With two goals from Gabriel Barbosa, Brazil stormed past Denmark 4-0 to clinch a needed win and keep their spluttering Olympic football campaign on track. But besides the result, the hosts sent an ominous warning to the rest of the quarter-final participants, as they finally discovered their blistering best form.
The vultures were already hovering overhead going into Wednesday's clash at Salvador's Itaipava Arena. Two games had passed without the Selecao even troubling the scorers, as minnows South Africa and Iraq held Brazil's highly rated young team to goalless draws.
Both of those ties had been accompanied by boos and jeers from the home stands. The noise began as a grumble in the opening match and rose to an accusing crescendo by the time the Middle Eastern side had inexplicably kept out Neymar and Co.
But now manager Rogerio Micale's men are breathing far more easily. Colombia loom in the quarter-finals, and while the South Americans will be tough opponents, they are far less formidable than the internal demons Brazil had to contend with. That is, before Gabriel ended a painful 206-minute scoring drought with an instinctive close-range finish.
"We knew we could play better, as we did today. We had two great games, but the ball refused to go in," an exultant Gabigol told reporters after his two-goal haul helped put Denmark to the sword, per Globoesporte (in Portuguese).
"It was a nice victory, but it's tough to talk. Our team played very well in the first two games, sometimes people only see the result and not the numbers behind the game.
"Today we managed to play better as a group, with more patience. The fans helped and we played a great game."
Part of Brazil's renaissance was that added belief. The team have shown a remarkable consistency in peppering their opponents' goal during the tournament: registering 21 shots against South Africa, 20 in drawing with Iraq and 21 on Wednesday's comfortable victory. The prosaic difference is that against Denmark, the shots finally went in the net.
The under-pressure Gabriel Jesus is an example of the wonders confidence can achieve in a misfiring forward. The Manchester City-bound man missed another good chance early in Wednesday's clash, as he attempted to steer home on his favoured right foot when he had the angle to use his left. But unlike the first two games, he would have time to redeem himself.
After Barbosa opened the scoring, Brazil looked like a different team. Toward the end of the first half, new introduction Luan Vieira played a neat one-two with the scorer down the right, and he smashed a teasing ball across the face of goal. Jesus was there to meet it—and after so many disappointments, he was finally able to celebrate hitting the net at this Olympics.
It was a moment that summed up the Selecao's recovery, and after the break, further goals from Luan Garcia and Gabigol sealed an emphatic result. It was a victory, too, for coach Micale, who took a big risk going into the decider which paid off handsomely.
Recognizing that Brazil's big problem was getting decent service to his three strikers in the area, the two Gabriels and linchpin Neymar, the trainer solved that quandary by simply adding another forward to the mix. Gremio promise Luan ran rampant against Denmark's static back line, forcing them to come out and meet him on the right while Jesus moved further infield.
That 4-2-4 system was extreme but proved unbeatable, as the spaces that were nonexistent in the first two games suddenly materialised, and the goals flowed freely. And after a discreet start to the tournament, the emergence of Barbosa was undoubtedly the key.
Santos' teenage superstar has long been compared to his former club-mate, Neymar, and it isn't hard to see why. He's confident on the ball, packed full of ability and, while not the most prolific of scorers, he has all the right instincts in front of goal.
Per the Guardian and the Daily Mail, Leicester City, Manchester United and Chelsea are just some of the teams looking to take the 19-year-old, and his stock could have only risen after this sparkling performance.
But before he can think of a lucrative move to Europe, Gabigol will have to keep his mind on the Olympics as the toughest test yet looms.
Colombia will pose a new challenge for the hosts on Saturday. With six goals in arguably the toughest group of all, the nation have shown they will not sit back and wait like Brazil's first three opponents. Rather, they will come out and attack at all times. And with Teo Gutierrez in lethal form in front of goal, the Selecao will have to be wary.
So far the Brazilian defence has barely been tested, as the excellent Thiago Maia has kept his back line shielded and unbreached from his holding midfield position. But Teo and his team-mates will be unfazed by the challenge of taking on the hosts, and the prospect of revenge for 2014's World Cup quarter-final defeat will add even more motivation for the Cafeteros.
Brazil finally got their Olympic Games campaign up and running in Salvador after two false starts. But there will be no room for overconfidence.
The road to the gold medal has only just begun, and the likes of Gabigol, Neymar and Jesus will have to play every bit as well as they did on Wednesday if they wish to keep marching toward the final in the Maracana on August 20.