Brazil’s wait for a victory at the 2018 World Cup is over, but only thanks to two late goals on a frustrating afternoon against Costa Rica.
Phillippe Coutinho and Neymar both scored in stoppage time and that will be all that matters to Brazil, who have put themselves in pole position to qualifty and avoided suffering the same fate as bitter rivals Argentina.
They were the dominant side against Costa Rica, but struggled to make them pay and VAR was once again at the centre of attention in St Petersburg.
Neymar may have netted at the death, however, his dive in the box in a desperate attempt to win a penalty with 15 minutes remaining overshadowed his strike.
Referee Björn Kuipers pointed to the spot originally, but the video referees correctly intervened and once Kuipers had viewed the incident by the side of the pitch, the decision was overturned – much to Neymar’s disgust. Luckily for Neymar, the late goals will take much of the focus off the world’s most expensive player’s theatrics.
Costa Rica, the darlings of Brazil 2014, defended with a dogged determination and thought they had done enough to grind out a draw, however Coutinho’s goal in the 91st minute and Neymar’s in the 95th mean they are the third team eliminated from the tournament.
Coutinho’s snapshot that flew over the bar was the only chance of note in a slow-paced opening ten minutes, that set the tone for a dull opening 45. The best chance of the first half actually fell to Costa Rica on 13 minutes. Neat football down the right side saw Cristian Gamboa lay the ball into the path of Celso Borges, but he could only drag a glorious chance wide of the post from 15 yards out.
Neymar, who was fouled ten times in 90 minutes against Switzerland, found a Costa Rica side more than happy to kick him too. He’d been fouled three times in the opening 20 minutes, yet Brazil did not make the most of the free-kick opportunities.
That Keylor Navas’ first intervention was to smother the ball at Neymar’s feet on 27 minutes said it all, although Brazil did have the ball in the back of the net two minutes earlier, only for Gabriel Jesus to be flagged offside when the ball deflected into his path and he smashed it into the roof of the net.
In a tepid first-half, played at a walking pace at times, Marcelo’s late strike from the edge of the box was the only effort on target. And that was comfortable for Navas. Given they were playing in blue and not their traditional yellow, it was hard to recognise this as a Brazil team.
Douglas Costa was sent on for Willian at half-time and Brazil came out with renewed vigour. Twice in a 30 second period they came closer to opening the scoring than they had in the entire first half.
Jesus rose highest to meet Fagner’s ball in from the right, only to see his powerful header crash off the crossbar. In the ensuing scramble, Coutinho looked certain to score as the ball fell to him on the penalty spot, but the defender somehow diverted it past the post.
Finally Brazil had woken from their slumber and Costa Rica’s backline was creaking. Neymar saw a shot quite brilliantly tipped over the bar from Navas, before the Real Madrid stopper gathered Coutinho’s low drive at the second attempt.
Despite their dominance, Costa Rica did threaten on the break. However a lack of composure let them down, as heavy touches or overhit crosses allowed the Brazilians to recover.
And it was after one of those attacks that Brazil fashioned another good chance, only for their star man to fire wide. Neymar latched onto the ball, took it away from the closest defender and into the middle of the pitch, but failed to guide his shot on target.
Moments later, Neymar was again the centre of attention. He went down in the box, seemingly hauled down as he shaped to shoot. The referee pointed to the spot and it looked a good decision. But replays showed Neymar dived and threw himself to the floor. VAR intervened and no penalty was given.
The Brazilians were sent into ecstasy in the first minute of stoppage-time, though. The ball was swung into Roberto Firmino at the back post and he knocked it down for Neymar, who could not get the ball under control. Coutinho was on hand, though, to pounce on the loose ball and poke the ball between Navas’ legs.
They rubbed further salt into Costa Rica’s wounds four minutes later, when Neymar converted from Costa’s cross to double their advantage and put the result beyond doubt.