ROSTOV-ON-DON, June 18 — It began so promisingly for Brazil as a curling Philippe Coutinho strike from distance sent the green and gold masses into raptures.
But there was little more to celebrate for the hordes of Brazilian fans who made the trip to the southwestern Russian port city of Rostov-on-Don on Sunday.
Steven Zuber’s header put Switzerland on level terms and from there Vladimir Petkovic’s team went into their autopilot defensive mode to secure what could prove an invaluable point.
Most pundits expected Brazil to open their World Cup campaign with a comfortable victory. It was supposed to be the first step in the South American team’s quest to exorcise the ghosts of 2014, when Germany crushed their hopes of winning football’s ultimate prize on home soil with a 7-1 defeat in the semifinals.
Brazil have lost just once since Tite replaced Dunga as national coach following their group stage elimination from the 2016 Copa America. The run has prompted some experts to suggest that this is Brazil’s best team since 2002, when the attacking triumvirate of Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Ronaldinho led them to glory in Japan and South Korea.
But Switzerland have exposed cracks in the Brazilian side that were perhaps previously unseen.
Neymar, sporting a new spaghetti-top haircut that stood out more than his football, was a long way off the level that made him — according to FIFA — the world’s third best player last year.
He was too often and too easily closed down by the Swiss defense and was guilty on more than one occasion of trying to beat the opposition on his own.
Switzerland possibly targeted Neymar for some rough treatment, but the Paris Saint-Germain player’s constant complaints to the referee did not aid his cause, nor did it help to dispel the notion that he can act like a spoilt child when things don’t go his way.
Tite is renowned for his skills as a communicator and now might be a good time to take the former Santos player aside for a few home truths.
It shouldn’t be forgotten that the 26-year-old was only playing his third match after missing more than three months with a broken metatarsal in his right foot. Before Sunday’s game, Tite warned that the No. 10 is not yet 100 percent fit, suggesting that a sharper Neymar awaits Costa Rica and Serbia — Brazil’s other Group E rivals — in the next 10 days.
Neymar was not the only concern for Brazil. The defense looked shaky at times and despite Miranda’s claims that Zuber pushed him in the back moments before nodding in the equalizer, the Inter Milan defender probably should have stood his ground given the minimal contact made. Instead he lunged forward, effectively giving the Hoffenheim midfielder a free shot at goal.
Some of Tite’s decisions also raised eyebrows. It was slightly baffling to say the least that he chose to take off Paulinho — an effective conduit between defense and attack in the first half — and replace him with Renato Augusto, who has barely played this year and didn’t even make Brazil’s matchday squad for their pre-World Cup friendlies because of a knee problem. The Beijing Guoan player’s lack of match fitness and rhythm showed in his brief time on the pitch here.
It was also more than a little surprising that Tite waited until the 79th minute to replace an out-of-sorts Gabriel Jesus with Roberto Firmino. Jesus had a borderline penalty call go against him just before departing when he went down after jostling with Manuel Akanji, but the Manchester City forward was largely anonymous and it is tempting to wonder whether Brazil might be a more balanced unit with the all-round qualities of the Liverpool No. 9.
The good news for Brazil is that there is time to rebound. A win in their next match against Costa Rica – who failed to impress in a 1-0 defeat to Serbia earlier on Sunday – would ensure their campaign is back on solid ground.
Tite and his men might also take heart from the 2010 World Cup, when Switzerland beat Spain in the opening round. And we all know how that tournament ended.