Brazil 3, Croatia 1: Neymar does it all in controversial World Cup opener

June 12, 6:06 PM

In the end, the final score reflected what many expected to happen.

Brazil, the tournament favorites, defeated Croatia 3-1 in the opening match of the 2014 World Cup in Sao Paulo. Tricks, flicks and samba football reign supreme, right?

In truth, it was anything but.

Croatia provided stern opposition, even scoring the first goal early in the contest through a Marcelo own goal, but tired as the match progressed before succumbing to a defeat.

That said, if not for a very dubious penalty call that set the stage for Neymar to score his second goal of the day from the spot in the second half, this could have been a very disappointing day in South America's largest nation.

Oscar added a late marker to seal the deal.

Probably the correct result on the basis of play, but don't tell that to Niko Kovac and company, who proved that many were grossly underestimating them heading into the contest.

They will feel very confident of progressing from this group.

As for Brazil, Luiz Felipe Scolari will definitely have some concerns over the fragility of his defense, which looked vulnerable on more than one occasion.

Three points is three points, though, and there is still plenty of time for the hosts to get things together.

At the very least, the team's most important player is off to a great start.

June 12, 6:35 PM

Brazil 3, Croatia 1: Neymar powers hosts to controversial win in World Cup opener

June 12, 6:35 PM

Check out theScore's World Cup coverage.

The first half of the World Cup opener foreshadowed drama, but Brazil’s excellence took hold in the second half to undo any promise of a Croatian upset with a 3-1 victory.

Croatia played as well as they could’ve hoped, but besides Brazil's own goal, nothing much else went their way. While Brazil dominated the run of play, the final score is still unfair to Croatia.

The Goals

OWN GOAL! Marcelo (BRA), 11 min. Ivica Olic, who haunted Dani Alves down the left flank in the early going, sent in a low cross that was barely touched by Nikica Jelavic before it ricocheted off of Marcelo’s planted foot and past a hopeless Julio Cesar.

GOAL! Neymar (BRA), 29 min. Oscar won the ball in the midfield, gave it up to Neymar, who made it look like the ball orbited around his feet, as he moved forward, then shot from 20 yards out for the equalizer.

PENALTY GOAL! Neymar (BRA), 71 min. The everything for Brazil went from one side of the shot to the other, staggered his steps and fired to the left side of the net, where Stipe Pletikosa started to dive. Unfortunately, it was too hard for the Croatian keeper to handle. It went past him for the score.

GOAL! Oscar (BRA), 90 min. Oscar won the ball (a definite pattern throughout the match) in midfield after Croatia nearly equalized. With the back four pushing up, he moved quickly past two defenders before letting go a controlled strike aimed at bottom left corner of the net. Pletikosa, whose weight was inexplicable shifted in the opposite direction, couldn’t get across fast enough to stop it.

Man of the Match - Oscar

When he wasn’t winning balls in midfield — or at least leading the charge to win balls back — Oscar was dipping behind the Croatian defense, who kept a high line throughout most of the 90 minutes, to free up space for Neymar. All of Brazil’s attack seemed to go through him or be caused by something he did. Oh, and there was also the small matter of the goal to put the match out of reach.

What did the winning team do to win?

I’d like to say that the most forward four players on Brazil were all rotating interchangeably in the attacking third, but I can only confirm that Neymar, Oscar and Hulk were constantly changing positions. Fred’s whereabouts is still unknown.

The idea for Brazil seemed to be to give the ball to Oscar and Neymar, and let them be Oscar and Neymar — always a sound strategy. Hulk, and sometimes Fred would make runs off their possession, and sometimes get the ball, and sometimes not.

How did the winning team stop the losing team from winning?

In the early going, Olic had a field day on the left flank, moving the ball up and even sneaking in the box when the ball was on the other side of the pitch to receive a cross that just missed. His fun was ruined after the first goal when Thiago Silva replaced Dani Alves in marking him, and Paulinho and Oscar were recruited from time to time to assist. The result: He didn’t mount another serious attack all game.

Croatia executed their tactics well, countering as often as they could, but Luiz Gustavo, and later Hernanes, were especially effective in stopping the counter from entering deep into the Brazilian half.

The Controversies

A 69th minute penalty awarded to Brazil was … uh … questionable. Fred — he’s alive, and on the pitch! — made a meal of the morsel Dejan Lovren gave him in the box, tumbling to the ground to fool the referee into pointing to the spot.

A foul in the 83rd minute called on Olic ruined what would’ve been an equalizer for Croatia. Replay showed that he barely touched keeper Cesar.

The Takeaway

Good luck, Mexico. Seriously, both Brazil and Croatia played very well. Croatia were unlucky to have a penalty called against them in the second half, and otherwise might have escaped this match with a draw, or else even snuck another goal past Cesar.

Croatia's counter attack was very effective, even if it didn't result in the outcome the squad would've hoped.

After one match, it's very difficult to see Brazil and Croatia not emerging out of Group A.

Stray Thoughts

  • After Cesar’s emotional response to Brazil’s national anthem, I half expected the keeper to bite off the face of the first Croatian who tried to shake his hand.
  • Despite Scolari’s frequent antics on the touch line, it seemed — not surprisingly — that Brazil won the majority of the calls from the official that could’ve gone either way. However, there were two rather suspect throw-ins that Croatia won.
  • I'm pretty sure I've never felt as badly as Marcelo looked following the first own goal ever scored by a Brazilian in the World Cup. 
  • Luka Modric was exceptional in a box-to-box role. He’d frequently win possession away from the Brazilians — no easy task — and always distribute in a way that would lead to an effective counter.
  • Magic spray is awesome.
  • It would’ve been nice for Croatia if Darijo Srna could’ve provided a little more in attack. Perhaps it was due to the constant switching of the Brazilian forwards he was charged with marking, but the right fullback stayed back throughout the match.
  • The ovation for Neymar when he came off for Ramires was nice, but maybe not as loud as the first Brazilian with two goals in his World Cup debut since Amarildo in 1962 likely deserved.
  • Be sure to mind the banana peels.
  • Oscar's 90th minute goal made Pletikosa look especially awful. With the defender tracking from right to left, Oscar couldn't have gone to his right, so why on earth was the keeper shifting his weight that way, when Oscar placed his shot?

Feature photo courtesy of Reuters

June 12, 5:56 PM

LIVE - Brazil 3, Croatia 1: Oscar secures victory with late goal (VIDEO)

June 12, 5:56 PM

Take notes, kids.

This is not what you should aspire towards if your dream is to be a top class goalkeeper who plays in the World Cup.

That said, reserve more than a thought for Oscar, who was the best player on the pitch for the Brazilians, despite the fact that Neymar will get much of the plaudits with his brace.

Oscar made this team tick today, and he was rewarded for it.

Feature photo courtesy of Reuters

June 12, 5:39 PM

LIVE - Brazil 2, Croatia 1: Neymar converts very dubious penalty to give hosts the lead (GIF)

June 12, 5:39 PM

Fred showed up, and now everybody is talking about him.

The striker won a very dubious penalty (read: completely awful call from the referee), which allowed Neymar to step up and fire home a penalty that goalkeeper Stipe Pletikosa would certainly like to have back.

First, the flop:

Despite their utmost efforts to remonstrate with the official, Neymar happily accepted his decision to point to the spot.

[Courtesy: CBC]

Right through his hands.

Two goals for the Golden Boy of the World Cup. It doesn't matter how they go, just that they do.

Feature photo courtesy of Reuters

June 12, 5:26 PM

LIVE - Brazil 1, Croatia 1: Fred entirely absent through 60 minutes

June 12, 5:26 PM

Do you remember Fred? 

You know, the Brazilian striker who was supposed to benefit from the great attacking talent around him and bang in the goals with ease.

Yeah, not so much. 

The lone striker has been completely invisible through 60 minutes in Sao Paulo.

By that logic, he'll probably go ahead and score the winning goal of the match.

Feature photo courtesy of Reuters

June 12, 4:57 PM

LIVE - Brazil 1, Croatia 1: Hosts recover from slow start, go into break all square

June 12, 4:57 PM

The opening half of the 2014 World Cup has come and gone, and everything from the atmosphere to the enthralling action on the pitch made it everything we were hoping for.

In the opening minutes, however, it seemed the hosts were overrun by the grand occasion on their hands.

The Croatians, not expected by many to have enough to keep pace with their more illustrious hosts, were by far the better side in the opening minutes. Ivica Olic, who was the most lively player early on, found himself in plenty of space out on the left wing, and had the first real chance of the tournament.

Rising highest in the 7th minute to meet a cross at the far post, he sent his header into the ground, just wide of Julio Cesar's upright.

But minutes later, the Croatians got their goal.

A low cross into the area, by Olic, took a slight deflection before hitting the helpless leg of Marcelo and going beyond Julio Cesar for the first own goal by a Brazilian player in World Cup history.

Brazil, who had not lost a match since August of last year - a friendly against Switzerland - looked rattled.

They needed their star to step up and calm things down.

In the 29th minute, he did just that.

Neymar picked up the ball in the midfield after some good work from Oscar, who was at the center of everything the Brazilians generated going forward, and fired a low drive off the post and beyond Stipe Pletikosa.

He didn't hit it with the venom he would have liked, but he won't be complaining.

With the raucous crowd in Sao Paulo invigorated, Brazil looked the better side to close out the half, but were unable to find a second goal before the interval.

Here is how the first half played out, by the numbers:

BrazilStatsCroatia
10 (4)Shots (On Goal)4 (1)
1Fouls8
5Corner Kicks1
1Offsides0
70 %Possession30 %

Feature photo courtesy of Reuters

June 12, 4:37 PM

LIVE - Brazil 1, Croatia 1: Neymar ties game, sends stadium into raptures (GIF)

June 12, 4:37 PM

That's more like what we were all expecting.

The 2014 World Cup is supposed to be Neymar's tournament. It's been billed as such. 

In the 29th minute, the superlative attacker delivered on that promise.

[Courtesy: CBC]

The goal is Neymar's 32nd for the Selecao, a total he needed just 50 matches to reach.

The stadium, predictably, went into pandemonium as the ball reached the netting after nicking off the post.

Game on.

Feature photo courtesy of Reuters

June 12, 4:20 PM

LIVE - Croatia 1, Brazil 0: Marcelo own goal stuns football world, gives Croatia early lead (VIDEO)

June 12, 4:20 PM

Well, this is not what we all had in mind.

Croatia, who have started much better than their heavily-favored hosts, have taken the lead in the 11th minute through an own goal from Marcelo.

Incredibly, that was the first own goal ever scored by a Brazilian player in a World Cup match.

Not the kind of record they were looking to set, surely.

Also, Twitter, save your vitriol for the right Marcelo. Remember, just one "l" and not two.

Feature photo courtesy of Reuters

June 12, 4:08 PM

LIVE - Brazil vs. Croatia: Julio Cesar gets emotional during national anthem (VIDEO)

June 12, 4:08 PM

How much does this World Cup mean to Brazil?

Allow goalkeeper Julio Cesar to show you.

Wonderful.

Feature photo courtesy of Reuters

June 12, 3:48 PM

LIVE - Brazil vs. Croatia: Neymar limping in training (GIF)

June 12, 3:48 PM

In through the nose, out through the mouth, everyone.

Brazilian star Neymar seems to be alright after he was seen visibly favoring his ankle during the pre-game warmup ahead of today's contest with Croatia.

[Courtesy: SB Nation]

The attacker had the entire footballing world in a frenetic panic earlier this week when he rolled the same ankle in training, before continuing on and completing the session.

He has not been taken out of the lineup, but this is the last thing anybody wants to see heading into the match.

Feature photo courtesy of Reuters

June 12, 3:13 PM

LIVE - Brazil vs. Croatia: Predictable starting lineup for both sides

June 12, 3:13 PM

The team sheets are out at the Arena Corinthians, where Brazil and Croatia will do battle in the opening match of the 2014 World Cup. 

While many are expecting, and perhaps hoping, to see a straightforward victory for the host nation, the Croatians have more than enough quality to make this very difficult on Neymar and company.

Here are the starting lineups:

Brazil

Julio Cesar; Dani Alves, Thiago Silva, David Luiz, Marcelo; Paulinho, Luiz Gustavo; Hulk, Oscar, Neymar; Fred

Croatia

Pletikosa; Srna, Corluka, Lovren, Vrsaijko; Kovacic, Modric; Rakitic, Perisic, Olic; Jelavic

Feature photo courtesy of Reuters

June 12, 1:39 PM

Brazil vs. Croatia: Preview

June 12, 1:39 PM

It's here. It's finally here. Four grueling, terrible years without any World Cup action come to a merciful end today in Sao Paulo, when hosts and overwhelming tournament favorites Brazil open the competition against Croatia.

Hyperbole? Clearly. 

But this is the biggest sporting event on the planet, and if we don't use these over-the-top descriptions now, what are we saving them for?

On second thought, a Croatia win would certainly warrant embellishing rhetoric.

The Details

Teams: Brazil vs. Croatia

Time: 4 PM EST

Venue: Arena Corinthians, Sao Paulo

Television: ESPN (U.S. - English), Univision and ESPN Deportes (U.S. - Spanish), CBC (Canada)

Injury Update

Football fans everywhere were ready to throw in the towel earlier this week when it appeared Brazilian attacker - and poster boy for the tournament - Neymar suffered an ankle injury in training.

Thankfully, the Barcelona star was able to pop right back to his feet and continue the session, allowing the world to let out a collective sigh of relief.

Indeed, manager Luiz Felipe Scolari has no injury concerns heading into the contest, and will be able to field his best squad.

Croatia, meanwhile, are dealing with the absence of Danijel Pranjic, who is unlikely to start after he sustained an ankle injury in the team's final tune-up fixture against Australia this past weekend.

While not injured, striker Mario Mandzukic will miss the contest through suspension after being receiving a red card in the play-off tie against Iceland.

Historic Head-To-Head

The two teams have only met twice before, playing to a 1-1 draw in a 2005 friendly before meeting again one year later in the 2006 World Cup.

Oddly enough, the latter was also the opening game of their respective group campaigns, with Brazil emerging victorious through a superb goal from Kaka.

Foreshadowing?

3 Things To Watch

The Opening Ten Minutes

Sounds silly, I know. "Hey, you, staring so intently at your television, watching this game that you have been waiting four years to see. Make sure you watch."

Let me explain.

In the history of football's greatest event, the host nation has never lost their opening match. Of those 20 games, the home team has come away with a win on 14 occasions, while settling for a draw six times.

The early moments of today's game will go a long way in determining if that continues.

Brazilian supporters are expecting a victory. The world is too, to be frank. 

We often talk about pressure and how good, experienced teams handle it well, and cite it as the reason some teams fail at the big hurdles. In most cases, those making this particular argument are doing little more than wasting breath.

But this is not 'most situations.' Anything short of a sixth World Cup title will be far more than a disappointment. 

A Brazilian loss would be devastating for a country that has been planning a victory celebration for four years, hoping to use this tournament as a jovial distraction from the other issues the country is experiencing.

The first ten minutes will be a good indication of how the team plans to handle the burden of expectations heaped upon them.

Despite the intended humor, it's not an entirely incorrect statement.

Can Modric and Rakitic Dictate the Tempo?

It will be the most fascinating battle of the contest. 

While Neymar spends the day attempting to torment Darijo Srna and the Croatian defenders with his dazzling array of skills, the real duel to keep an eye on will be taking place in the center of the pitch.

Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic will be tasked with keeping possession and creating openings for their teammates while Luiz Gustavo and Paulinho, the guard dogs of the Brazilian side, do their utmost to keep them in check.

The two creative midfielders are coming off fantastic campaigns with their club teams (Real Madrid and Sevilla, respectively) and have more than enough quality to crash the party in Sao Paulo.

Croatia don't have the talent to match their hosts in other areas of the pitch, but they are arguably better equipped in the center of midfield.

Debunking Myths

Samba. Joga Bonito. Flicks, tricks and bicycle kicks.

It's the traditional cliche attached to the Brazilian side, and heading into this tournament, it's largely false.

Defensively solid with Thiago Silva commanding the back-line and the aforementioned duo of Paulinho and Gustavo providing a fierce shield for the defense, Scolari's team is capable of grinding out results.

Are there flashes of brilliance from Neymar and Oscar? Sure.

But this is not your grandfather's Brazil.