The World Cup kicks off with the hosts Brazil on Thursday night, taking on the challenge of Croatia in their opening game. With the tournament returning to South America for the first time since ’78 in Argentina, the opening match gives us a good indication of how European sides will cope in the different altitude, particularly against opponents from the continent.
Brazil will be looking for a good start, and the group is favourable. Meanwhile Croatia will be out to prove the doubters wrong after they only narrowly edged Iceland out of the play-offs. It promises to be a good start to a good summer of football, and Brazil will be hoping that the country is still all smiles by the time the final whistle is blown.
Group A presents Brazil with a great opportunity to get off to a positive start, something they’ll need with the likelihood of a big clash in the second round, where Spain, Holland and Chile are all likely possibilities. Many are tipping Brazil to top the group, but who joins them in the next round is anyone’s guess.
However everyone starts at the same point, and so the fates of Brazil and Croatia remain in their own hands going into the opening match. The latter may not be expecting much, however, and may see a point as more probable as they target the games against Mexico and Cameroon as more likely sources of points.
The atmosphere will be something truly special, and Brazil will look to channel that energy and enthusiasm from the stands onto the pitch and into their performance. Scolari will have his side defend from the front, pressing Croatia and utilising the usual overlapping runs of their full-backs to stretch the play and free up more space for Fred, Neymar and Hulk to work opportunities. In true World Cup fashion we may see a blockbusting opening goal from the hosts, and that could help Brazil settle into their rhythm and ease their way to a comfortable victory.
Croatia will be without Mario Mandzukic after his red card against Iceland in the play-off that booked Niko Kovac’s side a place in Brazil. As a result they will lack their usual aerial prowess in the box, and may focus on playing on the break to exploit the spaces left by Brazil’s attacking style. Their midfield includes a few gems that they will hope to get on the ball as often as possible to instigate breaks. Kovac may also opt for five in midfield to help them absorb and hopefully neutralise the Selecao’s attacking threat, especially with his star striker no longer an option.
For Brazil it is hard to look beyond World Cup poster boy Neymar as a source of both goals and creativity for the hosts. Barcelona’s newest talent is likely to start on the left, but will probably cut inside as he looks to cause problems for Croatia’s veteran keeper Stipe Pletikosa. Thiago Silva will also be key, as a rock at the back designed to break up any counter attacks from Croatia, while Scolari may ask one of his midfield men to restrict the deep lying string-puller that is Luka Modric; how well that man does his job will heavily influence the Real Madrid man’s impact on the game.
Talking of Modric, he is the playmaker at the heart of the Croatian midfield, whose precision passing will help him dictate the tempo when Croatia have the ball and instigate breaks. In Mandzukic’s absence, Eduardo may be selected to lead the line against the country of his birth but will probably need the support of talents like reported Barcelona target Ivan Rakitic and highly touted Inter star Mateo Kovacic to genuinely threaten Brazil. Free kicks could also be important for Croatia, as Kovac’s successor as captain, right back Dario Srna, has scored 21 international goals and is a particular threat from dead ball situations.
It’s hard to look beyond Brazil. They are favourites for the whole tournament, and many will be expecting maximum points from the group stage after a kind draw. Croatia will look to hit their hosts on the break, but if Brazil can win the ball high up the pitch then they could expose a vulnerable back four. Do it early enough, and they can settle into their usual rhythm and ease their way to victory.
Croatia’s best hope is that the occasion gets the better of their opponents, and that they can take advantage of a shaky start. Brazil lack leaders who have World Cup experience, and may not be able to cope with the pressure; if they crumble, Croatia have enough talent to capitalise and, if Brazil go behind, they may struggle to turn it around.
It depends on Brazil’s start, but they know they simply cannot fail. They carry not only the expectation of a nation, but the expectation of many round the world who feel they are favourites simply because they’re on home soil. While they lack experience, the group is undoubtedly talented and will be able to start as expected. As with the Confederations Cup, an early goal from Neymar settled the nerves and they eased to three group stage wins. Expect the same here, with a victory foreshadowing a long stay in the tournament.
Prediction: Brazil 3-0 Croatia
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