They were one of the three suspect heavyweights going into the final matchday of the group stages, but five-time champions Brazil moved to the round of 16 with flying colours, defeating Serbia 2-0 at the Spartak Stadium in Moscow yesterday.
Paulinho gave Brazil a lead in the 36th minute before defender Thiago Silva headed home a Neymar corner 23 minutes after the break to seal a comfortable victory, their second in as many games after a disappointing 1-1 draw against Switzerland.
It was also a game where Neymar returned to his brilliant self and with Philippe Coutinho once again showing his class, Brazil looked like a team on the right course in the quest of hexa on a day that saw the biggest upset in this World Cup when South Korea sent defending champions Germany packing. Germany became the third world champions in a row to make a first-round exit after Italy and Spain. However, despite suffering an embarrassing 3-0 defeat against Sweden, Mexico made it to the last 16 and will face off with Brazil on July 2 in Samara.
Brazil started with the same eleven that won 2-0 deep into injury time against Costa Rica. They suffered a blow in the eighth minute when Marcelo limped off the ground.
After some cautious early exchanges, the five-time champions assumed control of the game against a Serbian side that opted to attack on the break. Misfiring Brazilian striker Gabriel Jesus got a couple of chances. In the very third minute the Manchester City forward broke through an off-side trap off a Coutinho delivery but struck straight to the Serbian goalkeeper Vladimir Stojkovic. He was once again in a one-on-one situation after being nicely fed by Neymar in the 24th minute, but wasted the opportunity by unnecessarily taking a long time before his feeble shot was cleared by a backtracking Serbian defender.
The moment of Brazilian joy came in the 36th minute and the initiator was their best player in the World Cup so far -- Barcelona forward Coutinho. The scorer in the first two games -- including a 92nd-minute goal against Costa Rica -- sent the perfect floater for Paulinho who went down the middle before toe-poking the ball into the empty net over an advancing Stojkovic. The hard-working Barcelona midfielder is no stranger to scoring goals; he was actually the second-highest scorer for Brazil during qualifying with six goals.
Neymar, who looked fitter than he did in the last two games, also had his share of opportunities. His 24th-minute shot after a couple of one-twos with Jesus was brilliantly tipped away by Stojkovic.
Serbia looked dangerous in the air. They got three corners in the first half but all of them were fisted away by the towering Brazil goalkeeper Alisson Becker. Interestingly, it was Serbia's first World Cup game where they failed to take a single shot at the opponents' goal in the first half.
They however came out firing on all their cylinders after the break in search of an equaliser and between the 60th and the 66th minutes, they simply tore the Brazil defence apart. And had Silva not saved an Aleksandar Mitrovic header with Alisson beaten in the 60th, it could well have been 1-1.
After absorbing that pressure, Brazil, who introduced Fernandinho in place of Paulinho, doubled the score in the 68th minute with defender Silva soaring above the rest to head home a Neymar corner. And after that there was no stopping Brazil's dominance.