It had been 14 weeks since Neymar had graced a soccer field. Fourteen weeks since the Brazilian superstar fractured the fifth metatarsal in his right foot while playing for PSG. And 14 weeks since he became the World Cup injury concern at the forefront of all Brazilian fans’ minds.
On Sunday, 11 days before the World Cup begins, Neymar made his first appearance in an official match since that fateful February night in Paris. And he did so in style.
Having come on as a halftime substitute, the 26-year-old picked up the ball on the left wing, drove at a Croatian defender, danced inside, and smashed a right-footed shot in off the crossbar:
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It was the first goal of a 2-0 Brazil win. Roberto Firmino got the second in stoppage time. And it was the perfect way for Neymar to announce his return. The message was heard loud and clear around the world: I’m back.
Neymar’s 45 minutes
Neymar replaced Fernandinho at halftime, and took his customary place on the left wing. Willian stayed on the right. Philippe Coutinho went into a central midfield role alongside Paulinho, with Casemiro behind them and Gabriel Jesus up top.
Neymar looked a step slow in the opening exchanges of the second half, but registered Brazil’s first shot on target around 13 minutes. It was a curler from the left of the penalty box that didn’t trouble Croatia’s goalkeeper.
Neymar grew into the game, though, often coming deep to get on the ball and spark attacks. He seemed more and more comfortable with each passing minute.
He punctuated his ascendance with the goal, with was vintage Neymar. He ran over to the bench to celebrate, emotion apparent. Manager Tite had celebrated with fist pumps.
“I expected much less of Neymar today,” Tite admitted after the match. “He surprised me.”
Everybody knew what it meant to have Neymar back. Brazil had been uninspiring in the first half without him. With him, the attack came to life. And confidence soared heading into the World Cup as worries eased up.
World Cup injury watch
Neymar isn’t the only star recuperating from an injury as the World Cup approaches. In fact, three of the planet’s top 10 players – arguably – are question marks. One day before Neymar made his return to the field, Manuel Neuer did likewise after an even longer absence.
The German goalkeeper hadn’t played since September after suffering an injury similar to Neymar’s in training, a fractured metatarsal. He returned to training with Bayern Munich late in the season, but never got back on the field. However, he started for Germany in a 2-1 friendly loss to Austria. And manager Jogi Low, despite having Marc-Andre Ter Stegen as the best backup option in the world, says Neuer will be his No. 1 if fit enough to make the squad.
Finally, Mohamed Salah is in a race to be fit for Egypt’s opener after suffering a shoulder injury in the Champions League final. He should be healthy enough for Egypt’s second match at the very least. But the first one, on the second day of the tournament against Uruguay, is in doubt – even if Salah gave us a vaguely positive update Sunday:
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