KEIR RADNEDGE REPORTING —- There are three ‘big names’ at this World Cup. Cristiano Ronaldo plus Lionel Messi and Neymar. Messi is down and almost out. That leaves Messi’s arch rival and the Brazilian who fled Barcelona to escape his shadow.
Neymar underlined his status as the greatest star to rise in the Brazilian football firmament for years by his relentless hunting downof Costa Rice in Group E in St Petersburg. Brazil won 2-0 and victory was well deserved even though they had to wait until second-half stoppage time for Philippe Coutinho and Neymar himself to claim due reward.
Along the way Neymar was also denied a penaty by VAR but he rose, literally, from that disappointment to apply himself with even greater focus in the national cause. Costa Rica, after the spirit of goalkeeper Keylor Navas, defended valiantly but are now eliminated.
Neymar’s talent is magnetic. His Brazilian team-mates always sought him out with their passes and the Ticos always sought to stop him with tackles, fair and foul.
The 26-year-old operated, as usual, off the left wing, attempting either an individual action or clipping the ball into the penalty box for Gabriel Jesus. Support came from Marcelo behind him and Philippe Coutinho alongside.
Brazil pressed for all the game. Coutinho thumped an early shot high over the bar, Gabriel Jesus had a ‘goal’ correctly disallowed for offside, Neymar was foiled by Navas after a left-wing burst and the keeper saved low to his right from Real Madrid club-mate Marcelo.
Costa Rica, surprise quarter-finalists in Brazil four years ago, managed one serious lone raid of their own in the entire match: Celso Borges shot wastefully wide of an open goal after 13 minutes.
The success of their tactic of frustration was evident from TV pictures showing Neymar whingeing to referee Bjorn Kuipers at the interval after which Brazil raised the tempo with substitute Douglas Costa a decisive replacement on the right for the ineffective Willian.
Gabriel Jesus headed against the bar, Coutinho had a shot fortuitously deflected wide by Cristian Gamboa and Navas saved deftly from both Neymar at close range and then Coutinho. Neymar covered his face with his shirt in frustration after breaking through the middle and firing wide.
The game’s greatest controversy arrived in the 76th minute. Neymar fell extravagantly backwards after Giancarlo Gonzalez clawed at his chest. Referee Kuipers immediately awarded a penalty. Under the weight of Costa Rican protests, however, the Dutchman consulted the pitchside screen and changed his mind.
Kuipers did not, however, book Neymar for a dive though he did flourish a yellow card minutes later after the Brazilian punched the ball down into the turf in anger at yet another foul.
Eventually all the pressure paid off. In the first extra minute Marcelo crossed from the left, Roberto Firmino headed back, Gabriel Jesus provided a touch and Coutinho rifled home. Then, in minute seven, Douglas Costa ran clear on the right and crossed for Neymar – at last! – to score.
This was his 56th goal for Brazil, his fifth in World Cups and the signal for a massive release of joy around the stadium. Neymar himself collapsed in sobbing, tearful relief.
Brazil and their €222m superstar march on.