“We can’t stop talking about Neymar,” Casemiro had said in the build-up to this latest stop on Brazil’s quest to win a sixth World Cup. After his winning goal here against Switzerland, they’ll only be talking about him.
With the side’s talismanic No 10 injured and watching wave after wave of pressure go unrewarded from afar, it was left to the defensive midfielder with just five international goals to his name to do his best impression of the absent hero with 75.
The strike was a sweet one, struck hard and to Yann Sommer’s left, the Swiss keeper left with no chance as it arrowed into the corner. The relief in the stadium – and no doubt the team hotel where the laid-up Neymar was watching on – was palpable.
He will play again at this World Cup, Tite insists, but in what condition remains to be seen, the treatment on the injured ankle that reduced him to tears in the final minutes against Serbia set to continue to the end of the group stages at the very least.
Thanks to Casemiro, the team he leaves behind are in the knockout rounds with a game to spare, though, after a 1-0 win at Stadium 974 that for so long looked like would elude them.
Among his many options to replace Neymar, Tite opted for Fred. As like-for-like replacements go, a stretch perhaps, and it was instead Lucas Paqueta who took up the early onus, pushing on into the space behind Richarlison, Raphinha and Vinicius, where Neymar would usually do his work. Without their talisman Brazil started slowly, just as they did with him in the side four days earlier, all the ball and territory failing to translate into clear-cut chances once again. Indeed, just as against the Eagles, it took more than 20 minutes before the opposition goalkeeper was tested.
Raphinha, erratic in the opener but more decisive here, cut in onto his favoured left foot and bent over a delicious cross only for Vinicius, in a perfect position in the middle, to fail to catch his volley flush, leaving Sommer to palm away with relative ease. A golden opportunity missed. Vinicius knew it too, the anguish stretched across the Real Madrid star’s face evidence of just how good an opening it was.
Casemiro continued to be a calm and classy presence in the middle, breaking up what few forays the Swiss made forward while distributing from deep the other way. Fred, his clubmate, was doing the same alongside albeit in that slightly more chaotic fashion that is all his own.
Tite had seen enough. The half-time break was the chosen moment for the boss to rejig his front four to make it a true front four, Rodrygo introduced for Paqueta as Brazil aimed to put the pedal down. It was Switzerland, though, who looked to accelerate first.
Ruben Vargas attempted his side’s first real shot in anger before Alisson punched the resulting corner clear. The Liverpool goalkeeper was then nearly caught in possession in the next phase as the Swiss, perhaps waking to the possibility of another positive result against the Selecao, pressed up themselves.
Vinicius, looking to atone for that earlier miss, teased a ball just out of Nico Elvedi’s despairing slide before streaking clear and finishing past Sommer with a calmness not seen in his earlier fluff, only for an offside Richarlison in the build-up see VAR chalk it off.
Bruno Guimaraes, Gabriel Jesus and Antony were all thrown into the fray, the desperation for a goal of any kind only growing, Tite surely wishing he could’ve turned to the watching Ronaldo, Cafu and Roberto Carlos too.