Neymar looks off again but scores as Brazil escapes Costa Rica, appears set for knockout stages

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A day after a loss to Croatia put Argentina on the brink of first-round elimination at the 2018 World Cup, five-time champion Brazil narrowly avoided a similar fate against Costa Rica in Saint Petersburg.

For more than 90 minutes, Costa Rica looked like it would stay alive heading into Matchday 3 and force Brazil to beat Serbia on Wednesday to avoid being knocked out in the group stage for the first time since 1966.

Then Philippe Coutinho jumped on a loose ball in stoppage time and changed everything. Coutinho’s finish from the doorstep – and another goal by Neymar moments later – gave Brazil its first victory at this World Cup, the 2-0 win also knocking out the Ticos after just two games.

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Neymar’s struggles continue

A day after Lionel Messi, Neymar’s former Barcelona teammate, was rendered ineffective against the Croats, Brazil’s No. 10 had a stinker of his own.

Neymar had no shortage of chances. There was the first-half break that Costa Rican goalkeeper Keylor Navas raced off his line to snuff out. There was the shot midway through the second half that went straight at Navas. Even in one-on-one situations, Neymar didn’t look sharp.

And he still doesn’t look fit following that long layoff leading up to the tourney because of a broken foot. Like Messi, Neymar can’t be expected to do everything on his own in Russia, especially with opposing defenders collapsing on him at every opportunity.

But tough defending doesn’t explain how Neymar squandered his best opportunity to that point with 20 minutes to play, when his blast from the top to the area curled around the post. Even his plea for a late penalty, given originally by Dutch referee Bjorn Uipers, was correctly reversed by Uipers after review. Neymar’s frustration boiled over moments later, when Uipers – who could have cautioned him for embellishment – finally flashed him a yellow for dissent.

The goal finally came at the end, even if the result was in the bag by that point. It doesn’t hurt. Perhaps it will prove to be exactly what Neymar needed to break out of his funk.


Costa Rica’s desperation almost paid off

The Ticos were one of the best stories at the last World Cup, coming within a penalty shootout of reaching the semifinals four years ago in Brazil.

But things got off to a rough start for Costa Rica in Russia with its opening-match loss to Serbia, which put Oscar Ramirez’s team in the unenviable position of having to win its second match against the most successful nation in tournament history to avoid being knocked out before their final group game. They almost got it done.

The Ticos played like their World Cup lives depended on it on Friday, standing toe-to-toe against their more famous opponents all game and nearly taking an unlikely lead in the ninth minute, when midfielder Celso Borges fired wide of goalkeeper Alisson’s net.

They slowed the Brazilians’ vaunted attack down by fouling early and often and relied on their one all-world player, Real Madrid backstop Navas, on the occasions when Neymar and Co. broke through. They even survived sustained pressure during a five-minute stretch early in the second half during which Brazil clearly smelled blood. Even when Navas was beat, Gabriel Jesus’ shot clanged off the crossbar. For a while it looked like it would be that kind of day for the Ticos, but it wasn’t to be in the end.

Brazil feeling good now

While Argentina’s performances so far have their fans expecting the worst, backers of their biggest rivals have to be feeling better.  

Sure, Brazil supporters expect more than an injury-time winner against Costa Rica from a squad that is always supposed to be among the title favorites. They expect more than four points from two matches. But the Selecao should still be considered among the contenders despite being less than convincing so far. Besides, with another win against Serbia, Brazil could go through as Group E winners depending on what happens between Serbia and Switzerland later on Friday 

Navas might be the best keeper in Russia

Spain David De Gea and Germany’s Manuel Neuer are probably considered the best two goalies in the global game. Navas has been better than both at this World Cup. Without him, Costa Rica doesn’t almost steal a result in this match.

It’s hard to underrate a player who has won three consecutive Champions League titles, but many seem to think that being Real Madrid’s No. 1, with all the talent in front of him, is a cushy job.

Playing for the Ticos, Navas, 31, has proven to the world that there’s no better backstop anywhere.  It’s a shame that he won’t get to continue to show his stuff into knockout rounds.

Doug McIntyre covers soccer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter @ByDougMcIntyre.

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