If opening games are anything to go by, then we could be in for a cracker of a World Cup. Brazil-Croatia had everything despite the eventual victory for the hosts, with Croatia taking a shock lead in an enthralling encounter before Neymar scored two goals to get his country into the lead, albeit with the aid of a highly debatable penalty, before Oscar rounded off the victory.
Brazil will be relieved to have gotten the win, but there will surely be questions asked of Luiz Felipe Scolari’s side after they were extremely fortunate to do so. The hosts saw almost all of the ball, but they were caused major problems by a Croatia side that looked to play on the break and attacked in a very primitive fashion. Brazil will certainly need to improve if they are to have any hope of winning the tournament.
After initially looking utterly terrified during the anthems, Brazil started off on the front foot, but didn’t have it all their own way. Croatia had already sent one warning signal earlier through Ivica Olic breaking down the left, and they came within an inch of scoring as Ivan Perisic’s cross from the right found Olic, who headed wide when he really ought to have scored.
Brazil recovered from their nervy start to begin to pour forwards in attacking the Croatian goal, but the hosts struggled to make much of an impact. A couple of minutes later, the entire country was stunned. Olic once again got clear down the left and cut a low cross into the area, which eluded both Nikica Jelavic and the Brazil centre-backs, eventually being prodded across the line by Marcelo, who scored the first own-goal in Brazil’s history, threatening a major upset and party-pooper in the process.
The shock seemed to jolt Brazil into life, however, and they soon swarmed forward in an all-out assault to find a goal back. First Oscar’s cross only just evaded Hulk, before Paulinho forced Pletikosa into a fine save, but Croatia were extremely fortunate to survive when Neymar’s attacking run left their defense strewn across the area. The ball fell to Oscar, who hammered in a left-footed shot from 25 yards, but Pletikosa, despite being unsighted, recovered to push it away and keep his side in front.
Neymar, perhaps showing signs of frustration, controversially ended up in the book shortly afterwards for clattering Luka Modric with his forearm, with the possibility of a red card only narrowly avoided. And perhaps predictably, a player some say should not have been on the pitch was the one responsible for finding a way through. The Barcelona forward advanced through the centre and, with options left and right and defenders backing off, opted to go it alone. His shot from distance was somewhat scuffed, but still well-placed, and Pletikosa was too slow in getting across, allowing it to creep just past his outstretched arm and in off the base of the post, causing celebrations more of relief than jubilation around the stadium.
After a breathless opening period, the game dulled down somewhat toward half-time, with neither side enjoying any other clear chances. After the second half began, Croatia appeared to be in panic mode, as they almost completely relinquished any hope of keeping the ball and let Brazil play as they wished. Yet with the Croats defending deep and Brazil lacking much in the way of imagination, it wasn’t looking easy for the hosts. A Dani Alves free-kick was the closest they came, the full-back whipping a decent effort over the wall but also the bar.
There was more controversy to come, however, when Brazil were awarded a penalty after Fred went down while backing into Dejan Lovren. It was a nothing challenge, and Croatia were rightly furious, but Neymar stepped up to take it regardless. A lengthy, stuttered run-up preceded his effort, which Pletikosa got his hands to, but somehow couldn’t keep out. Again, the stadium erupted and Brazil finally had the lead.
Brazil were still dominating possession, however, and almost killed the game off just afterwards. The excellent Oscar beat his man to escape down the right and curled in a fine cross to the back post, which his Chelsea teammate David Luiz rose to meet, but his header was high and wide.
More controversy was to come, and again it favored Brazil. Croatia regrouped to try and get something from the game, and a deep cross found Julio Cesar stranded with Olic swooping in to head the ball. Eventually, it fell loose, but Croatia were prevented from firing home after the referee judged Cesar to have been fouled. Unsurprisingly, Croatia were not pleased.
Despite that, Croatia continued to cause problems. Vedran Corluka headed wastefully wide from a Luka Modric cross, and the Brazil defense continued to struggle under the most rudimentary attacks. Yet as Croatia poured forward, Oscar escaped on the counter, and taking advantage of his pace and some further poor goalkeeping from Pletikosa, smashed the ball underneath the visitors’ keeper to make it 3-1.
In the end, it was a narrow victory for Brazil, but one they’ll hope to build on if they can shrug off some of the immense pressure they’re under. It was significant before, and despite the win, it may now get worse given the manner of their victory.
Brazil: César, Alves, Silva, Luiz, Marcelo, Paulinho (Hernanes 63′), Gustavo, Hulk (Bernard 68′), Oscar, Neymar (Ramires 89′), Fred.
Goals: Neymar (29′, 71′ pen), Oscar (90′)
Croatia: Pletikosa, Srna, Corluka, Lovren, Vrsaljko, Modric, Rakitic, Kovacic (Brozovic 61′), Perisic, Jelavic (Rebic 78′), Olic.
Goals: Marcelo OG (11′)