Two goals from Neymar and the aid of the softest of penalties saw Brazil eventually overcome some early tournament tentativeness to get their World Cup off to a winning start with a 3-1 result over Croatia in Sao Paulo.
With the game tied heading into the final 20 minutes, Brazil striker Fred flopped to the ground under little contact and referee Yuicihi Nishimura pointed to the spot to do the hosts the most gracious of favors. They got a helping hand from Croatia’s goalkeeper, Stipe Pletikosa, too, whose two hands couldn’t keep out the resulting penalty from Neymar despite getting both to the ball. Oscar then went on to add a third in injury time, assisted by more questionable goalkeeping, to clinch an opening three points.
It was an unfortunate ending for Croatia, who arrived into the opening game eager to play spoilers and proving they had the talent to be more than mere cannon fodder for the expectant locals’ celebration. After just 11 minutes they stunned the home crowd in the just finished Arena Corinthians with Marcelo turning the ball into his own net. It was the most ignominious of beginning for the slow-to-start hosts.
While never finding the level that has made them favorites to lift the World Cup for the first time on home soil, Brazil responded before the interval with Neymar taking the full weight of the pressure on his slight shoulders and sending a low shot squirming into the corner of the net. But Luiz Felipe Scolari’s side failed to build on that momentum into the second half. The stage was looking set for a most underwhelming of opening draws until Fred dropped to the ground, the referee obliged the demands of the thousands in attendance and Neymar just about did the rest.
Brazil had the win, but it was anything but comfortable. The expected quick start that they produced in the Confederations Cup last year failed to arrive on this occasion. From the off, Brazil lacked intensity both with and without the ball, in sharp contrast to their opponents. Croatia appeared eager to make their mark and join the legacy of World Cup opening-game upsets. In the first minute, Mateo Kovacic hit a snap shot just wide of the post. With Brazil far too open in transition as its central midfield was passed around, a glorious chance for their opponents soon followed. Ivan Perisic’s in-swinging cross from the right saw Ivica Olic easily get up above Dani Alves but his header was mistimed and off target.
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Still Brazil failed to heed the warning, and the hosts soon found themselves staring at a deficit. Predictably it came on the counter attack. Ivan Rakitic found the ageless Olic surging forward down the left and his teasing low cross got a slight touch off of Nikica Jelavic to befuddle Marcelo, who bundled the ball into his own net.
Brazil still struggled to rouse themselves, with Dani Alves epitomizing his team’s struggled by being caught in possession more than once. Thankfully, they had two players beginning to make their mark, Oscar and Neymar. The two combined to manufacture Brazil’s first real chance of the tournament when Neymar’s half-cleared cross was fired at goal by Oscar and the veteran Pletikosa made a smart save.
But Croatia’s goalkeeper was caught out, not for the last time, right before the half-hour mark, when Oscar and Neymar combined once more to bring Brazil level. It was Oscar’s tenacity that won the ball back just inside the opposition half and Croatia’s attack-minded midfield was exposed to allow Neymar a clear run at their back four. From 20 yards, he hit far from the sweetest shot he’ll ever produce but easily one of the most memorable as it beat the dive of Pletikosa and squeezed in off the foot of the post.
There were signs that Croatia could now be in for an onslaught, with some aware defending required to stop Neymar and Paulinho getting efforts away before half-time. To much surprise, though, Brazil came out for the second half with the same lack of purpose that they began the first. With Croatia also now missing the same offensive threat they offered early on, the match became a more labored affair. The ineffective Paulinho was taken off for Hernanes, but it would be the Japanese referee who was Brazil’s savior.
With his back to goal, Brazil striker Fred felt a hand on his left shoulder from Croatia defender Dejan Lovren and he embellished it to its full potential. After a delay as the protests unsurprisingly arrived from those in red and white, Neymar stepped up and, after a split-second of fear as Pletikosa got his hands to it, a nation erupted in joy and relief when it hit the back of the net.
Still Brazil were edgy. Croatia were again unlucky with the officials’ call when Olic was adjudged to have fouled Brazil goalkeeper Julio Cesar before the ball was put into the net. Croatia continued to have chances to draw level against a less than secure Brazilian defense. Vedran Corluka failed to make the most of a headed opportunity, before Julio Cesar and David Luiz preserved Brazil’s advantage with goal-saving blocks in quick succession. Mere seconds later, the excellent Oscar broke away and his toe-poked effort form distance again caught out Pletiskosa, whose performance had ultimately undermined the many excellent ones from his teammates.
The result extended Brazil’s winning record in their opening game of the Word Cup to nine, and arguably none has been as important. The host nation will expect it to act as a catalyst for better performances to come. If they are to erase the ghosts of 1950, it till have to.