Phil also certainly approved that Neymar did not resort to tumbling upon minimal contact.

It was just the first game out of a possible seven Brazil are hoping to play and win at home. But Brazil's mission in Brazil would have been dealt a serious blow had the Barcelona boy not stood out once again. No matter how much Scolari and Neymar himself adopt the "another one among 11" discourse, this team can do a lot with more and more moments like those the young star pulled out in Sao Paulo. The game against Croatia also showed that Neymar has developed in Barcelona, despite not setting La Liga on fire. He is wiser when dealing with stronger marking, and the annoying habit of sulking seems to be a thing of the best.

Brazil gives its thanks.