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Brazil are better, more dangerous in 2018 without reliance on Neymar

SAMARA, Russia -- When Neymar found himself face-to-face with Serbia goalkeeper Vladimir Stojkovic on Wednesday night, four minutes from the end of a keenly-contested meeting in Moscow, it seemed as if Brazil's showman might at last get his party piece. He'd already missed one decent chance and this time, his luck would run similarly low: out came his opponent, spreading his limbs like a starfish to block Neymar's effort. Rather then peeling away in delight as the net bulged, the PSG star turned away in frustration.

But here's the thing: it did not matter at all. For those who set stock in superstars, this World Cup might seem perfectly set up for Neymar now. Lionel Messi has gone home, Cristiano Ronaldo has departed too and Germany's big names have long since begun their holidays. But so far Brazil's progress, serene if not spectacular, has owed more to its supporting cast and raises the prospect that perhaps it can be a genuine team effort -- not the reliance on one individual that cost them so dearly in 2014 -- that takes them all the way this time.

So far, Brazil's key contributions have come from a range of places. There is something warming about the fact that Philippe Coutinho, who was under some pressure for his place going into this tournament, has been their best player so far. Coutinho curled in a stunning goal against Switzerland, added a vital late goal against Costa Rica and clipped a sublime assist for Paulinho to break down the Serbs; it has been his tournament so far, not Neymar's, and that has come as no surprise to the man tasked with finding a way to stop him in Samara.

"At the draw, speaking with Tite, he asked me who I considered his best player," said Mexico coach Juan Carlos Osorio last week. "And I told him Coutinho, ahead of the rest."

Listening to Osorio in his pre-match news conference two days later, it was striking to hear the order in which he ran through Brazil's main threats. First of all he brought up Coutinho and Paulinho as "players who can finish" and be dangerous around the area. Neymar was mentioned next, along with four of his teammates, as a danger from free-kicks and if it sounds like the usual reluctance of a football coach to go into detail about individuals then in this case, Osorio was simply describing how Brazil have shaped up so far.

Paulinho certainly proved his worth with that trademark burst beyond the defence against Serbia, showing that a lung-busting run from midfield can be worth infinitely more than a series of flashy step-overs. Thiago Silva confirmed that win with a textbook header from a corner and Brazil have been at their most effective when keeping things simple.

"The pack needs the wolves," said Tite at the Samara Arena on Sunday, meaning that every player in the squad is equally important, an attitude that, if maintained, could pay off handsomely.

There is more intrigue in the fact that several other key players have yet to catch light. Gabriel Jesus combined well with Neymar at times last week but has generally been quiet, failing to score in the group stage and facing calls for Tite to replace him with Roberto Firmino. Against Costa Rica, Douglas Costa made an impact as a half-time substitute for Willian but was nowhere to be seen during the Serbia game.

It adds to the sense that while Brazil are purring along nicely enough, they're doing so almost on auto-pilot. Of course, you can only succeed in doing that if your rank and file are of top quality.

"Outside the pitch I'm not a man of too many words," said Thiago Silva, sitting alongside Tite on Sunday. Perhaps that is the key for Brazil on the pitch, too. The big noise from Neymar may yet come but so far, they have looked relatively modest and communal, geared towards the collective.

"I think our evolution has been impressive since the first match, where many people said we didn't play well," Thiago Silva continued. "We won our second match at the last minute and that let us go into the third match with better self-esteem and the idea that things would improve."

Brazil are certainly evolving, and ominously for everyone else, they might just be learning how to do it together.