Neymar and Brazil kick-start Copa America to empty seats and silent fanfare

By Sports Desk June 13, 2021

Before Brazil's Copa America opener against Venezuela, there was a moment of silence to recognise the victims of the pandemic and those leading the fight against COVID-19.

It was a poignant scene. Somehow, it was made more powerful by the fact it was staged in front of thousands of empty seats at Estadio Nacional Mane Garrincha, the fans kept away from matches at a tournament held in part as a distraction from the global health crisis.

Yet the Selecao's simple victory, secured through goals by Marquinhos, Neymar and Gabriel Barbosa, only compounded the uncomfortable feeling that, perhaps, this tournament shouldn't be taking place at all.

CONMEBOL's decision to remove the event from co-hosts Colombia and Argentina over concerns around civil unrest and coronavirus cases, and relocate it to a country struggling with both, was questionable to say the least. The Brazil squad certainly thought so, reluctantly taking part only after making it clear they were deeply unhappy with South American football's governing body. Head coach Tite decried it as a "politicised" decision.

In the weeks leading up to the tournament, protests erupted across the country against the handling of the pandemic by president Jair Bolsonaro, who has been criticised for playing down the severity of a virus that has killed more than 460,000 of his citizens. Then, just when Brazil had agreed to play, Sunday's opponents were struck by a surge of positive test results, wrecking their preparations for a match where few gave them a chance anyway.

So it was that the Brazil and Venezuela players stood arm in arm in the centre circle on Sunday, in silent tribute before those empty red seats, faceless reminders of the awful toll COVID-19 has taken. It felt like this was why these teams had gathered here, that the football match to follow was an afterthought.

There were still things to admire about the subsequent 90 minutes. A depleted Venezuela performed admirably to keep Brazil at arm's length for 23 minutes and rode their luck when Richarlison's touch let him down and Gabriel Jesus steered a header wide. It took a set-piece for Tite's mean to break through, Marquinhos bundling the ball in from Neymar's delivery.

Joel Graterol in the Vinotinto goal had kept the scoreline down but was beaten again just past the hour mark, Neymar side-stepping and stuttering his way to the penalty spot before slotting home international goal number 67 after a foul on Danilo. Brazil's number 10 would have had two more sublime solo goals had his shooting been a little more accurate; instead, he put a pinpoint cross into Gabriel's chest for 3-0 after another drive into the box.

The players celebrated their goals with gusto but, after the full-time whistle echoed around the arena, there were few cheers or beaming smiles. This was job done, formalities over, onto the next one. They retreated back down the tunnel. The eerie silence lingered.

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    It might have been mistaken for criticism, had the former Manchester United defender not put so much onus on making it clear just how highly he rates Liverpool's right-back.

    "No full-back that I've ever seen in this country can do what he can do," said Neville, after animatedly laying out where he believes Alexander-Arnold, who has been questioned amid Liverpool's underwhelming start to the season and was left out of Gareth Southgate's matchday squad for England's Nations League match against Germany last month, can improve.

    "If he can get those consistency elements, we won't just have one of the best attacking right-backs this country has ever produced, we'll have probably the best right-back the world has ever produced, because this is a Cafu," Neville continued. "This is that level of full-back. This is something unbelievably special."

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    Work to do...

    Before the game, the 23-year-old – nurtured under Jurgen Klopp since making his debut in October 2016 – had created 467 chances, provided 60 assists and scored 14 goals in all competitions. The numbers, as Neville said, are "absolutely obscene".

    Of course, it is not Alexander-Arnold's attacking that has ever been cast into doubt, but his work going the other way. Indeed, with Southgate a more conservative and, arguably, pragmatic, manager than Klopp, it is perhaps no real surprise why many see Alexander-Arnold's defending as the factor holding him back on the international stage.

    Alexander-Arnold hardly helped his cause when the Premier League returned following the international break. He was arguably at least partly at fault for two of Leandro Trossard's three goals in Liverpool's 3-3 draw with Brighton and Hove Albion on Saturday.

    It is hard to argue a case, too, for his defending when stacked up against his competitors (primarily Kyle Walker, Kieran Trippier and Reece James) for a place in England's side. 

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    Prior to Tuesday's game, Alexander-Arnold's duel success rate (47.3) failed to match the other three, who vary between 56.4 (James) and 58.8 (Trippier). He does boast a better tackle success percentage of 60.6, though it only ranks third out of the four (above Trippier).

    But Alexander-Arnold, it must be remembered, has played a pivotal role in a side that has won every trophy available to them over the course of Klopp's tenure, as well as reaching two Champions League finals they lost.

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    When he stepped up to take a free-kick, just under 25 yards out from Rangers' goal, in the seventh minute, there was an air of expectation. Seconds later, the ball was nestling right in the left-hand corner, giving Allan McGregor – who went on to keep the scoreline respectable for the visitors – no chance. 

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    He was a menace throughout a first half Liverpool dominated with ease, teeing up a chance for Virgil van Dijk to head in a second with a sumptuous inswinging corner in the 28th minute and keeping fellow Liverpool academy graduate Ryan Kent quiet.

    One loose pass into midfield did see him exposed just after the half-hour, though Rangers never looked likely to punish the mistake.

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    Liverpool could have made it more comfortable, Darwin Nunez particularly unfortunate, but bar a late run from Junior Fashion Sakala, Alexander-Arnold was not tested.

    Alexander-Arnold finished with the most touches (96), a game-high 40 passes in the opposition half and joint-most tackles (four). A stoppage-time booking before he made way to a standing ovation from the Liverpool faithful was the only blemish on an otherwise spotless copybook.

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    That, surely, is enough for now.

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    Sane doubled his tally early in the second half before substitute Eric Choupo-Moting rounded off the scoring for the leaders in a one-sided Group C contest.

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