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World Cup picture becomes clearer


RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil — Brazil relied on its star Neymar for two early goals to beat Cameroon 4-1 Monday and reach the World Cup’s knockout stage for a South American showdown against Chile, a 2-0 loser to the Netherlands.

Winning its Group B with its third straight victory made sure that the Dutch avoided the host so early in the tournament. Instead, the Netherlands will face Mexico, which beat Croatia 3-1 to advance alongside Brazil from Group A.

Spain beat Australia 3-0 in an inconsequential game between already eliminated teams, a victory providing a little balm on the disappointing defence of its title.

With free-flowing games and buckets full of goals the rule in this outstanding tournament, it took until the final minutes of the Group A games for Brazil to make sure it advanced as group leader on goal difference over Mexico.

Both finished with seven points, with Croatia eliminated with three points, while Cameroon finished with three losses. Brazil finished first because it had a better goal differential than Mexico, plus 5 to plus 3.

The Netherlands was the first perfect team to advance, finishing ahead of Chile in Group B. Spain had three points with Monday’s win, and Australia had three losses.

Beyond the statistics, it again was Neymar who fully lived up to expectations of the 200 million football fans in Brazil with flair and lethal finishing, making the difference with first-half strikes against an African opponent that fought hard for one half before succumbing.

Neymar used array of spin moves and delicate touches to get by players, delighting the crowd in Brasilia — including Britain’s Prince Harry.

Neymar has four goals from three games to lead the top scorer’s standings, edging a group of five players with three goals.

Much like the opener, Neymar carried the weight for his team, scoring the first with a subtle inside-foot flick while adding a second with a darting run before wrong-footing the Cameroon goalie with a right-foot drive.

The oft-criticized Fred may have kept himself in the starting lineup with a header just after halftime. Substitute Fernandinho closed out the scoring for Brazil.

With everything to play for, Mexico came through with three goals in a 10-minute spurt of excitement late in the game against Croatia.

So often in this tournament, goals deep in the second half have made the difference, and Monday was no exception.

The Dutch scored twice in the last 13 minutes against Chile to finish the group stage with three straight wins. Quite a turnaround for a team thought to be on the wane with aging stars like Arjen Robben.

Yet the Dutch have scored 10 goals in three victories. Now, only the foolhardy would relish the prospect of facing the orange-clad team.

“We wanted to be first in the group. Now we will see what is coming at us,” said Robben, who added an assist against Chile to the three goals he scored in earlier games.

Leroy Fer scored a minute after going on as a substitute to get the Netherlands ahead in the 77th minute. Then, when some other players had already gone down with cramps, Robben launched into another of his trademark sprints across the pitch and passed perfectly to Memphis Depay for the tap-in that put the game away.

While Robben is going strong after hitting his thirties, age caught up with the Spanish stars this tournament, particularly in their 5-1 opening loss to the Netherlands.

They regained a little pride Monday. In a game of goodbyes, David Villa marked his final appearance for Spain with a record 59th goal for the national team.

Fernando Torres, who set off Spain’s rise by scoring the winner in the 2008 European championship final, also scored. Juan Mata added the third.

Spain also won the 2010 World Cup and repeated as European champs in 2012.

At least Spain avoided finishing last in its group.

 
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