Saturday, in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, the hosts needed every bit of good luck to move on and a crossbar in extra time and a post in the ensuing penalty shootout obliged. Those misses by the Chileans allowed Brazil to progress 3-2 on penalties. Yes, five of ten penalties were not scored.
Brazil got off to a shaky start aided by several fouls by their Chilean opponents on Neymar. The striker needed to get attention off the field three times before the 28th minute mark and the objective was obtained as he was never the same for the rest of the game.
The first half was a foul-ridden game where Chile’s Francisco Silva committed so many referee Howard Webb game him a yellow for repeated fouling. On Brazil’s side they committed more fouls by the 35th minute of the game than they had in any one of their previous three games.
The Chileans seemed content in allowing Brazil control the game but the hosts were ill at ease with that much possession. The Brazilians seemed more comfortable in counters than in direct attacks. The Chileans were equally good at either situation.
When the first score came, at the 18th minute, it was a Brazilian goal off a corner taken by Neymar. But the final touch was from a knee by defender David Luis at the far post. The unearned goal did nothing to stop the unbalanced play of the hosts and in fact made the Chileans act as if the score had been the lucky break it was.
The Chilean goal, by contrast, was a matter of Hulk playing clumsy defense deep in the right corner of his box and allowing Eduardo Vargas to intercept. Vargas one-timed it to Alexis Sanchez who was well into the Brazilian box and all the star striker had to do was turn around and place the ball at the far post leaving Julio Cesar no chance. Chile had scored a deserved, earned goal at the 32nd minute, and it showed in both their players and among the Brazilians who walked toward kick-off with noticeably slouched shoulders.
The first half ended with a telling gesture by Neymar. Webb whistled as the striker had just controlled the ball yards away from, and with his back to, the Chilean goal. The striker simply boomed the ball out of bounds. The score, Chile 1, Brazil 1, was a fair reflection of the effort made and opportunities created by both. Perhaps the best Brazilian effort was a solo shot by Dani Alves that Chilean keeper, Claudio Bravo, parried over the crossbar. But in efficiency and confidence, the Chileans more than matched the lucky Brazilian score and as they walked into the locker rooms it was the visitors who held their head up higher.
The second half was even more bizarre than the first, as the Chileans took over possession and yet could not produce more than a few chances—one was denied by a spectacular Cesar shave from close range, the other, a miss by Mauricio Pinilla, whose long shot beat Cesar but hit the crossbar. Brazil, in response, produced little and created less, they looked like the team we have been saying they are since last year, before the Confederations Cup, when Coach Luis Felipe Scolari chose Jo over Robinho or Ronaldinho, and Hulk and Willian over Kaka and Pato. The results of those poor choices were in close-up evidence today, but anyone paying attention would have seen them in the past three games too.
The Brazilians did not play like a team worthy of progressing. Their coach, as opposed to Louis van Gaal, for example, when facing the shortest team in the tournament, only had a few header chances all game and extra time long. Scolari, when seeing that Fred was proving too static a choice for center forward, decided to substitute for him with Jo, a taller pillar. Seeing that Oscar and Neymar were not finding one another all game long, he kept Willian on the bench and substituted for yet another defensive midfielder, and when he finally brought the fleet-footed Chelsea midfielder in he took his Chelsea teammate, Oscar, out. The game ended as it should have with no more scoring.
The inevitable extra time draw led to penalties—and these were just as weird. Half of the penalties were saved or missed and Scolari, not having seen many recent Champions League games, saved Neymar for last in the shootout. Ironically, Neymar’s conversion made a difference, but only after Alexis Sanchez missed his shot. Poor Julio Cesar saved two penalties only to see his teammates waste the effort on poorly taken ones, or in Willian’s case a shot that missed the entire goal.
In the end the Brazilians moved on, which is what the tournament promoters and organizers wanted. But this is the game where the “favorites” mask is removed from the hosts. No one can think that playing as they did today they could possibly beat any of the remaining contenders.