Brazil star Neymar made a stunning return from injury with a superb goal in their 2-0 friendly victory over Croatia on Sunday.
Just 98 days after suffering an injury he feared would keep him out of the upcoming World Cup in Russia, Neymar was back with a bang at Anfield.
The Paris Saint-Germain forward appeared as a half-time replacement for Manchester City midfielder Fernandinho as the Selecao stepped up their World Cup preparations.
And Neymar needed just 23 minutes to prove how important he is to Brazil’s hopes of a sixth world title.
Receiving a pass from Philippe Coutinho, Neymar cut into the area, beating Sime Vrsaljko and Duje Caleta-Car with impressive close control and dribbling, before burying a shot into the roof of the goal, via the crossbar, from the edge of the six-yard area.
Neymar ran behind the goal, in front of Anfield’s legendary Kop End, and punched the air in obvious delight as he was mobbed by team-mates.
The sublime strike leaves Neymar on 54 goals for his national team, one behind Romario, who is third on the country’s all-time list, and with only Pele and Ronaldo ahead of him in the Brazil record books.
Liverpool’s Roberto Firmino, on his home ground, completed the victory in stoppage time when he controlled a through ball on his chest and calmly beat the advancing keeper with a delicate lob.
Neymar, the world’s most expensive player following his blockbuster move from Barcelona last year, had been sidelined since the end of February when he fractured his foot playing for PSG in a league victory against Marseille.
He sprained his ankle and fractured his fifth metatarsal, requiring an operation which had left the 26-year-old facing a battle to be fit in time for Brazil’s opening World Cup match with Switzerland in Rostov-on-Don on June 17.
Neymar had spoken last month of his concerns about winning that race and described his rehabilitation as the biggest challenge of his career.
He also sat out training with the national team at Tottenham’s London base on Thursday as a precaution.
But Brazil coach Tite had announced his intention to use Neymar against Croatia, with the Brazilians having just one more warm-up game – against Austria in Vienna on June 10[tooltip id=”4500c2f113202943ff1ae30d00c9d4ac”] [/tooltip]– in which his asset can gain much-needed game-time.
True to his word, Tite brought on Neymar at the interval and he appeared comfortable, steering an early shot, from a wide angle on the edge of the area, directly at goalkeeper Danijel Subasic who saved well.
It was a notable afternoon also for former Liverpool striker Coutinho, who made his first appearance at Anfield since his transfer to Barcelona in January, and received a smattering of boos from some of his old club’s supporters.
He formed part of a potent three-man forward line that also featured Chelsea’s Willian and Manchester City’s Gabriel Jesus, who was named captain for the day, the 15th player to wear the armband under the reign of manager Tite.
Despite the looming spectre of the World Cup, now less than two weeks away, the game proved a physical one.
Croatia’s Andrej Kramaric and Ivan Perisic were both cautioned by English referee Michael Oliver in the first half, along with Brazilian Fernandinho whose high-footed challenge left Vrsaljko needing a large bandage to a head wound.
Neymar’s introduction at the start of the second half drew an enthusiastic reaction, from the Anfield crowd and his team-mates alike.
He joined Jesus and Willian in attack, with Coutinho dropping into the midfield place vacated by Fernandinho.
Brazil instantly appeared more threatening, with the PSG man linking up quickly with Jesus.
Before Neymar’s brilliant opener, Croatia might have struck first when Ante Rebic’s header forced a fine save from Alisson.
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