Friday, 13 June 2014

Classy Oscar Transforms Brazil

Many millions of words and tweets and column inches will extol the virtues of Neymar following his virtuoso display which sparked a pulsating World Cup into life, and rightly so. The poster boy rose to the occasion with a sensual performance of electric imagination, scoring two goals which elevated his yearning homeland from a worrisome start to dramatic conclusion. But, without the joyful optimism and steely determination of Oscar, his midfield fulcrum, Neymar and Brazil would be weeping tonight. The Chelsea maestro was unfazed by the searing pressure, and set about altering the mood of an entire nation with breathless elegance. Without the gentle probing and relentless stoicism of Oscar, this tournament would have begun in agony for Brazil. If Neymar was the saviour, Oscar was his dutiful enabler.

At the best of times, it can be difficult for a player to replicate club form when playing for the national team, and that pressure is intensified immeasurably for a Brazilian playing in the sacrosanct yellow on Opening Night of a home World Cup. However, Oscar, perhaps more than any player on the field against Croatia, appeared to thrive in the hottest of conditions; his an effective performance of such ease as to be descriptive of any other game, at any other time, in any other nation. To Oscar, it's just football. Don't worry about external pressure or conjecture or hype; just give him the ball and let the game be transformed from one of incoherent meanderings to one of childlike spontaneity.

When Brazil most needed bold characters and clear minds, Oscar stepped forward, playing a varied and pivotal role in two goals before scoring one all of his own. It was truly inspirational.

In the coming days, you'll read plenty of prose on how the rampaging dynamism of Neymar hauled Brazil back from a rather jolting start and, to a certain extent, such eulogies will be correct. After all, the guy fashioned an equaliser seemingly from fresh air after twenty-eight minutes, with emotions turning decidedly sour in the face of Croatian iconoclasm. But, again, it's important to comprehend the sequence of events which led to Neymar being unleashed into that quadrant of space and opportunity behind the Croats' midfield. The genesis of that attack, indeed goal, can be found in the recurring fortitude of Oscar.

For a player of just 179 centimetres and 66 kilograms, Oscar is remarkably strong and has a commanding physical presence; two domineering attributes which were evidenced in the lead-up to Brazil's crucial equaliser. Where many contemporaries would have stopped dead amid pressure, Oscar burrowed through an admittedly-weak Croatian midfield, rebutting any attempt at escape from Rakitić and Modrić, until his will became reality. After emerging victorious from a complex jumble of tackles and charges and blocks, Oscar demonstrated his other charming skill: intellect. Quickly, he had the presence of mind to shift play to Neymar, who strutted forward before bobbling a shot beyond the reach of Stipe Pletikosa and into the net.

Marvelous. Uplifting. Parity.

From there, Oscar got better and better. In a first half long on exasperation and short on quality, he produced some wonderful vignettes, with intricate dribbles and daring displays of individualism yielding opportunities for his more ponderous teammates. He jinked and stroked the ball about with a calmness, a grace, an artistry, and it was all very impressive to watch. Finally, we were seeing all of the component parts of his game come together in one performance: the poise of a playmaker matching the robust mentality and work rate of a box-to-box general. To the particular joy of British folk who delight in such things, Oscar also showcased his crossing ability, which is typically deadly.

We were left with the impression that this guy could become a complete, total, wondrous midfielder, in the truest sense of the word. That, let me tell you, is fine praise indeed.

Yet, in the second half, Oscar managed to take his performance, and that of his team, to a different level. Mastering a wide right berth seemingly created to showcase his boundless versatility, Oscar was an ever-present danger, a thorn in the Croatian's side. Even when his more flamboyant skills and more risky passages of play were unsuccessful, the simmering starlet came back for more, with a bubbly energy football fans so admire. He kept probing, scheming, asking the question.

Inevitably, Croatia buckled. On sixty-nine minutes, Oscar received the ball in a rather benign position on the right flank, marshalled by two or three red-and-white shirts. But, in his rather magical and inimitable manner, he managed to navigate a route through. The reward for his brazen incision? A Brazil penalty, once Fred, the recipient of his imaginative pass, was tugged to the floor by Dejan Lovren. Neymar did the rest, rather unconvincingly.

Now, Oscar felt comfortable. Now, Oscar felt free. Now, Oscar turned on the style. On seventy-five minutes, he made Ivica Olić look thoroughly stupid, with a sway of the hips and a succulent flick which thrilled the watching masses. Indeed, in this often attritional opening salvo, it was the most Brazilian sequence of play we witnessed all night; a small taste of the rhythmic samba style so lauded in tournament previews. It was simply gorgeous.

In certain matches, your discussion with friends and family will include the line “he deserves a goal,” and that was undoubtedly true of Oscar on this most poetic of occasions. The little guy ran the show, providing ammunition for Neymar, his more regal master, and providing the means for Brazilian survival. Therefore, it was immensely satisfying, even for the neutral viewer, to see him pounce on a loose ball some forty yards from goal in the dying embers of stoppage time, and just run for the hills. Within ten seconds, he turned a dangerous Croatian attack into blind Brazilian jubilation, with a sauntering display of cut-throat, counter-attacking magnificence.

The crowning goal, a toe-poked effort which Pletikosa should perhaps have stopped, was fittingly emblematic of the wee magician; his relentless optimism, incessant forward-thinking and rapid improvisation all on show for a watching world to see.

Tonight, Neymar will shower in the praise of a billion tongues, but let's not forget the wizard patrolling behind him. In this prized victory for Brazil, Oscar was much more than influential. He carried the fight with a fine blend of bravery and a skill which was fascinating to watch. He dug deep to help his team and his nation in an hour of need. He shone on the brightest stage.

Now, as fans, we can only hope his blistering start is a harbinger of things to come in this most intriguing tournament.   

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