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Four pre-tournament favourites have already performed far below par in their opening encounters. The calculations of the bookies and the travel schedules of the journalists are all going haywire.
The opening matches have recorded the following debacles: Argentina dropped points against Iceland on Saturday; World champions Germany crashed to a 1-0 defeat against Mexico and Brazil failed to get off to a winning start against Switzerland. It all started with the cracker between Spain and Portugal in Sochi.
Phillippe Countinho’s stunning strike, curled from outside the box, signalled a smooth ride for the Brazilians. An early goal is generally a balm to soothe frayed nerves.
Rivaldo, World Cup winner in 2002, had prescribed sangue frio (cold blood) for the team. “You can’t be worried; you need sangue frio to play, because if you lose concentration, you’re going home,” he said.
His warning wasn’t acted upon. Switzerland tweaked the script on Sunday night in southern Russia, Steven Zuber heading in the equaliser from a corner.
The Brazilians back home can groan and moan about the push at Miranda’s back, but that’s part of the game. Zuber once again exposed Brazil’s age-old vulnerability while defending aerial balls. Zidane knew it rather well and scored two in the 1998 final. Puny Wesley Sneijder exploited the same uneasiness in the 2010 quarterfinals to show Brazil the exit door.
So, for Brazil coach Tite, the wake-up call came early at Rostov-on-Don, but he has time to pull his forces together before the group E turns into a vortex.
Rostov was a famous battleground during the World War II, where the Russians earned a major counter-offensive success against the invading Germans.
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Likewise, Vladimir Petkovic’s multicultural Swiss group recovered from the early Countinho strike to slowly turn the tide. Neymar received some special treatment from Valon ‘Warrior’ Behrami, the Swiss vice-captain, and ended the match drawing 10 fouls, the highest for a single player at a World Cup since 1998.
Late intensity, including a close-range header from Neymar, failed to breach Yann Sommer’s goal. Brazil’s front trio, complete with Gabriel Jesus and Willian, could not find the cutting edge even with the introduction of Firmino. The Liverpool striker’s glancing header missed the target, though not by much.
“We had too many balls off target. If we had been a bit more focused we could have made the goalkeeper work a bit more. My expectation of course was to get a victory and I’m not happy with the result,” said Tite, who is convinced that Miranda was fouled by Zuber. “It (Switzerland’s goal) has nothing to do with positioning, it was a foul.”
His opposite number looked for something more in the stalemate. Petkovic said, “I hope they will start taking notice of us and start taking us seriously. If there is a lack of recognition, it is a pity. We showed that this team always believes in itself and can achieve results.”
If the upsets continue, the incredulous idea of Brazil meeting Germany in the Round of 16 will gain ground. In group D, Croatia are waiting for Argentina, armed with Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic, Mario Mandzukic and three points.