SOCHI, Russia, June 11, 2018 (AFP) : Neymar and his Brazil teammates landed on Russian soil in the early hours of Monday morning, fresh from beating Austria 3-0 in their final warm-up outing ahead of the World Cup.
As the clock ticks down to Thursday’s tournament opener in Moscow between hosts Russia and Saudi Arabia, the five-time World Cup winners arrived in Sochi, the Black Sea resort city where they will be based, just before 3am local time (0000 GMT).
The Brazilians made the journey with their confidence boosted after Neymar marked his first start in more than three months by scoring in the victory over the Austrians in Vienna.
Gabriel Jesus and Philippe Coutinho also netted either side of Neymar’s goal, as the Paris Saint-Germain superstar confirmed his return to fitness following foot surgery in early March.
The goal was Neymar’s 55th in a Brazil shirt, allowing him to draw level with Romario on his country’s list of all-time leading scorers — only Pele and Ronaldo have scored more goals for Brazil.
The 26-year-old had come off the bench to score in last weekend’s 2-0 win over Croatia in Liverpool, his first appearance since breaking a bone in his foot playing for PSG in February.
Sunday’s goal was a superb effort, the former Barcelona man controlling Willian’s chipped pass on his thigh just inside the box and then leaving Austrian defender Aleksandar Dragovic on the floor with some delightful footwork before rolling the ball home.
Brazil coach Tite said he felt “extremely proud” of his team, although he said they could be more clinical.
“I don’t know Neymar’s limits,” he said. “His technical and creative capacity is impressive. When we get him in the last third of the field he is lethal.”
Drawn in Group E, Brazil, who are second behind defending world champions Germany in the FIFA rankings, begin their campaign against Switzerland next Sunday, June 17, before also taking on Costa Rica and Serbia.
– Ronaldo cheers –
Meanwhile, Cristiano Ronaldo trained with Portugal on Sunday, as the European champions held their first World Cup training session at the team’s base in Kratovo, southeast of Moscow, five days ahead of their heavyweight opening clash against Spain.
All 23 players in Fernando Santos’s squad took part in a 90-minute open session held in light drizzle and chilly temperatures hovering just above 10 degrees Celsius (50 degrees Fahrenheit).
Ronaldo’s presence elicited cheers from the 100 or so fans in attendance, with a similar number of media present along the touchline.
The European champions play Spain in the 2014 Winter Olympics host city Sochi in the opening match for both nations on Friday.
Santos’s side will need no reminding of the importance of their opening match against Spain, after a 4-0 defeat by Germany in Brazil four years ago set the tone for a dismal group-stage exit.
The winner at Sochi’s Fisht Stadium will be in pole position to come out on top in a section that also includes Morocco and Iran.
The top two teams from each group qualify for the last 16.
Egypt are banking on the availability of Liverpool forward Mohamed Salah, who was injured in the Champions League final, as they try to get past the first stage for the first time.
The Egyptians arrived in Russia on Sunday, after Salah attended their final training session in Cairo on Saturday without taking part — he restricted himself to briefly dribbling the ball.
“The team is ready for the competition and morale is high,” national team manager Ihab Leheta told AFP at the airport in Grozny, where Egypt are basing themselves.
France, boasting the likes of Antoine Griezmann and Kylian Mbappe in an attack-minded squad, also arrived in Russia, seeking to win their second World Cup 20 years after their 1998 triumph.
Despite their impressive resources, France looked flat in a 1-1 draw against the United States in Lyon on Saturday.
Argentina, the beaten 2014 finalists, are another of the heavyweight teams already in Russia. They are looking to re-focus after their World Cup preparations were thrown off track when their match against Israel was called off.