SAMARA - Beneath the fancy hair, the absurd solipsism and the antics of a latter-day Sun King, it is good to be reminded sometimes that Neymar is an exceptionally gifted footballer. It was his goal that broke the deadlock and if his influence on this game was far more positive than in any in the group stage, it was almost entirely because he played without that same furious determination to be the protagonist.

But, of course, he is the same Neymar, the same diva who must always be the centre of attention. Just when everything seemed to be going well, just when it seemed there might be an argument he was growing into his role, he reacted ludicrously as Miguel Layún picked the ball from between his feet as he lay by the side of the pitch. Perhaps the Mexican midfielder did brush his ankle, but the fourth official was roughly six inches away and saw nothing untoward, and neither did VAR.

Neymar, though, bucked and writhed as though he had just trodden on the third rail. Within seconds, once no card had been produced, he was back up and running as normal. It was hard to paint that as anything but the most scandalous simulation by a player who combines the most sublime skill with the most shameful self-indulgence.

It was a great shame, for until then everything had been going so well, both for Neymar and the team that keeps threatening to emerge from his shadow. Until they tired towards the end of the first half, Mexico had controlled possession and territory. Neymar had been reduced to a peripheral role, an occasional outlet, played high up field to be a conduit for breakaways, to attack Edson Álvarez, something he did so well in combination with Philippe Coutinho that it was Brazil who looked the more dangerous. But at half-time it remained goalless and there was a sense that Brazil could be facing a long battle in the sapping heat.

But six minutes into the second half Neymar picked up the ball on the left. In familiar style he skipped inside, scuttling past his full-back. Mexico got back, packed the edge of the box. It seemed certain that Neymar would take on a right-footed shot and the ball would be blocked. But then he did something utterly unexpected: he passed.

It was a backheel, but this was not one of his needless tricks designed to showcase his own ability or demean a defender, punishing them for having the temerity to stand up to him. This was a pragmatic backheel, one that changed the shape of the attack, that set Willian, making a crossover run, in space on the left side of the box. He crossed low and Neymar was there at the back post to claim his reward.

As a parable of the benefits of playing for the team it could hardly have been bettered. The goal was not just a symbol of Neymar’s improved display, but of Tite’s clever game plan. There were moments of rapid interplay, little darts and flurries that gave an indication of potentially great side lying not too far beneath the surface. For all that Mexico offered the idea of a threat, only a string of fine saves from Guillermo Ochoa, reprising his excellent display against Brazil in the last World Cup, prevented Brazil from having the game comfortably sewn up before the hour. The game was eventually sealed by Roberto Firmino a minute from time. Neymar will claim an assist, although there is no doubt he was shooting when Ochoa deflected the ball into the path of the Liverpool forward.

But this side is about far more than Neymar. This is a Brazil of many parts that are looking increasingly coherent despite a possible weakness at full-back. Fagner, brought in at right-back in place of Danilo, struggled against both Carlos Vela and Hirving Lozano, who switched flanks repeatedly as though both were desperate to have a go at Dani Alves’s replacement’s replacement.

Set against that apparent vulnerability, though, is Brazil’s most underrated quality. They are prepared to play without the ball, prepared to draw opponents on, and the two central defenders, Thiago Silva and Miranda, protected by Casemiro, are good enough to at least restrict the clear chances they give up.

Yet to an extent Mexico were complicit in their own impotence. It has been a feature of Mexico’s tournament so far that they do not make the most of their chances, that they sweep forward in green waves that do not necessarily produce much, a result of a lack of ruthlessness with the final ball and perhaps of a reluctance on the part of the midfield to get forward and support the forward line. Decision-making, again and again, let them down.

But it would be wrong to portray this as the Germany game redux, just with a different result. There was a sense of control about Brazil that Germany never approached, a feeling throughout that they were holding Mexico at arm’s length, restricting them, by the end, to hopeful charges at the box or speculative long-range efforts.

It was a game won with an impressive defensive performance and enough attacking flair that it always seemed a matter of when rather than if they would score. There are even signs that Neymar is beginning to use his talent for the collective.

I’m here to win. I hope I can improve always. I knew that I was going to need some pace to get back to my normal tempo. I feel much better. I’m happy for the whole team and I congratulate my whole team and we’re always improving. He’s a great goalkeeper (Ochoa). Everybody knows about Ochoa’s qualities. Congratulations to him on a great match. I don’t give up. I’m a Brazilian. It was a goal made of perception of will and being connected to the game and pushing the ball forward.”

– Neymar’s post match thoughts

Brazil            Mexico

          2-0

Neymar JR 51'
Firmino 88'