Calm, cool Neymar primed for Chile
June 24, 2014: "If I could choose another opponent, I would. I think they're the trickiest side we could have been drawn against. They have everything."
It's fair to say that Brazil head coach Luiz Felipe Scolari isn't looking forward to Saturday. Having navigated their way through Group A, his side face their toughest challenge yet in this World Cup, with in-form Chile standing between them and a quarterfinal berth.
Scolari has never disguised his desire to avoid La Roja in the knockout stages. "I hope that Chile don't qualify for the last 16," he said back in December. "I would prefer to face any other side. They are intelligent and their style of play doesn't suit us. It would be better to play against a European team."
But while Scolari will feel that he has been dealt a dud hand, he can at least feel safe in the knowledge that he has one supremely talented trump card at his disposal at the Mineirão.
Neymar has undoubtedly been one of the names of the World Cup so far. The forward hit the ground running with a brace against Croatia and followed it up with a show-stopping display in the 4-1 win over Cameroon, adding two more goals to his tally and indulging in a full repertoire of flicks, tricks and fancy.
The brute stats are startling: He is already, at the age of 22, sixth on Brazil's all-time goal-scoring list, but the real majesty of Neymar is not to be found in the numbers.
It is his intuitive, carefree style that stands out, even as he carries the hopes of 200 million Brazilians on his slender shoulders. At Santos, he used to have the words "joy" and "daring" stitched onto his boots. This past Sunday he said that he feels no pressure because he's realising his childhood dreams. He is, in the Brazilian tradition, one of football's dreamers.
There is an argument to be made that Saturday's game is the biggest test of his career so far. Yet any nerves -- and you sense he isn't the type to lose sleep over these things -- will be steadied by his past record against Chile.
Brazil faced their fellow South Americans twice in 2013. For the first, in April, Scolari selected only players based in Brazil. Neymar was the Seleção's best player in a lively 2-2 draw, teeing up centre-back Réver for his side's opener before rounding off a delightful team move for their second.
The A-team was restored for the second game, in Toronto. Neymar was influential once more, helping to set up Robinho's late winner with one of those mazy, slaloming runs from the left flank before being taken off in injury time to a warm ovation.
Two games constitute a fairly small sample size, of course, but he also performed well against Chilean opposition at club level for Santos. The Peixe faced Colo-Colo twice en route to winning the 2011 Copa Libertadores, losing 3-2 away and returning the favour on home soil. Neymar scored in both matches.
Both he and Scolari will be hoping that he can reproduce that kind of form in Belo Horizonte. The Brazil coach clearly recognises the importance of his star man, admitting after the Cameroon game that, "Brazil depend on Neymar like Argentina depend on Messi.
"They are players who are different and can make the difference for their respective teams. Neymar is a point of reference for us."
With Messi hitting form for Brazil's biggest rivals, much will turn on how his Barcelona colleague fares against Chile -- and how Jorge Sampaoli's charges deal with him.
Jack Lang writes about Brazilian football and the national team for ESPN FC.