Brazil in control of own destiny as Tite's boldness pays off
ST. PETERSBURG, Russia (AP) — It will be remembered for Neymar's post-game tears, the two injury-time goals, and another big call from the video assistant referee.
Yet the dramatic finish to Brazil's 2-0 win over Costa Rica was instructive in showing the thinking of Tite and the plans the coach may have for his team going forward in the World Cup.
Often referred to as "The Professor" by his players, Tite demonstrated boldness and a bright mind in making second-half changes that, ultimately, changed the game and kept Brazil in charge of its own destiny in Group E.
Willian was hauled off at halftime and replaced by Douglas Costa, whose pace and trickery on the right wing allowed him to get in behind Costa Rica's compact defense. He set up the second goal for Neymar.
Roberto Firmino also made an impact when coming on in the 68th minute. Tellingly, he didn't go on as a straight swap for fellow striker Gabriel Jesus but instead for central midfielder Paulinho. It was only the second time that Gabriel Jesus and Firmino have played together for Brazil — the other time was for the final few minutes of a match against Chile in South American qualifying — and they combined to contribute to Coutinho's go-ahead goal in the first minute of stoppage time.
Brazil finished the game virtually playing with five attackers, two very attacking full backs and only Casemiro anchoring the midfield in front of his two center backs.
"It was beautiful, perfect," Tite said of Brazil's second-half display.
The question now is how he approaches the last group game against Serbia. Brazil needs only a draw to secure a top-two finish and a place in the knockout stage. Brazil is tied on four points with Switzerland and it isn't yet certain if finishing first or second in the group would be better ahead of a last-16 match against a team from Group F, which contains Germany, Mexico, Sweden and South Korea.
It seems likely that Douglas Costa will start in place of Willian, who was also ineffective in the 1-1 draw with Switzerland that opened group play.
The bigger debate surrounds the striker positions and whether Firmino will start alongside Gabriel Jesus for the first time. With Brazil not now needing victory, that is unlikely and Gabriel Jesus should start again, having looked more and more dangerous as the game wore on against Costa Rica.
He did benefit, though, from having another forward up close to him. Firmino played just behind Gabriel Jesus, and more and more space appeared.
"This World Cup isn't being (easy) for anyone," Gabriel Jesus said. "I thought I was going to have a heart attack, but we took care of the game in the Brazilian way. Of course no one wants to go through this kind of pressure."
Tite looks like being a coach who can handle the pressure, though. And his players clearly respect him, with Coutinho and captain Thiago Silva speaking of how the team is learning to keep going right to the final whistle.
It was Brazil's first World Cup victory courtesy of a goal scored in the 90th minute or beyond, and Neymar's goal — timed at 96:49 minutes — was the latest recorded stoppage-time goal in a World Cup match since 1966, according to the BBC.
"The great merit of this team was not giving up at any time," Silva said.
Another bonus for Brazil was the fact Neymar, despite his recent injury issues, played the full match.
As usual, he made the game all about him. He grumbled to the referee, he repeatedly clashed with opponents, he had a penalty overturned by the referee following a video review, and he wowed fans with his rainbow flick over a defender.
In the end though, Neymar finally delivered and the goal should take some weight off his shoulders. Hence his tears amid the post-game celebrations.
"Not everyone knows what I've overcome to get here," Neymar said on Instagram. "Why to talk anymore? Even a parrot can talk. It only matters to get things done. Those were tears of joy, achievement and grit.
"In my life things have never been easy, they would not be now! The dream continues."
Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80