Brazil enjoy rub of the green, Neymar enjoys spotlight

Soft penalty the decisive moment as Brazil run out 3-1 winners against Croatia

 Fred wins a dubious penalty against Dejan Lovren. Photograph:  Buda Mendes/Getty Images

Fred wins a dubious penalty against Dejan Lovren. Photograph: Buda Mendes/Getty Images

 

Brazil 3 Croatia 1: So far, so Brazil. On a fretful, at times sleepy, ultimately rousing night in Sao Paulo Luiz Felipe Scolari’s team came from behind in the opening match of Brazil 2014 to beat a well-grooved and resilient Croatia 3-1. In doing so they confirmed what had already seemed clear: the cup hosts are a resilient, well-drilled team - with added Neymar. The World Cup’s 22-year-old poster boy not only scored both Brazil’s goals, he provided thrust in a team that looked oddly flat, and confirmed himself a worthy star of this tournament. Brazil has been enjoying a severe case of Neymar fever for at least the last year. Get ready for a double dose.

Otherwise this was familiarly low thrust World Cup opener, and a familiar first sight of Brazil. For all the giddy sense of anticipation anybody who came to this match expecting a goal-strewn mobilisation of attacking power was always likely to leave disappointed

As Scolari was quick to point out Brazil have often tended to start slowly in World Cups. For all that there will be much to ponder in the next four days, not least an obvious weakness at full-back and an over-reliance in attack on that wonderfully limber attacking sprite of a No10.

For all the pre-mondiale tension around the Arena Corinthians, Brazil 2014’s opening ceremony was as good as these things ever are, despite the terrible acoustics and the presence of the bafflingly unnecessary rapper Pitbull. Best of all it was mercifully short, clearing the decks for that rare thing, a genuinely alluring opening match: the hosts and favourites against a Croatia team that struggled to qualify but still contained here two of the finest midfielders in La Liga.

Croatia did not come here like a team prepared to play the part of gracious visitors, lining up without a holding midfielder and relying instead on the keep-ball skills of Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic in dual-playmaking roles.

There were no surprises from Luiz Felipe Scolari, who picked the team he was always going to pick, Luis Gustavo and Paulinho providing a stirringly physical midfield shield in front of what is surely the most mobile defence at the tournament. In fact as the teams lined up before kick-off it was Croatia, notable in the past for a stirringly physical presence, who looked half a head shorter than Brazil’s towering post-jogo bonito athletes.

That first sight of the teams was in itself a brilliantly stirring sight, the moment all the thrashing around, seven years of fretfulness and speculation, simply dies away and what we’re left with, finally, is a football match.

Brazil’s anthem was sung with the customary a cappella gusto in its final verse, the white doves of Blatter were released in the centre circle, and as Croatia kicked off there was a great rolling crackle of nervous energy around the steeply banked stands.

At which point Brazil 2014 took its own turn as Croatia settled the quicker. Ivica Olic made one early gallop down the left wing and crossed for David Luiz - now, as a Paris Saint-Germain man, a quarter of the World Cup’s most expensive defence - to hack clear. There was at times an eerie sense of calm around the stadium as Brazil kept the ball without any great thrust, the only noise coming from the patches of red-and-white check shirts in a sea of replica shirt yellow.

So much so that when Croatia’s opening goal arrived after 11 minutes it was no great surprise, product of a third purposeful break across the halfway line. Olic again sprinted clear down the left, unhindered by the attentions of the absent Dani Alves and his low cross found Nikica Jelavic in between Brazil’s centre-halves. The Hull City man’s attempted finish was scuffed but deflected off the covering Marcelo and into the net.

The goal did at least seem to wake the crowd up, although it was Croatia who continued to press, with Olic maintaining his almost unhindered mastery of Dani Alves’s flank.

Brazil’s right-back is a wonderful, much-garlanded footballer but he is at times scarcely a right-back at all. Steadily, though, Brazil began to creak into life. Neymar somehow wriggled past Sime Vrsaljko by the goalline and crossed low. From the clearance Oscar’s booming left-footed shot was saved by Stipe Pletikosa. Moments later Neymar was booked by the Japanese referee for what looked like a deliberate arm into the face of Modric. Croatia’s players gathered around gamely. Neymar defending a high ball in his own half: this was where Niko Kovac will have dreamed about his side playing this game.

At which point: enter the real Neymar. For all his struggles at Barcelona, this is a genuinely fine, delicately ruthless world star. Within two minutes of being booked he had levelled the scores, although the goal owed much to Oscar, who muscled his way through two Croatian challenges and then played a pass to his number 10.

Four touches brought the goal, the last a low, skimming shot that beat Pletikosa’s grasp a little easily at his left-hand post. Neymar ran to Scolari on the touchline, the stadium erupted, fireworks popped in the city beyond, and with half an hour gone Brazil 2014 had its unofficial official opening.

It was a troubling first half for the hosts, who looked barely half a team at times with both full-backs vulnerable and Hulk and Fred marginalised. Towards the interval Brazil’s high tempo pressing had begun to assert its own oppressive rhythm, with Luis Gustavo and Paulinho playing noticeably higher up the pitch.

But again Brazil emerged looking enervated. This is a peculiar stadium, plonked on a red clay Sao Paulo hillside with views of the city fringes through its great cantilevered corners.

As Brazil kicked off the second half, with mist drifting across from the city and fireworks still popping, there was a sleepiness about the place with great swathes of empty plastic seats in the largest stand. For Croatia Modric - the kind of all-round central passing pivot Brazil lack - continued to direct his team’s breaks with stately authority.

With 59 minutes gone Olic again broke down the left, set free by the kind of pass inside Dani Alves a schoolboy full-back would be embarrassed to fall for. With Marcelo Brozovic on for the disappointing Kovacic Croatia were looking to push wide on to the flanks when they had the ball at every opportunity. Finally Hulk departed with 22 minutes left, replaced by the fresh-faced Bernard, a favourite of the home crowd.

And within a minute, out of nowhere, Brazil had a penalty. It was a soft one too, Fred throwing himself down as he felt Lovren’s hand on his shoulder with his back to goal. Croatia were furious. The referee, though, had seen the contact.

Enter, once again, Neymar. It was a horrible penalty in many ways, a terrible stuttering, jinking run-up, with the ball hit well enough at save-able height to Pletikosa’s right. He got a hand to it. But this was Neymar’s moment, a second goal to reward a performance of ferreting industry in a flat-looking team.

As the game faded to its close Croatia pressed again and might even have equalised. Brazil will surely improve from here, but there was plenty to encourage their future opponents on a mixed night for the hosts.

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