Hulk revels in supporting act
BELO HORIZONTE, Brazil -- Few players divide opinion like Hulk. Some see him as a player fully worth the lavish transfer sums (most recently 40 million euros upon his move to Zenit) paid out for him. Others see him as one-dimensional; a forward of power but little else besides.
Belo Horizonte might have deepened the divisions, and perhaps condemned him to a historic infamy. One side would have him as the wronged party, denied a goal by bumbling English referee Howard Webb when he appeared to use his arm to control the ball before firing it into the net. The other might harangue Hulk for an awful penalty shootout effort saved by Chile goalkeeper Claudio Bravo, a loss of nerve as 200 million people willed him on, and an earlier, costly defensive lapse.
Julio Cesar eventually saved Hulk from the notoriety that would have forever tainted a performance that ranks as one of his best for Brazil. In the second half, as Brazil reeled from the shock of a Chile equaliser and Neymar faded, it was Hulk leading their charge. Perhaps he feared what might await in the shootout.
There was also a sense of personal responsibility. It had been Hulk's casual combination play with Marcelo that led to Chile's equaliser from Alexis Sanchez. "We scored and then we conceded a goal due to a winger error, and that is not acceptable at this level of international football," said coach Luiz Felipe Scolari pointedly in his post-match news conference.
Hulk went some way toward proving that Brazil can be a team beyond Neymar plus 10 others, as Brazil's three group games had suggested. The little prince shone early on, only to surrender his influence as tension mounted and Chilean challenges curbed his ability to make the trademark runs that can curdle defences. Gary Medel, playing on one leg for most of the game, was most often the stopping point for Neymar's runs, though an early thigh problem curbed the genius.
"Today he played 75 minutes of the match after a strong hit on the thigh, and we couldn't understand how that challenge gets no card," said Scolari. "His thigh is swollen, but he could play because he likes it, he loves what he does."
"We marked Neymar in a way he couldn't benefit from space," suggested Chile coach Jorge Sampaoli. The havoc-making bursts were in ever shorter supply as the match, a brilliant curtain-raiser for the knockouts, raged on towards its heart-stopping conclusion; Chile rattled the crossbar in the dregs of extra-time.
Oscar, supposed to be the secondary creative influence, floundered too, and for the third straight game. Whether Scolari persists with him should be a leading question in the build-up to another South American derby that awaits in Fortaleza. The purported playmaker is worryingly showing the form of the second half of his season at Chelsea.
In the growing absence of both 22-year-olds' willowy innovations came Hulk's timely power play. After half-time, and through the agonising extra-time period that lay beyond, he proved himself to be a highly credible third way. Neymar will always be primary source for this team -- Scolari has never denied his phenomenon's importance -- but as Brazil stumble into the last eight, he needs others to join his party. Or else the hosts will feel the pain they suffered in Belo Horizonte, without the soothing pleasure of utter relief they felt at the conclusion.
After the laughable performance that Fred supplied in what was supposed to be his lucky stadium, and then a possibly even more comedic showing from Jo (also a local boy supposedly making good), it was made crystal clear that Brazil's strikers cannot be relied upon. The Spanish naturalisation of Diego Costa looks ever more a bad deal -- for both parties.
In the light of those strikers' hopelessness, Hulk grasped the nettle, repeatedly strafing through the Chilean backline, with desperate challenges bouncing off his bodybuilder's physique. His "goal" might have been excellent. Having taken the ball down with what Webb claimed was a biceps -- while replays suggested it looked more like bulging pectorals -- the finish supplied delicacy rather than the power that is usually expected of him. The force of his hard running into space had made the opportunity; Chile found it increasingly difficult to cope with him as their legs tired and he, doubly inspired being both wronged and wrong, did his best to force the issue.
The penalty miss was a cruel moment, but he had been psyched out: goalkeeper Bravo pointed to his right and Hulk obediently shot to the left. The Chilean saved with grateful ease. The left-foot blast was, as the cliché goes, at exactly the right height, though actually pretty directionless. Hulk had allowed himself to be duped and smashed the ball as if he had his eyes closed. The fourth penalty in a shootout is usually crucial, and the sliver of a chance had been handed to the Chileans, although he would not be made to rue his miss too long.
Neymar, showing his unbreakable nerve, and looking happy to strike the ball without three rampaging Chileans on his back, won back the advantage before Julio Cesar, having dried his pre-penalties tears, watched Gonzalo's kick rattle from the post. "There's anxiety on our side, but we just overcome the difficulties," said Scolari. "This is the fourth step; there are three more so we can reach heaven."
Hulk, central throughout to an amazing occasion, had been saved from a personal hell.
John Brewin is a staff writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JohnBrewinESPN.