Weblog: The football punter

Neymar can star for Brazil in quarter-final

World Cup quarter-final
BBC1, 7pm Friday

Brazil are improving with every game at Russia 2018 and they are worthy favourites to defeat Belgium in Kazan.

Four years ago the Samba Stars got through to the last four despite several unconvincing performances and famously crumbled in their 7-1 defeat to Germany in Belo Horizonte.

This time they are growing in stature and Neymar is reaching peak levels of fitness and performance at just the right time.

Neymar had an outstanding game against Mexico and is having a massive impact on the tournament, posting 23 shots (12 of them on target) and creating 16 chances.

Mexico had no answer to the 26-year-old's pace, skill and vision and substitute Miguel Layun resorted to sneaky tactics, deliberately standing on Neymar's foot and escaping any punishment from referee Gianluca Rocchi.

Neymar did plenty of rolling around to attract Rocchi's attention to the incident, opening himself up to criticism. But he soon got back to focusing on the football and his mental state seems a lot better than four years ago, when he was carrying the expectation of a nation on his shoulders.

This time he is showing greater maturity and is benefiting from having better players around him.

Philippe Coutinho has emerged as a key man and relishes the responsibility of playing more centrally.

Willian offers pace and penetration down the flanks and the least effective of the front four has been Gabriel Jesus, who is struggling to replicate the standard of his Manchester City performances.

However, Tite has stuck with a settled side - nine players have started all of their four games - and he will feel vindicated by the upward curve in performances.

The possible downside to using so few fringe players is that they may not be ready when they are needed.

Holding midfielder Casemiro serves a one-match ban against Belgium and his possible replacements, Fernandinho or Renato Augusto, have been short of football.

The enforced change is something Belgium may look to exploit as they bid to reach a World Cup semi-final for the first time since 1986.

Covering the space in front of the back four is a vital task and becomes even more necessary against the Belgians, who will be looking to get Kevin De Bruyne on the ball as often as possible.

De Bruyne was influential earlier in the tournament but had an eight-day break between the matches against Tunisia and Japan and was one of many Belgian players to produce under-par performances in the round of 16.

Towards the end of the Japan game Belgium showed commendable powers of recovery to turn a 2-0 deficit into a 3-2 victory, but they were staring defeat in the face until Jan Vertonghen's header fortuitously reduced the arrears.

Japan started nervously but grew into the game and even at 2-2 they were causing problems for the ponderous Belgian defenders with quick passing and movement.

On paper the Belgian back three of Toby Alderweireld, Vincent Kompany and Vertonghen looks impressive but the cracks were obvious with Vertonghen getting outpaced at key moments and Kompany tiring in the second half.

They struggled to cope with Japan and will have to do a lot better or risk being torn to shreds by Brazil.

At the other end they pose a major threat with De Bruyne and Eden Hazard playing between the lines and Romelu Lukaku occupying the Brazil defence.

But the South Americans have defended well under Tite, conceding just six goals in 25 games, and their back-line can provide the foundation for a memorable victory.


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Match in Focus

17:30 TODAY BT1

Huddersfield v Liverpool

Home WinDrawAway Win
Key stats
  • Huddersfield have failed to score in four home matches this season
Expert verdict
Liverpool’s terrific start to the season saw them talked up as serious title contenders but, while that is still the case, the Reds entered the international break without a victory in four matches in all competitions. However, it’s hard to argue with short prices about Jurgen Klopp’s team. The Terriers are yet to record a home victory this season, or even score a home goal.