Brazil breathes giant sigh of relief, defeats Chile in PK thriller

Brazil dodged a bullet, downing Chile 1-1 (3-2) on penalty kicks after a gritty and tense match in Belo Horizonte to seal its ticket to the World Cup’s quarterfinal stage on Saturday.  

Julio Cesar made two critical saves, Neymar scored the key penalty in the shootout and Gonzalo Jara hit the post on the last attempt from the spot to give the hosts the win.

”My teammates are giving me a lot of strength on the field so I give my best,” Julio Cesar said after the match. ”We’re just three steps away and I hope to give another interview with Brazil partying.”

The host nation will be breathing a sigh of relief tonight after they managed to elude their South American rivals despite a labored and poor performance at the Estadio Mineirao that suggested the golden boys have lost a great deal of their luster. Nonetheless, Brazil will face Colombia on July 4 in Fortaleza.

TRIP DOWN MEMORY LANE

Chile came into the game with a grim record. They had not won in their last eleven visits to Brazil. Every time these two sides had met in a World Cup, Brazil had been the ones to send them packing. Brazilian newspapers were so confident of Saturday’s outcome that one boldly printed the flight times from Belo Horizonte to La Paz on its front page, a none-too-subtle jab. That hubris would prove costly.

Yet, from the outset, the game looked as if it would indeed go to script. Neymar looked dashing and dangerous, making scorching runs right at a Chilean defense that isn’t exactly prime-time. Two of them — Gary Medel and Francisco Silva — were on teams that were relegated last season; a third (Jara) is clinging on at Nottingham Forest, a mid-tier second division club in England. So when Brazil opened their account after just 18 minutes of play, it was if this one would be decided by the half.

Eugenio Mena needlessly handled the ball to set up a free-kick that keeper Claudio Bravo then needlessly punched instead of catching. On the ensuing corner, Neymar flighted the ball in to the far post and Jara appeared to kick the ball into his own net, around the lurking David Luiz. David Luiz, who had never scored a goal for Brazil, was eager to claim it, but the replays suggested he was the beneficiary of an accident.

Neymar looked simply too hot to handle, running onto long outlets from Oscar, and perhaps had he a little more help from the still punchless Hulk and Fred, this game would have had a far different scoreline. Instead, Fred kept sailing his chances into the cheap seats — and Hulk would prove to be at the center of a grave mistake for the hosts.

AS GOOD AS IT GETS

Off a simple throw-in from Marcelo, Hulk casually sidefooted the ball back, a routine play he has done thousands of times. But this time, the ball flew off and into the path of Alexis Sanchez, and he raced at Julio Cesar’s net, picked out the far corner, and slotted it home. The QPR keeper, on loan to Major League Soccer’s Toronto FC, demonstrated why he is not wanted at the Premier League side on the play, diving far too late and looking clumsy to boot — but credit Alexis for his fine placement.

Brazil’s attackers responded well, with Neymar at the center of everything. First he picked out Fred, only to see his partner badly scuff his take; then Dani Alves forced Bravo into a stop with a dipping shot from long-range. But Brazil’s defense looked comedic, with Luis Gustavo nearly coughing up another goal at the death of the half, allowing Alexis to run on again, slip in Charles Aranguiz and if not for a yeoman black by David Luiz, Brazil would have been in real trouble.

The second half was a very different story. Chile, building off their near-chance at the death of the first, slowly began to take the game over. They slowed it down, fouling tactically, and in so doing, largely removed Neymar from the game. It wasn’t until late in the half that Bravo was forced into making saves, and when the full-time whistle went, Chile were firmly on the front foot.

MONEY ISN'T EVERYTHING

The major talking point came just shy of the hour mark, when Hulk thought he had earned redemption, slamming home a goal off a beauty of a cross by Oscar. He had not. Howard Webb made a brave call, waving off the goal for handball — and replays suggested he was quite right to do so. Hulk appeared to collect the cross with his shoulder, but then used his arm to push the ball onto his right foot.

The call had the crowd seething, but there was no arguing — and so "Big Phil" Scolari went to his bench, throwing on Manchester City washout Jo for Fred, to boos from the crowd.

Chile added to the nerves, with Aranguiz uncorking a clean strike that Cesar did very well to bat away on the hour. It was the best stop of the game, but also a sign of how fragile Brazil’s back four truly are. Vidal and Gutierrez slotted the ball right through them with Alexis to set up the chance, and they were unlucky not to see that ruffle the net.

Extra-time was a similar slog, with Brazil looking utterly devoid of ideas against a stout Chilean defense. As the crowd jeered and whistled you felt that the entire nation was on a knife’s edge. Then when Mauricio Pinilla hit the crossbar in the 119th minute, an entire continent gasped.

The shootout saw a far more assured Cesar. He stopped Pinilla and Alexis, admittedly on weak attempts. But it wasn’t until Jara hit the post that they could breathe easy. Brazil’s road gets no easier.

"I gave an interview four years ago and I cried (when Holland eliminated Brazil)," Julio Cesar told Sportv. "I was very sad but now I am crying because I am happy. Only God and my family know what I went through and I still do. I hope to give more interviews like this, this is my dream."

On the evidence, few teams will be scared of them from hereon out.