By CARL SETTERLUND
FOXBOROUGH, Mass.– One star wowed at Wednesday night ‘s international friendly between Brazil and Portugal, while the other was nowhere to be found.
One of the world’s preeminent talents, 21-year-old virtuoso Neymar had a hand in all three Brazilian goals and netted the 34th-minute winner on a bold jaunt down the middle all the way from midfield in a 3-1 win at Gillette Stadium.
“He has been playing very well for three, four years, since he started playing at (Brazilian club) Santos,” said Brazil’s manager Luiz Felipe Scolari. Neymar completed a pre-arranged move to Barcelona in July. “Only once in every 15 or 20 games does he not play [the way] he knows how to.”
Cristiano Ronaldo impressed last Friday with a second-half hat trick against Northern Ireland in a 2014 World Cup Qualifier – Portugal is in position to qualify, but has not yet clinched its spot.
However, he missed Tuesday’s short-rest tune-up due to issues with tendonitis. Real Madrid also has an important La Liga fixture on Saturday against a tough Villarreal side that’s 3-0 to start its season.
“He’s an important player, we’re talking about one of the best players in the world, and naturally he has a great influence in the way we play,” said Portugal manager Paulo Bento, who declined to blame the loss on Ronaldo’s absence.
Instead, he cited defensive breakdowns and an inability to finish their chances.
Scolari, who is Brazilian but managed the Portuguese national team from 2003-2008, was asked if he missed Ronaldo on Tuesday. He responded that while he misses the personal friendship, “he would complicate our life a lot more.”
The high-profile absence adds a bit of uncertainty toward how a potential World Cup knockout stage rematch would turn out, but Neymar showed he could pick apart a world class Portuguese back line that includes Pepe and Fabio Coentrão.
“It’s a tactic, a way of playing in which Neymar has less responsibility to mark opponents and we add responsibilities to our midfielders,” Scolari said. “That’s where Neymar has to make the difference, the way he did today.”
Brazil actually fell behind early on in the 17th minute after Raul Meireles exploited a rare gaffe from Maicon. After Julio Cesar saved an initial try by Miguel Veloso, Maicon thought he had a safe play heading the ball back to his keeper, despite several Portuguese players still in the box.
Meireles sniffed out the lack of urgency and came swooping in to steal it away for a tap-in.
The 1-0 lead only lasted seven minutes, though, as Neymar picked out David Luiz on a left side corner and the brawny defender won the aerial battle at the far post, banging home a header in the 24th minute to make it all square again.
Although there were stretches where the two sides looked to be each other’s equal, it soon became clear that a motivated Neymar would be the tipping point.
He delivered a stunning individual effort on Brazil’s 34th-minute winner, carrying the ball straight down Main Street and shredding the Portuguese defense.
It was a crushing swing moment for Portugal as, just a minute earlier, Nani had headed a ball from Vieirinha off the right post. Meireles had a similar close miss in the 12th minute, sending a Joao Pereira right side cross off the near post.
Yellow-and-blue clad Brazil made it a two-goal lead on a bang-bang play Neymar initiated in the 49th minute. He sent a crisp ball to Maxwell down the left end line, who then kept it on the ground, quickly centering it for Jô to run onto the ball for a poacher’s goal that made it 3-1.
Brazil went for the result the rest of the way, but Scolari also used five substitutes in the final half hour. Scolari claimed afterward that two new players, apart from his established core group, impressed him enough to likely gain a roster spot on next summer’s World Cup squad.
He declined to identify which two players.
Pelé and Portuguese legend Eusébio made a special appearance during the introductions, resulting in an uproar from near-sellout crowd of 62,310 at Gillette.
Neymar received a slightly smaller ovation upon his exit in the 89th minute.
Asked what he and Pelé spoke about, Scolari was coy over the input he offered.
“We didn’t have too much time to speak – in passing [it was] ‘How are you?’ ‘How’s everything going?’ and, what else?” Scolari said with a smirk.
Advice from Pelé or not, Scolari seems to have a good handle on surging Brazil.