NEYMAR STARS IN STALEMATE
England keep Brazil at bay in Wembley friendly
HAD last night’s friendly stalemate been fought out closer to next year’s World Cup finals getting underway, chances are a penalty shoot-out would have been staged to decide a winner.
It is one of several ideas being mulled over by manager Gareth Southgate in an attempt to banish what has proved to be England’s footballing Achilles heel in major tournaments down the years.
The Three Lions have crashed out of either the World Cup or European Championships no fewer than six times from the spot and Southgate, one of those famously to fail from 12 yards out, in Euro 96, is desperate to avoid a repeat.
Whether such an unusual initiative would have been much use to settle England’s final international of 2017 is debatable. In 25 previous meetings between these famous old foes dating back to 1956, six penalties have been awarded and every single one of them has been missed.
Judging by the lack of finesse in front of goal from both teams, chances are the 84,595 crowd would have been in danger of missing the last tube home waiting for a winner had the game gone to penalties.
Most of this profligacy came from Brazil, but England also had their moments, most notably close to the end when a better first touch from Dominic Solanke would surely have brought a debut winner.
This late miss aside, though, it was an encouraging night for Southgate and his men against a Brazil team that has come a long way since the horror of losing 7-1 on home soil to Germany in the 2014 World Cup semi-finals.
Since Tite took charge in June last year, the swagger of old has been rediscovered and married to an impressive work rate.
Qualification for Russia from the notoriously tough South American group was achieved by a ten-point margin, while the attacking trio of Neymar, Gabriel Jesus and Philippe Coutinho will give any opposing defence plenty of sleepless nights next summer.
Neymar’s god-like standing back home was underlined by his every touch early on being greeted by the high-pitched screaming of 4,000 or so Brazilian voices. At times, it lent Wembley the feel of a Bros concert.
Drop the Boy was one of the Eighties band’s biggest hits, but when it comes to the world’s most expensive player, he long ago stopped being regarded as simply a boy from Brazil.
Neymar is the man who makes Brazil tick in a manner similar to the many greats of the past.
Possessing a work-rate that would make a marathon runner blush, his array of skills on the ball make Paris St Germain’s £196m man a delight to watch.
Be it how he glided past three English midfielders with the slightest of shimmies midway through the first half or the floated pass with the outside of his left foot that released Jesus moments later, everything Neymar did in front of an appreciative Wembley crowd oozed with class.
He was also invariably behind the second-half opportunities that threatened to bring a belated goal. The killer passes to Paulinho and Dani Alves certainly deserved better than shots that Joe Hart was able to beat away.
Such was the 25-year-old’s frustration at a team-mate being unable to add the finishing touch that he could not be blamed for going it alone in stoppage-time after dispossessing Jesse Lingard in the centre circle.
Much to Hart’s relief, however, the finish was also lacking from the game’s standout player and the ball rolled harmlessly wide.
A couple of outrageous back heels from Marcelo also drew applause from many more than those sporting yellow in one corner of Wembley.
So, too, did a drilled shot from Fernandinho that kissed the outside of Hart’s right-hand post 15 minutes from time.
That England stood firm under such pressure owed a lot to John Stones, maturing fast into a player worthy of the £50m outlay by Manchester City a couple of summers ago.
Harry Maguire, despite some unusually sloppy distribution at times, also impressed alongside Joe Gomez in a three-man backline that is Southgate’s stated blueprint for next summer.
Hart had just one save to make in the first half, the West Ham United goalkeeper beating away a Jesus header low to his left.
Even though he was busier after the restart, England can be pleased with their efforts on a night when only Alisson’s lastgasp block on Solanke in stoppage time prevented what would have been only a second win over Brazil in 27 years.
SO CLOSE: England’s Dominic Solanke has a shot blocked by Brazil goalkeeper Alisson Becker as the hosts threatened to grab a late winner at Wembley.