LIVERPOOL, England — Only three months ago, Brazil striker Neymar was on an operating table and in danger of missing the World Cup in Russia.
Those fears largely disappeared Sunday when Neymar returned to action with smart dribbling, fluent passing and an impressive individual goal, which he celebrated with his surgeon.
Playing for the first time since February, Neymar scored the opener in Brazil’s 2-0 friendly win against Croatia in Liverpool after coming on for the second half. He then ran to hug Brazilian soccer confederation doctor Rodrigo Lasmar on the sidelines at Anfield.
"I am so happy to play football again. I have waited and worked a lot for this. I suffered, these were very tough three months," Neymar said. "When I saw the ball hit the net I only thought of those that helped me, Dr. Lasmar, my family, friends."
Neymar, who also withstood a few challenges in the game, received the ball from midfielder Philippe Coutinho in the 68th and dribbled past Croatia defenders Sime Vrsaljko and Duje Caleta-Car. He smashed the ball into the net from around five meters (yards) with his right foot.
The Brazilian injured the same foot playing for Paris Saint-Germain and underwent surgery in Brazil in early March. He did not warm up with the Brazilian team on Sunday, which had again raised concerns among supporters.
Neymar said he was 80 per cent at his best for the Croatia game.
Brazil coach Tite said Neymar’s return was "above the expected standard."
"Neymar is only human, but he came back above my expectations too," Tite said. "I was expecting much less."
Neymar had replaced midfielder Fernandinho at halftime with the score at 0-0. He quickly made his mark and raised the hopes of Brazilian fans for the World Cup, which starts June 14.
Tite wasn’t getting carried away, though.
"Neymar is going to have ups and downs like he had in training until the third, fourth game (on his return). Then he will have his normal standard," Tite said.
Croatia captain Luka Modric was among many impressed with Neymar.
"It is beautiful to watch him play again, he is special, one of the best in the world," Modric said. Brazil "improved in the second half after Neymar made the difference."
Liverpool’s Roberto Firmino scored Brazil’s second goal in the 90th. After Casemiro put the ball in the penalty box, Firmino controlled with his chest and sent the ball over Croatia goalkeeper Danijel Subasic to step up his challenge for a starting position in the team.
Brazil captain and No. 9 Gabriel Jesus was replaced by Firmino after an hour.
"I am here to help Brazil. I respect Tite’s opinion (in starting with Jesus) 100 per cent," Firmino said.
The striker also thanked local fans for their support, saying "it is good to play at home."
The same Liverpool supporters who cheered Firmino went out of their way to jeer Coutinho, who left the Reds for Barcelona earlier this year.
Until Neymar stepped onto the pitch it was Croatia which had the best opportunities in a match that seemed headed for a dull draw.
Defender Dejan Lovren had the best chance to open with a header that grazed Brazil goalkeeper Alisson’s right post after a corner.
When Fernandinho went off, Coutinho played a greater role and Brazil’s game improved.
The five-time World Cup champions play their last pre-World Cup friendly against Austria on June 10.
Monday will be a rest day for the team and Brazilian media claimed midfielder Fred will be travelling to Manchester for medical tests before signing a deal with Manchester United.
Tite did not confirm the move but said: "Our orientation is for them (players) to solve (transfers) as quickly as possible so they keep their head and effort focused on Brazil. If I were the manager there, I would try to sign him too."
Brazil’s World Cup opener is on June 17 against Switzerland.