- Willian provided the assist for Brazil's first goal against Mexico
- Tite gave him the nickname "Little Rocket"
- Samara is famous as Russia's aerospace centre
By Giancarlo Giampietro with Brazil
When Willian latched on to Neymar’s backheel on the edge of the box with six second-half minutes gone in Brazil’s Round of 16 tie with Mexico, he showed exactly why his coach Tite calls him O Foguetinho (Little Rocket).
El Tri defender Hugo Ayala barely had time to react as the Chelsea man took two quick touches and burst past him into the area before delivering a low cross that Neymar stabbed into the net.
Brazil’s rocket man chose an appropriate stage on which to excel: Samara, a city that played a central role in the former Soviet Union’s space programme, starting with the manufacture of the Vostok 1 spacecraft that took Yuri Gagarin into space in 1961.
“The coaching staff have been calling me by that nickname and to be honest I’m delighted with it. It sums up the way I play,” said Brazil's No19, one of his side’s outstanding performers in the 2-0 victory over Mexico, in conversation with FIFA.
With his devastating burst of pace and pinpoint cross, Willian now has something to show for his efforts at Russia 2018. One of the stars in the Premier League, the Brazilian had yet to make a huge impact at this World Cup, though Tite and his coaching staff have been delighted with his contributions on a tactical level, not least because he has been getting through a considerable amount of work.
Willian also had a switch of position to contend with in the second half, as Tite moved him to a more central position, in behind the Mexican midfield. It was a switch that paid off handsomely for the Brazilians. Attacking down the right flank is his usual brief, however, one he combines with tracking back with the same intensity to lend a helping hand to full-back Fagner.
Tite singled the midfielder out for praise in the post-match press conference in Samara. In doing so, he highlighted something that can easily be forgotten: supporting players, the ones who are not in the limelight, can be important too.
“I knew it was going to be a natural process,” said Willian. “I’ve been improving with every game. If you start taking it easy, then you end up losing your place.” He knows what he is talking about, having been taken off against Costa Rica and seen his replacement, Douglas Costa, perform well.
The midfielder caught the eye with his movement and pace, all the more impressive given the searing heat in which the game was played. “It was hot, wasn’t it?” he sighed. “It’s important for us to be able to play without the ball. We did that really well as a team, and we defended well. When we do that it makes everything easier, because we know how much quality we’ve got up front. We have players who can settle games in an instant.”
Mexico can vouch for that. Contending with the Brazilian frontline is a major challenge for any defensive unit. As if A Seleção did not have enough firepower with Neymar – the Budweiser Man of the Match thanks to his goal and assist – and Philippe Coutinho, their very own space programme is up and running, with rocket man Willian helping to propel them into the last eight.