David Luiz lined up the free-kick; a nation held its breath.
Moments later, the tension in Fortaleza evolved into pandemonium as the defender’s free-kick ripped into the top corner of David Ospina’s goal and secured a two-goal lead for Brazil in their must-win match against Colombia.
Luiz’s face was a tournament defining image: a concoction of joy and relief, fury and madness as he charged towards the fans before unleashing a wild kung-fu kick on the corner flag.
It was the single moment of awe in a performance otherwise lacking the typical Brazilian swagger and flair that is expected of the perennial World Cup champions. The South American’s progress was instead founded on stifling their opponents and complemented by a string of gritty, often illegal, tackles that disrupted play.
But their safe passage was put in jeopardy by an inability to control their emotions following Luiz’s magnificent effort. Marcelo bizarrely hoofed the ball into touch on 71 minutes, an impulsive act when a calm approach was needed. It was a signal to Colombia: Brazil are still on the edge.
Suddenly the free-flowing football from the group stages and last-16 made a belated arrival as Colombia steamed forward in search of a route back into the contest. The Brazilian ranks calamitously obliged.
Fingers were immediately pointed at Julio Cesar after he sent substitute Carlos Bacca tumbling in the penalty area, but the stopper was merely trying to atone for a catalogue of his team-mates’ errors – Marcelo’s reckless lunge in the build-up, Luiz’s failure to track a runner following a weak challenge and Maicon’s inexplicable decision to hold a solo defensive line a full five yards behind his colleagues in yellow.
James Rodriguez fired home from the spot and Colombia had hope with 10 minutes remaining. Their renewed optimism instilled fight throughout the team, fight that potentially played a role in the one sour point from Brazil’s win: Neymar’s injury.
Would Juan Zuniga have stampeded towards the poster boy with the same ferocity had Colombia still faced a 2-0 deficit? It seems unlikely. With a couple of minutes left on the clock, Colombian thoughts would have already shifted to what might have been.
Instead, Zuniga was overzealous in his attempts to win back possession and clobbered Neymar in the back. The end result: Brazil’s chief threat lying in a heap before being stretchered off and taken to hospital.
Despite their critics and frailties, the hosts held on to reach the semi-finals, albeit at great cost. Germany await Brazil in the last four, where we can expect a far more cagy match than the one on offer in Fortaleza – in part due to the absence of Neymar.
It seemed innocuous at the time, but Marcelo’s needless emotional clearance was the potential catalyst for Colombia’s fight back; Brazil must eliminate those minor lapses if they are to depose of the efficient Germans.
It remains to be seen whether Luiz Felipe Scolari believes his side can beat the Europeans playing an open, expansive game, but whatever system the manager opts for should come with the stipulation that his troops make decisions with heads rather than hearts.
If they can swarm around the German playmakers as quickly and effectively as they did against Rodriguez, then Brazil have every chance of reaching the final – even without their talismanic forward.
The hosts have steadily improved since their controversial victory over Croatia in the tournament-opening game, and their dramatic penalty shootout triumph over Chile suggested this was going to be Brazil’s year.
They might lack the swashbuckling squad of previous generations, but it appears every team through to the latter stages has an imperfection. Brazil have emerged from their early slump, look a more cohesive unit and are one win away from a final at the Maracana.
And, should they pass their next challenge, then there is surely no stopping Brazil in a final on home soil.
Ben Snowball - on Twitter: @BenSnowball
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