Saint Petersburg (AFP) – Brazil had to battle until injury time against a dogged Costa Rica on Friday before Philippe Coutinho and Neymar scored, putting the five-time World Cup winners back on track for the last 16.
The Brazilians looked to be heading for a second frustrating draw in a row before Barcelona forward Coutinho escaped his marker to poke the ball through Costa Rica goalkeeper Keylor Navas’ legs in the 91st minute.
Such was the relief on the Brazil bench in Saint Petersburg at Coutinho’s goal that coach Tite sprinted onto the pitch before stumbling and had to be helped to his feet.
Neymar, who had a penalty award ruled out by referee Bjorn Kuipers after he consulted the Video Assistant Referee, volleyed in the second goal seven minutes into injury time.
Until the breakthrough, the world’s most expensive player was repeatedly frustrated by the Costa Rican defence and an inspired Navas.
Neymar’s goal has been recorded as the latest in World Cup history, FIFA said.
– Argentina ‘anarchy’ –
The late goals eased the pressure on Brazil after Argentina and the under-performing Lionel Messi slumped to a 3-0 defeat at the hands of Croatia that ruthlessly exposed the flaws in a shambolic team.
Messi barely had a shot on target in Thursday’s match and Argentina failed to recover from a terrible mistake by goalkeeper Willy Caballero that gifted the Croats their first goal. The two-time champions now face an uphill battle to qualify for the knockout phase.
With the 2014 finalists in chaos, the Argentina team management was forced to deny stories that the players wanted coach Jorge Sampaoli sacked before their final group game against Nigeria.
“It’s absolutely false,” a statement said.
In another sign of the disarray, several Spanish media outlets reported on an audio recording of former Argentina international Diego Simeone in which he lambasts the “anarchy” in the team and says he would choose Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo over Messi, if he had the choice.
“Messi is very good, but it is clear that he is very good because he is surrounded by extraordinary players (at Barcelona),” said Simeone, who now manages Atletico Madrid.
“The question I ask is ‘if you have to choose between Messi and Ronaldo in a normal team, who would you choose?’”
– Another surprise? –
Serbia take on Switzerland in the late game looking to build on an opening victory over Costa Rica earned through Aleksandar Kolarov’s brilliant free-kick.
A win in Kaliningrad would guarantee Serbia a place in the knockout stage for the first time since becoming an independent nation, regardless of their result against Brazil in the last group game.
“It’s very important that we have these three points in the bag but it’s not over, Switzerland will be the hardest match,” said Kolarov.
Switzerland coach Vladimir Petkovic vowed to keep faith with the rugged approach that frustrated Brazil as they look to apply the brakes on Serbia’s Sergej Milinkovic-Savic and Nemanja Matic.
“I will speak with the players and tell them we’ve had a great match against Brazil but that’s not enough. We have to give our best and we want to win the match,” Petkovic said.
In Group D, Nigeria must raise their game against Iceland after a 2-0 defeat by Croatia to avoid being dumped out after just two games.
The game carries added significance for Argentina, who will be hoping Nigeria can claim a win to improve their chances of remaining in the tournament.
Nigeria coach Gernot Rohr batted back a question about his job possibly being on the line if the Super Eagles follow African rivals Egypt and Morocco in heading out of the tournament.
“We will not lose this game so I do not answer this question. You can ask this question again after the game, but I will tell you we will not lose,” Rohr said.