Neymar needed only 23 minutes to reassure Brazilians that his recovery is right on track for the World Cup.
Three months after undergoing surgery on his right foot, Neymar returned to action for Brazil and inspired a 2-0 win over Croatia in an international friendly that showed fans, teammates and coach Tite that he’s in good shape for Russia.
“Any team would be relieved having such a player back,” defender Thiago Silva said after Sunday’s win at Anfield. “We are a great team, but Ney has that light. When the game gets tough, he steps up to the challenge.”
The first half was dominated by heavy marking. But after Neymar replaced Fernandinho, the five-time-World Cup champions were much more fluent and effective playing with the formation — Neymar joining Willian and Gabriel Jesus up front — that is likely to start at the World Cup.
Brazil fans, who appeared to be in the majority of the 35,000 fans at Anfield, were quiet in the first half but got noisier with Neymar’s appearance in the second half.
Musician Daniel Adriano was among the Brazilians who left Anfield in higher spirits than when they arrived.
“Without Neymar we can’t win it,” Adriano said. “After watching him score I am confident again that Brazil can win in Russia. I didn’t come here expecting him to do well, to be honest.”
As Brazil’s teamwork improved, Neymar’s individual skill level rose, too. He opened the scoring in the 68 minute after receiving the ball on the left edge of the penalty box, dribbling past Croatia defenders Sime Vrsaljko and Duje Caleta-Car and smashing the ball into the roof of the net with his right foot.
He then ran to hug Brazilian soccer confederation doctor Rodrigo Lasmar, his surgeon, on the sidelines.
“I am so happy to play football again. I have waited and worked a lot for this,” Neymar said. “I suffered, these were very tough three months. When I saw the ball hit the net I only thought of those that helped me, Dr. Lasmar, my family, friends.”
Liverpool striker Roberto Firmino scored Brazil’s second goal to seal the win.
Brazil coach Tite agreed Neymar’s return exceeded expectations, but he wanted to be cautious with the recovery to ensure his star player peaks at the World Cup.
“We were indeed under pressure from Croatia in the first half and his presence made us better,” Tite said in a press conference. “But we planned how Neymar was going to be used, he is different.”
He said Neymar shouldn’t have the responsibility to produce the match-winning play every game, “otherwise it gets inhuman. He is part of a strong team.”
Tite did not disclose whether he planned for Neymar to play the entire match against Austria in a friendly next Sunday in Vienna, which will be Brazil’s last warmup game for the World Cup.