ESPN – SAMARA, Russia — When it comes to Neymar, if you blink, you invariably miss it. Midway through a sleek second half from Brazil, a commotion broke out in front of the Mexico bench and it took a matter of seconds to work out who lay at its heart. “Lay” was the operative word; beneath a crowd of pointing fingers it was Neymar, writhing like a dog that had overexerted in the stifling Samara sun, who commanded the attention and immediately it became clear that, for better or worse, Brazil’s star turn would become the talking point once again.
The debate will now rage as to whether Neymar overreacted to Miguel Layun’s stray foot — the Mexico man certainly seemed to have stood on the Brazilian’s ankle — when it should be zeroing in on what was arguably one of his most effective performances for the Selecao. He had not destroyed their opponents single-handedly, but that was exactly the point: instead he contributed diligently to the whole before appearing at the sharp end, performing the dirtier work and then doing what he does best.
Signs of an added maturity are appearing but then along comes an incident like this and once again, the question marks rear their heads.
“I think it’s more an attempt to undermine me than anything else,” said Neymar when questioned about the incident afterwards. “I don’t much care for criticism, not even for praise, because this can influence in a way the athlete’s attitude.”
Had Neymar not rolled along the touchline exaggeratedly after a challenge from Serbia’s Adem Ljajic in Moscow a mere five days earlier, perhaps he would have been cut a little bit more slack. Put together, though, the incidents do not look good and one conclusion, edifying or not, is that cutting out such histrionics would in some way remove an edge from his game.
Neymar certainly showed that edge at the Samara Arena on Monday. It took him 20 minutes to warm up but from the moment he first exposed Mexico right-back Edson Alvarez with a weaving run inside, the die was cast. A day after Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo exited the World Cup early, this was Neymar’s platform to mark himself as the competition’s preeminent star and with plenty of help from his teammates, he made a persuasive claim.
Shocks, mishaps and curiosities have arguably defined this World Cup so far but the tournament needs Neymar.
Mexico coach Juan Carlos Osorio had a point when he said the forward’s antics were “very negative for the kids watching.” (Osorio refused to confirm he was talking about Neymar but fooled nobody.) It was a fair comment but on the flip side, individual quality is what draws so many youngsters into a World Cup and Neymar was at his jet-heeled best here. Alongside those rapid sorties came more considered touches and the back-heel with which he released Willian before the opening goal, a constructive move rather than an extravagance, was indicative of a player thinking about consequences rather than simply revelling in actions.
“I think it had an impact on our pace,” said Osorio of the stoppage that arose from the Neymar-Layun incident. That is stretching the point, in truth: Mexico’s early vim had long since faded by the time the handbags started and their coach surely knows better than to deflect from a performance that faded sharply.
Whatever your take, the Neymar show will roll into Kazan on Friday looking its slickest for some months. Tite had suggested on Sunday that it will take another four or five games for Neymar to be at his best after recovering from the metatarsal injury that had, at one stage, threatened his full participation in the tournament. The signs against Mexico were that he is up to speed ahead of schedule and that he’s mentally in tune too.
“Neymar is improving in this aspect,” said Tite afterwards of the discipline his player showed, within the match’s natural confines at least. He said video evidence would show Layun had offended but preferred to concentrate on aspects of Neymar’s performance.
“Is it a sin to dribble in the final third? To make individual plays? The coach is looking for this,” the Brazil coach asked rhetorically. Overall, Tite explained, Neymar’s responsibility is “to play.” It is the truest thing he could have said and, you suspect, something of which he may yet remind his prodigy before the next stage of his quest for the World Cup trophy he craves.