The months and indeed years of anticipation will turn into reality on Thursday when the 2014 World Cup gets underway in São Paulo. And it is sure to be a special atmosphere as host nation Brazil open the festivities for the first World Cup in the spiritual home of football since 1950. In order to exorcize the ghosts of that tournament, when they lost the final match to Uruguay in front of a stunned Maracana, a strong start against a talented Croatia side will be vital.
Win and win well and a large part of a population highly skeptical about the presence of the World Cup on their own doorstep will at least be fully behind their representatives on the pitch. The way in which they did just that in the Confederations Cup 12 months ago provides real confidence. In the opening game of the Confederations Cup, Neymar scored within three minutes against Japan to set the tone for both his and Brazil’s success in the competition. Coach Luiz Felipe Scolari, who led Brazil to their last World Cup win in 2002, would love for something similar this time around.
Since last summer Neymar has made his long-anticipated transfer to Europe with Barcelona, a move that has not exactly gone smoothly thus far. A strong start to life in Spain was derailed by off-field issues regarding his transfer as well as an ankle injury in the New Year. There was huge concern then when the former Santos forward rolled his ankle in training this week. A whole nation collectively held its breath. It is hard to overestimate just how important Neymar is to this side, both psychologically and on the pitch itself. Without a center-forward capable of manufacturing chances for himself as Ronaldo did in the past, Neymar’s ability to provide the inspiration cutting in from the left flank is key.
In the opening game, his battle with Croatia’s Darijo Srna will be a fascinating one. Srna has been one of Europe’s best attacking full-backs for several years now, and his reputation would surely have been higher had he not spent the vast majority of his time in Ukraine with Shakhtar Donetsk. But, while Neymar will garner much attention, it is on the other flank where Brazil could really do damage. An injury to Daniel Pranjic means that Croatia could well start Sime Vrsaljko out of position at left-back, allowing Hulk, who has looked good in buildup to the tournament, to prosper.
Croatia’s midfield is their undeniable strength, and the one area where on paper they have more talent than Brazil. With Luka Modric dictating the play and Ivan Rakitic, in inspired form for Sevilla last season, looking to provide the creativity from an advanced role, Croatia could see plenty of the ball. But Luiz Gustavo is superbly disciplined in the holding midfield role for Brazil and should limit Rakitic’s influence. The problem for Croatia in the opening game is that, even if Rakitic can get some freedom, there will be little presence up front with Mario Mandzukic suspended. A strong Brazilian defense featuring Thiago Silva and David Luiz will fancy their chances of keeping either Ivica Olic, Brazilian-born Eduardo or Nikica Jelavic quiet.
Arguably no team will ever have experienced the pressure Brazil will be under starting on Thursday. But last years’ experience coupled with the fatherly figure of Scolari means that the Seleção are likely to be inspired rather than inhibited. And they should be helped massively in that regard with what could turn into a comfortable victory.
Prediction: Brazil 2-0 Croatia
When and where: The opening game of the 2014 World Cup will kick off from the Arena Corinthians in São Paulo at 4 p.m. ET.