World Cup: Richarlison's goal of the tournament candidate lifts Brazil past gritty Serbia
LUSAIL, Qatar -- Two goals from Richarlison propelled Brazil past a stubborn Serbia, 2-0, in the Selecao's opening game in Group G at the 2022 World Cup.
It took Brazil manager Tite's men a while to get going and, on a night when Neymar was subdued, it was left to Vinicius Jr. and Richarlison to carry the side to victory.
Here is ESPN's Gabriele Marcotti with reaction and analysis from Qatar.
1. After poor first half, Brazil spark to life
It took Brazil a while to get going against a well-organized Serbia, as evidenced by a first half that recorded the lowest xG total of the tournament thus far. And while you have to give credit to the opposition, it was also a first half when Brazil's creative outlets were silenced.
Raphinha flickered early and then disappeared, Neymar could not find space and rowed with Nikola Milenkovic and Nemanja Gudelj, Lucas Paqueta couldn't find the measure of his passing, and Richarlison was well-marshalled by the back three.
But football is also a game of individual battles. Neymar got battered by Serbia, eventually coming out of the match tearfully with an apparent injury but Vinicius, perhaps the most consistent attacking threat, put in the shot from wide that Vanja Milinkovic-Savic spilled into Richarlison's path for the opener.
And, of course, the second goal was all Richarlison genius and improvisation. You don't game plan for that sort of thing and Brazil coach Tite knows it.
Against Serbia it was enough and, of course, they also hit the woodwork twice and could have scored more. But Brazil will need to raise their game relative to what we saw in the first half.
It's nice to have a well of individual talent to which you can turn, but it's nicer still to impose your collective will on the opposition.
The game plan from Serbia coach Dragan Stojkovic worked for a half. He clogged the middle of the park, he got Serbia to be physical and tight without defending too deep, and he limited Brazil's attacking threat to individual forays, which were usually quickly snuffed out.
The problem was that there was a distinct lack of pace in his three most advanced players: Dusan Tadic, Aleksandar Mitrovic and Sergej Milinkovic-Savic. That meant going on the counterattack was always going to be tricky -- at best Serbia could hope to win possession in transition and hold up the ball, pushing forward as a team.
But on a night when none of the three were clicking, it became too easy for Brazil to defend that -- and, with the benefit of hindsight, you wonder if a fit, mobile Dusan Vlahovic might have been a better option.
The big man's only appearance in the past month was a 45 minute stint in a friendly against Bahrain last week. Maybe Stojjkovic is easing him into the tournament, knowing that he can be more of a difference-maker against the likes of Switzerland and Cameroon.
Brazil may well be the most popular national team in this part of the word. The Lusail's wavy bowl was a sea of yellow and the subway ride up from central Doha was teeming with canary yellow.
Many were Brazilians who had made the trip, but many were simply locals who have embraced the Selecao, whether because of Neymar's popularity or the five World Cups they've won or the fact that they are, once again, favorites.
Brazil being the neutrals' favorite is nothing new, of course. No country is as closely identified with the World Cup as Brasil. It does feel though, perhaps because of some of the tension between the European associations and the Qatari organisers, that Brazil as a team are more liked than any other.
Whatever the case, it seems Brazil will enjoy home-field advantage throughout this World Cup. Probably more so than hosts Qatar, judging by the way the Al Bayt stadium emptied when they were two goals down during the opener.
Yes, Richarlison scored two goals, one of them highlight reel stuff. But for consistency throughout the match, l'm picking Vinicius, whose accelerations down the wing were a constant destabilizing force even during a first half when most of Brazil's attack went quiet.
He was supposed to hold up the ball and allow Serbia to squeeze forward, but Marquinhos and Thiago Silva kept him at bay, neutralizing both his physicality and his ability to find space. Maybe he's not fit, but if this is going to be his level, it makes more sense to start Vlahovic, who at least offers a threat running behind the defneders.
The first half was a bit of a snooze fest: it wasn't just scoreless, it featured the lowest xG, or expected goals, of any first half in the World Cup so far, meaning good scoring chances were few and far between.
But Brazil sprang to life in the second half, finding a dangerous moment in the first minute after the break, and then a goal from Richarlison in the 62nd minute.
The only goal anyone will be talking about, however, is Richarlison's second goal: a flying acrobatic side-struck volley. Richarlison popped the ball up to himself -- perhaps with a mistaken, bad first touch -- and he finished it off beautifully.
After the match: What the players and managers said
Richarlison on his World Cup debut: "My childhood dream has come true. We knew it was going to be difficult to get past them. I'm used to playing against defensive teams like this in England. I wanted to take advantage of the opportunities that I had and I did."
• None The first half ended with Brazil generated an xG, or expected goals, of 0.21 whilst Serbia only generated 0.04. That was the lowest xG in a first half so far in this World Cup.
• None Richarlison is the fourth player to score the first two goals at a single World Cup for Brazil, joining Careca (1990), Neymar (2014) and Philippe Coutinho (2018).
• None Neymar took the brunt of nine fouls out of the 12 the Brazilian side suffered. Neymar's nine fouls suffered were much as every other player for both teams combined -- Serbia as a suffered six total.
Brazil: Group G resumes on Monday, Nov. 28, when Brazil will face Switzerland at 11 a.m. ET. Then, Brazil face Cameroon on Friday, Dec. 2 at 2 p.m. ET.
Serbia: Group G resumes on Monday, Nov. 28, when Serbia will face Cameroon at 5 a.m. ET. Then, Serbia face Switzerland on Friday, Dec. 2 at 2 p.m. ET.