After Serbia beat Costa Rica by 1-0 to open the group E of the 2018 World Cup in Russia on Sunday afternoon, courtesy of a stunning free-kick from Aleksandar Kolarov, in the evening of the same day Brazil and Switzerland crossed swords to open their respective campaigns.
Naturally, Brazil are considered favorites to win against almost anybody, and Switzerland were no exception. However, the Swiss have shown on many occasions that they can be very tricky to beat. They are well-drilled, extremely disciplined, and aren’t likely to roll over for anyone; not even Brazil.
Tite has proven himself to be one of those coaches who always stick to their philosophy, and let’s face it, with the players the Brazilian national team manager has at his disposal in this moment, there is absolutely no reason to budge. His team is usually set up in a 4-3-3 formation by default, but his midfielders and wide attackers offer plenty of versatility to change the shape according to need. His line-up also rarely varies.
Alisson Becker was in goal as usual, while Danilo, captain Thiago Silva, Miranda and Marcelo formed the defensive wall ahead of him. Casemiro anchored the midfield, with Paulinho providing the power in the engine room and Philippe Coutinho tasked with creating sparks from deep. Gabriel Jesus led the line up front, with Neymar and Willian on either side.
On the other side, Vladimir Petković arranged the Swiss in his usual 4-2-3-1. Yan Sommer between the posts, Fabian Schaer and Manuel Akanji at the heart of defence, captain Stephan Lichtsteiner and Ricardo Rodriguez on their flanks; Granit Xhaka and Valon Behrami tasked with sitting deep and breaking up Brazil’s play behind the more advanced trio of Blerim Dzemaili, Steven Zuber and Xherdan Shaqiri. Haris Šeferović was the lone striker.
The First Half
For all the quality Brazil possess, the Swiss decided to show they were not afraid of them straight from the start. They were pushing forward in numbers, and it would be even fair to say they were showing more attacking threat in the first 10 minutes.
They had a decent chance just less than three minutes in. Shaqiri had the ball on the right, Lichtsteiner’s run on the overlap had Marcelo tied down, and the Stoke City winger whipped in a good cross which found Dzemaili free to shoot from around 15 yards, but his shot missed the target.
Another thing the Swiss were making clear was that they wouldn’t be showing Neymar any respect, for all the millions Paris Saint-Germain paid for his services. Behrami kept tight to the Brazil star and never let him breathe.
However, after those 10 minutes, the Brazilians shook the pressure off and pushed forward. Coutinho got on the ball more and helped Neymar overload Behrami on the left a few times, with one such occasion ending with a great chance. After combining with Coutinho, Neymar put the ball low into the six-yard box for Paulinho, and the Barcelona midfielder managed to direct it goalwards under pressure from Schaer, prompting a great reflex save from Sommer.
Neymar had a chance from a free-kick soon afterwards as Behrami brought him down some 25 yards out, but his shot couldn’t pass the wall.
Minute 20 was passing when the Swiss cleared a cross from the box and the ball fell to Coutinho around 20 yards from the goal, slightly on the left. In his recognizable style, the man who made the switch from Liverpool to Barcelona in January set himself up with his first touch and hit the far top corner with the second, off the post and into the net. There was absolutely nothing Sommer could do and Brazil took the lead.
From that moment on Switzerland tried to get organized and get bodies forward. They succeeded to an extent, pushing Brazil back and keeping the ball in the opposition half for longer spells, but they couldn’t create anything and were almost exposed on a counterattack several times.
But the only moment worthy of mention for the rest of the half came deep in stoppage time when Silva headed a Neymar corner from close range just over the bar.
The Second Half
The flow of the game continued after the break much as it left off, but five minutes in Switzerland were level. Shaqiri took a corner from the right and placed the ball perfectly just inside the six yards, Alisson stayed on his line believing Miranda to have everything under control, but Zuber came up from behind and displaced the Brazil defender with a slight push in the back, giving himself that half a yard of space he needed to jump and slam a header under the bar. Several Brazilians complained about the push but the goal stood.
After the initial shock from the equalizer wore off, Brazil tried to take the game into their own hands and attacked. However, it was their turn to get occasionally exposed at the back, while they rarely managed to cause any danger up front, at least for a while.
Lichtsteiner, Behrami and Schaer all earned yellow cards in this game for fouls on Neymar, while Xhaka escaped one early on after pulling the PSG star’s shirt from behind. It wasn’t a very nice way to stop one of the best players in the world, but it was an efficient one. With 17 minutes remaining, Gabriel Jesus gave a penalty shout after Akanji held him from behind, but referee Cesar Arturo Ramos would have none of it.
In the 79th minute Tite tried to achieve something by changing his striker as the Manchester City man left the pitch to be replaced by Roberto Firmino, and his Liverpool counterpart almost made it worth while just two minutes later with a decent volley from a tight angle but it went over the bar.
As the game approached its end, Brazil slowly abandoned their silky, needle-threading approach and started shooting from range. Fernandinho, who had replaced Casemiro, sent one high into the stands, while Sommer saved a good attempt from Neymar.
The Swiss ‘keeper also saved a header from Neymar after Willian’s cross found him in a good position, and then Neymar himself whipped in a free-kick from deep which was met by the head of Firmino, but Sommer was once again the hero of the moment. Miranda missed a good chance with a shot wide after a poorly cleared corner, and in the dying seconds Neymar over-complicated a free-kick from a favorable shooting position (and range) by clipping it into the box. However, another poor clearance followed and substitute Renato Augusto was presented with a great injury-time chance to slam it in from close range, but his effort was blocked.
There is no other way to construe this outcome than two points dropped by Brazil and a huge point won by Switzerland. After round one, Serbia unexpectedly top group E as the only team to win their game, but at this point it means very little.
Switzerland will fancy their chances of progressing to the knockout stages after this result having remained undefeated against the group favorites, while Brazil have to do much better than this if they are to justify the tag of one of tournament favorites. There is, however, enough time for them to improve their performance and get better results.
BRAZIL: Alisson 7, Danilo 7, T. Silva 7.5, Miranda 7, Marcelo 7.5, Casemiro 7 (60′ Fernandinho 7), Paulinho 7 (67′ R. Augusto 6.5), Coutinho 8.5, Willian 7, Neymar 7.5, Jesus 7 (79′ R. Firmino 7) .
SWITZERLAND: Sommer 8, Lichtsteiner 7.5 (87′ Michael Lang N/A), Schaer 8, Akanji 7.5, Rodriguez 7, Xhaka 6, Behrami 8 (71′ D. Zakaria 6.5), Zuber 7.5, Dzemaili 7.5, Shaqiri 7.5, Šeferović 7.5 (80′ B. Embolo 6.5).
GOALS: Coutinho 20′; Zuber 50′.
YELLOW CARDS: Casemiro 47′; Lichtsteiner 31′, Schaer 65′, Behrami 68′.
RED CARDS: None.
REFEREE: Cesar Arturo Ramos (Mexico).
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