SAMARA, Russia – Flaunting his flair and his finishing touch wasn’t enough. Neymar put his theatrics on show, too.
What became clear in Brazil’s 2-0 victory over Mexico on Monday is that the wild side of the striker’s character is going nowhere at this year’s World Cup. And neither is Brazil.
“I don’t much care for criticism,” Neymar said, “not even for praise.”
With a goal and an assist, Neymar propelled Brazil into the quarterfinals of a tournament it has won five times. He also extended his platform to show the world he is as good – or better – than Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.
Although Neymar has scored only two goals in four games in Russia, he did enter the World Cup after spending three months recovering from a broken right foot. And it was the right foot that helped to break through Mexico’s stern resistance in Samara.
After releasing Willian with a back-heel, Neymar raced into the penalty area and slid to tap his teammate’s return cross into the net.
While his scoring is so often the focus, Neymar also creates goals for his teammates. A toe-poked attempt to beat Mexico goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa in the 88th minute was diverted into the path of Roberto Firmino, who scored with a tap-in just like Neymar did. The world’s most expensive player has 11 goals and nine assists in his last 19 games for Brazil.
But before setting up the second goal it looked like Neymar’s game – or even his World Cup – could be over with 20 minutes to go. It turned out to be pure histrionics. Writhing in agony after his right ankle was stepped on by Miguel Layun, Neymar managed to get back on his feet. But not before trying to step on Layun.
Both escaped punishment, but the judgment elsewhere was less forgiving, with Neymar asked after the match if he was a diva trying to draw fouls.
“I think it’s more an attempt to undermine me than anything else,” Neymar responded.
The five-time World Cup champions will next face Belgium in the quarterfinals on Friday in Kazan. Brazil has reached that stage at every World Cup since 1994.
Mexico has now lost in the round of 16 at every tournament over the same period of time, extending its wait for the “quinto partido” – or fifth game – for at least another four years. The last time Mexico reached the quarterfinals was when the country hosted the tournament in 1986.
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