If there is another match at this World Cup as packed with drama and entertaining football as this one, then we, the neutral spectators, should count ourselves very lucky indeed.
On Saturday, Brazil and Chile played out a knockout tie for the ages, one with twists and turns, impressive defending, inventing attacking, a controversial decision and heart-in-mouth moments. It ended in the most traumatic of fashions, too—the penalty shoutout.
It looked like it was going to be all so simple for Brazil—who beat their opponents 3-0 at the same stage four years ago—when David Luiz (or was it Gonzalo Jara?) flicked the hosts into an early lead in Belo Horizonte. But Alexis Sanchez capitalised on some careless play soon after to restore parity, and from there we were treated to a glorious game of football.
Brazil, clearly affected by nerves, had their chances, but so did Chile, as both sides showed a commitment to attacking football that was commendable considering the stakes at play.
They could not be separated after 90 minutes—Hulk's smart finish having been controversially, if arguably correctly, ruled out for handball—so extra time was needed, another 30 minutes that Brazil dominated but in which Chile came the closest to scoring.
It was Mauricio Pinilla who nearly etched his name into World Cup history (and Brazilian infamy), as the substitute unleashed a last-gasp shot that rattled away off Julio Cesar's crossbar.
That meant a penalty shoutout. For Brazil, expected to win the whole tournament, to exit at this point was virtually unthinkable. Nearly 60,000 fans inside the Mineirao were demanding victory, with hundreds of millions more around the country similarly expectant.
Imagine the pressure on the players at the moment! But, as Cesar saved, Neymar scored and, finally, Jara (what a day he had) missed when he could not afford to, the unthinkable had been barely, fortuitously avoided.
Brazil were through...one down...three more games to go.
"In every match, the difficulties are escalating," Brazil coach Luiz Felipe Scolari told reporters. "The World Cup has shown that teams are very balanced.
"If you cannot exploit one or two or three chances, as we didn't today, then you might pay the price for that and go out."
Scolari was right about those difficulties. Later that same day, Brazil's next opponents, Colombia, showed exactly what a threat they possess and what a challenge they will now pose a Selecao side that clearly has its weaknesses.
Brazil have Neymar; Colombia have James Rodriguez. On Saturday, Rodriguez produced arguably the goal of the tournament, and he later rounded off another sublime team move to put a Luis Suarez-less Uruguay to the sword at the Maracana.
With five goals, the 22-year-old is currently the tournament's top scorer.
That second goal came from an assist by Juan Cuadrado, the winger's fourth of the tournament. Not since the 2006 World Cup has a player produced that many assists—when Francesco Totti and Juan Roman Riquelme reached the same mark. That is some prestigious company to keep, and this is clearly a team in a rich vein of attacking form.
Those two players are the challenge that now face Brazil, the latest end-of-level boss hoping to end their anticipated run to glory. On the evidence of Colombia's clinical despatching of a dogged Uruguay side, they cannot afford to show any ill effects from the Chile experience, even with nearly a week to prepare for another South American showdown.
This is the World Cup. This is the knockout round. Even for the favourites, there are no gimmes.
Results in brief - Day 17
Brazil 1-1 Chile—Brazil win 3-2 on penalties
Colombia 2-0 Uruguay
Brazil will face Colombia in the quarter-finals on Friday, July 4 in Fortaleza.
1. Notes from Day 17
– Neymar reminiscent of Ronaldo... It was interesting to note Neymar's actions during the stressful penalty shootout against Chile. Not only did he clearly request to take the fifth penalty—a confident move he more than backed up—he then celebrated Brazil's eventual victory alone, falling to his knees in the middle of the pitch as those around ran to embrace Julio Cesar.
Both were moves very much from the Cristiano Ronaldo playbook, designed to keep as many eyes on him and him alone. The 22-year-old seemingly already knows how to act the part.
– Enough about Falcao... While watching the brilliance of Cuadrado and Rodriguez unfold, much has been made about how Colombia's attack would be even more potent if only star striker Radamel Falcao were not injured for the tournament.
This is a tempting conclusion, albeit one that is probably flawed; the absence of the talisman has perhaps served to give the two men the room and freedom to express themselves so emphatically. It may be excessive to call it a blessing in disguise for Los Cafeteros, but it probably has been for the casual observer.
– Persecution complex fails... Without Luis Suarez, the hope for Uruguay fans was that their team would become an even more united bunch, with an "us against the world" mentality that would enable them to overcome a rampant Colombian side. Unfortunately, that was not the case. Turns out, without Suarez they are just a very average side—whatever mood they are in.
– Width of the woodwork... Brazil will celebrate long into the night, but Chile might understandably take a while to get over this latest defeat to their frequent vanquishers.
Not only did they hit the woodwork in the shootout's decisive penalty, but they were also denied by the frame in the final minute of extra time—when substitute Mauricio Pinilla beat Julio Cesar all ends up. On such small margins are life stories changed.
2. Quote of the Day
He has been ready since he was 17 or 18 years old. He is a simple player, he likes playing football. He takes a penalty as if he was playing with friends.
- Luiz Felipe Scolari, on Neymar (per Yahoo Eurosport)
3. Tweet of the Day
4. Goal of the Day
5. A good day for...
FIFA. Not to get overly pessimistic, but one wonders what might have happened to the party atmosphere that has surrounded this World Cup had the hosts, against all expectations, been dumped out.
Suddenly all the pent-up outrage at FIFA and the government may have exploded across the country, something the tournament's organisers will be relieved to have avoided. For at least another few days, that is.
6. A bad day for...
Gary Medel. Despite suffering a torn muscle in his leg, the Chile central defender (he's a midfielder by trade, but needs must when it comes to your country) covered over 10 km as he dug deep to deliver an admirable defensive effort.
But he could not quite go the full distance—he was substituted in the 108th minute—and could only watch from the sidelines as Jara's penalty agonisingly bounced off the post and clear of the goal. Football can be such a cruel game.
7. Tomorrow's schedule
Netherlands vs. Mexico (5 p.m. BST/12 p.m. EDT)
Having won all three of their group games, confidence is sky high with the Netherlands camp, and the form book should only serve to further embolden them.
Mexico have gone out in the last 16 in each of the last five World Cups, a remarkable run that speaks to their status as one of the good, but not great, sides of world football. Can they shake that up a little against Louis van Gaal's side, one that has looked dangerous in attack but occasionally suspect in defence?
Costa Rica vs. Greece (9 p.m. BST/4 p.m. EDT)
Both these countries will be delighted simply to have gone this far—but for one of them, the quarter-finals beckon.
Greece scraped through the group by the narrowest of margins, but they seem to have the defensive qualities to frustrate all but the most inventive of attacks. It remains to be seen if Costa Rica fit that bill—although their organised, adventurous and high-tempo playing style has already overwhelmed Uruguay and Italy so far.
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