Brazil defeated Colombia 2-1 yesterday in a foul-filled match. But the hosts paid a price. Neymar, their best attacking player, will miss the rest of the tournament due to injury. And Thiago Silva, their best defender, will miss the semifinal due to suspension.
Brazil’s manager, Felipe Scolari, came up with both the lineup and the tactics necessary to bring down the high-flying Colombians. He replaced Dani Alves with Maicon at right-back. Maicon shut down his flank to the point that Colombia’s left winger was replaced at halftime due to ineffectiveness.
It’s funny how things work out. On the same day, Maicon and Lahm (of Germany) — the two best right backs of the past 10 years — were both restored to that position in their respective national teams, and both played an important role in helping their team advance to the World Cup semifinals. (Germany defeated France 1-0).
Tactically, Scolari’s plan was to disrupt Colombia through physical play. It worked. Runs were unceremoniously halted and passes were slightly off the mark, as Colombia struggled to keep its collective composure.
By the end of the match, Brazil had committed 31 fouls (a shocking number that equates to one every three minutes). At times, it reminded me of how South American clubs like Argentina and Chile used to play against the magical Brazilian teams of yesteryear.
But perhaps the most important pre-game decision was made by Colombia’s coach, Jose Pekerman. Colombia’s secret strength throughout the tournament has been its defensive midfield pairing of Carlos Sanchez and Abel Aguilar (with Alexander Mejia used in reserve). These two provided the platform that enabled the flair players to attack with abandon.
But for this match, Pekerman replaced Aguilar with Freddy Guarin, another attacker at heart. Guarin is a classic “luxury player” — a midfielder/winger of enormous skill, but one whose usage often carries a price.
To play Guarin instead of Aguilar or Mejia in a match like this was like bringing a Fourth of July sparkler to a knife fight. I almost fell out of my chair when I saw Colombia’s starting lineup.
The inclusion of Guarin effectively gave Brazil a 12th man — Space. And Brazil used Mr. Space to romp through Colombia’s midfield and dominate the first half.
It’s true that both Brazilian goals (one in the first half, one early in the second) came via set pieces. But Brazil created numerous goal scoring opportunities from open play and probably would have been up 3-0 by half time but for excellent saves from the Colombian keeper.
Up 2-0, Brazil became less physical. Perhaps they sensed that the biggest risk by this point was having a player sent off.
Colombia, aided by some good substitutions, responded strongly, pulling a goal back and threatening to get the equalizer. But they came up short.
It was a great run — the nation’s best showing ever at a World Cup. But in addition to questions about Pekerman’s selections (not just Guarin, but his persistent use of Teofilo Gutierrez at center forward instead of Jackson Martinez and Carlos Bacca, who nearly turned the Brazil match around), Colombians will be left to wonder what might have been if their most heralded star, Radamel Falcao, hadn’t missed the World Cup due to injury.
As for Brazil, they paid a heavy, but not entirely unjust, price for their victory. Midway through the second half, Thiago Silva picked up a yellow card for sophomorically interfering with the Colombian goalkeeper as he was dropping the ball onto his foot for a long kick. Brazil’s captain, arguably the best defender in the world, will therefore miss the semifinal against Germany due to an accumulation of yellow cards.
Then, in the closing minutes of the match, Neymar, the brilliant forward and national icon, was brutally fouled from behind by a frustrated Colombian defender. The result? A broken vertebra that rules him out of the tournament.
In a normal match, Scolari would already have removed Neymar, as he did in similar circumstances during the group stage. Such a move would have been particularly advisable because Neymar was a yellow card away from suspension.
But due, presumably, to the possibility of overtime and penalty kicks, Neymar was still playing in the 88th minute. Now, he will play no more in this competition.
The dream semifinal between Brazil and Germany will be diminished.