World Cup: Neymar provides the spark as Brazil beat Mexico 2-0, advance to quarter-finals

Brazil's forward Neymar celebrates after scoring the opening goal during the Russia 2018 World Cup round of 16 football match between Brazil and Mexico at the Samara Arena in Samara on July 2, 2018.
Brazil's forward Neymar celebrates after scoring the opening goal during the Russia 2018 World Cup round of 16 football match between Brazil and Mexico at the Samara Arena in Samara on July 2, 2018. PHOTO: AFP

For Brazil and Mexico alike, it was the same old story.

Brazil have reached the quarter-finals of every World Cup since 1994. Mexico have been in the last 16 every time since then, but never the last eight. They fell at the same hurdle for the seventh successive tournament as Brazil bucked the trend for superpowers to beat an early exit.

Instead, Neymar hastened their progress. He did not merely score one goal and set up another. He provided his best display of the tournament and, indeed, his finest since breaking his metatarsal in February.

The sense remains that there is more to come from Brazil, who were troubled in the first 20 minutes by Mexico, but they grew into the game, just as they are growing into the tournament.

It helps, too, that their defence has been breached only once. Brazil could build on a solid base. For the second successive World Cup, Guillermo Ochoa excelled against them and this ended up being a damage-limitation exercise by the Mexican goalkeeper. He was beaten twice, the second by substitute Roberto Firmino after he had done well to get a touch on Neymar's shot.

So the sole blight on Brazil's day was that Casemiro collected a caution to rule him out of the quarter-final. More auspiciously, Willian, who had been below par in the group stages, excelled. He played a pivotal part in the goal. He was the meat in the sandwich of an unusual one-two.

If Neymar's sliding finish seemed simple, the move before it was impressive. Neymar backheeled the ball to Willian and the Chelsea winger powered through to deliver a cross-shot that the No. 10 turned in.

 
 
 

He was a deserving scorer, a man who had been a catalyst after Brazil made a slow start. He drew a fine save from Ochoa after a fine solo run and turned provider when Gabriel Jesus, with a rising drive, was the next to test the goalkeeper.

Brazil applied more pressure after the interval when the busy Ochoa saved shots from Philippe Coutinho, Paulinho and Willian.

Mexico's enterprising, fearless tactics made for an open and entertaining game. They shocked Germany with a fast start and attempted a repeat. Yet they struggled to create clear-cut chances and Brazil prospered when Mexico tired.

Rafael Marquez was their history maker, becoming the first player to captain a team in five World Cups and the oldest outfielder in the knockout stages since 1954. He was not the difference maker, however: The 39-year-old was removed at half-time.

His replacement, Miguel Layun, escaped a red card for a sly stamp on Neymar.

It was one of the less endearing moments of Mexico's tournament. Worse teams than them will be in the quarter-finals but, as usual, they will not be.