It took less than three minutes for the Confederations Cup to spring to life.
Neymar, with his 21st goal in a Brazil shirt, moved into a tie with the legendary Leonidas and claimed a share of 20th place on the country’s all-time goalscoring ledger when he smashed home a shot following Fred’s chested layoff.
The newly unveiled Barcelona man put in an energetic, if not inconsistent, performance against Japan in Brasilia, and he had a hand in Paulinho’s goal just after the restart as well.
One of the few home-based players to see the pitch at Estadio Nacional, Paulinho surely gave manager Luiz Felipe Scolari something to think about ahead of Brazil’s next match against Mexico on Wednesday. Atletico Mineiro striker Jo—who rounded out the scoring in the third minute of second-half stoppage time—may have played his way into a starting slot as well.
Oscar, Hulk and Lucas Moura were also impressive for Brazil. On the other side of the ball, Japan saw encouraging performances from Keisuke Honda, Yasuyuki Konno and Atsuto Uchida, while Shinji Kagawa and Shinji Okazaki mostly disappointed.
All in all, there were takeaways for both managers at the final whistle, and in the next few slides, we’ll look at six of them.
He was unspectacular in the Olympic final against Mexico and unnoticeable against Barcelona in the championship match of the Club World Cup.
But against Japan in Saturday’s Confederations Cup opener, Neymar showed the passion, energy and killer touch that will have pleased Brazil manager Luiz Felipe Scolari.
Not only did the 21-year-old open the scoring with an emphatic finish after only three minutes, but he also played a part in Paulinho’s goal just after the restart—cutting inside and passing the ball to Dani Alves, who crossed accurately for the Corinthians midfielder.
Paulinho seems to be a Scolari favourite, and the fact that he found the back of the net will enhance his chances of starting Wednesday’s match against Mexico.
But alongside Bayern Munich’s Luiz Gustavo in the centre of the park, Paulinho forms one-half of a duo that is often susceptible to pressure and vulnerable on the counter-attack.
The introduction of a pure playmaker such as Hernanes might be just what this side needs, although Chelsea’s Ramires will be looking to play himself into Scolari’s plans going forward as well.
Still, Paulinho did the job against Japan. But the question remains: Can he and Luiz Gustavo withstand the pressure that Spain or Italy will put on them?
Yuto Nagatomo had to deal with Hulk; Atsuto Uchida was faced with Neymar.
But both of Japan’s full-backs held their ground reasonably well on Saturday, with Nagatomo, in particular, threatening to get in behind Dani Alves.
Italy, who play much narrower than Brazil, will provide an interesting opportunity for them, and Okazaki, Honda and Kagawa will likely benefit from that on Wednesday in Recife.
Hulk was a consistent threat on Saturday, repeatedly running at Nagatomo and placing dangerous crosses into dangerous areas. When he cut inside on his left foot, he was even more menacing.
Lucas Moura may be the more popular winger in Brazil, but Hulk’s showing against Japan was his best in the canary shirt for some time.
On more than one occasion, he might have earned an assist had Fred been more capable inside the 18-yard box.
Alberto Zaccheroni’s team is populated with excellent athletes, which is most evident when they gallop downfield on the counter-attack.
But the Japan manager needs his creative players to force the issue when they have possession.
While a quick, direct style of play will unlock certain opponents, it will create openings for others—as demonstrated by Jo’s goal.
Dropping one of Honda, Kagawa and Hiroshi Kiyotake a bit deeper might help the Blue Samurai keep up more sustained pressure against Mexico, who will be looking to the counter to generate most of their offense.
Just how important was Sunday’s win against France?
As soon as the Confederations Cup kicked off, it was clear Brazil had more of a spring in their step. This confidence was gained, at least in part, by breaking a 19-year-old duck against Les Bleus in Porto Alegre.
In both matches, Brazil managed to wear down their opponent, as evidenced by five of the six combined goals came in the second half and three in the final five minutes. Against Japan, you never felt the Selecao were going to come up short—or even concede a goal.
This sort of mindset would have been unthinkable even a few weeks ago, but it just goes to show how one result can right the ship.
Brazil might not be favourites to win the 2014 World Cup just yet, but they’re showing signs of peaking at just the right time.