Brazil mixing their usual flair with solidity at the back

Brazil's Willian in action against Mexico. Picture: Fatih Aktas/Anadolu Agency/Getty ImagesBrazil's Willian in action against Mexico. Picture: Fatih Aktas/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
Brazil's Willian in action against Mexico. Picture: Fatih Aktas/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
While the focus is nearly always on Neymar's brilliance and his other antics in Russia, Brazil's steady progression at the World Cup has solidified their status as favourites to win the tournament.

Germany, their nemesis from four years ago, are gone. So are Lionel Messi and Argentina. Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal are also out.

But for Brazil, the word favourite – favorito in Portuguese – is taboo.

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“We feel confident but not like the favourites because we know that there are other quality teams that have great potential. The favouritism comes from the press and the fans,” winger Willian said. “We want to remain firm in our goal, which is to move step by step and reach the final.”

The five-time champions kicked off the knockout round on Monday night by defeating Mexico 2-0 for their third consecutive clean sheet in Russia. Neymar scored his second goal of the tournament and substitute Roberto Firmino added another late on.

Neymar again grabbed attention for his theatrics after he tangled with Mexico’s Miguel Layun, who stepped on the Paris Saint-Germain star’s right ankle. Neymar writhed in apparent agony before popping back up and finishing the match. Brazil now face Belgium in the quarter-finals in Kazan on Friday.

Brazil were second in the Fifa world ranking when they arrived in Russia, but the team opened with a lacklustre 1-1 draw against Switzerland. Since then, Brazil have won three successive games 2-0.

Neymar, who had been recovering in previous months from a broken foot, gave the world-class performance that everyone hoped for on Monday. He has two goals and an assist in the tournament, giving him six career World Cup goals.

Other players have risen to the occasion, too. In the group stage, Philippe Coutinho had two goals and an assist and has twice been man of the match. Against Mexico, it was Willian who showed flashes of brilliance.

Additionally, the defence has been steady throughout, anchored by captain Thiago Silva and goalkeeper Alisson. The only other team remaining that has conceded fewer goals is Uruguay.

Brazil have allowed just five shots on target at this World Cup, fewest of any team.

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“It’s a huge joy to be doing an excellent cup and to be growing with every game,” Silva said. “I hope that in the quarter-finals, we can even be better prepared because with the victories the trust automatically grows.”

Coach Tite has put an emphasis on balance since the South American qualifiers, and Brazil were the first team to qualify for Russia and have yet to lose in eight matches this year.

Of course, the ultimate goal is to erase some of the disappointment of the last World Cup, when Brazil was embarrassed on home soil by Germany in a 7-1 semi-final defeat.

“People have asked us a lot about Germany. I don’t think we should worry about Germany and about what happened. Soccer is to play it, not to speak about it,” Silva said. “We no longer need to focus on Germany because we don’t have a way to change that story. We only need to think ahead now, game by game, and seize our opportunities.”

Perhaps that approach will give Brazil a sixth star over their crest.

“I hope. I hope,” Willian said about a possible World Cup triumph. “It’s going to be difficult. And like I said before, we have to continue this way, work hard and continue to improve ourselves.”