Brazil 3-1 Croatia: Hosts grind out a scrappy victory in World Cup opener

The hosts Brazil kicked off the World Cup with a good 3-1 result against Croatia, but a subpar performance.  After going behind early to a Marcelo own goal, they needed a lucky Neymar shot from distance to equalize, before going ahead with an extremely soft penalty in the second half.

Match Recap

Brazil started the match like they were still in training.  Croatia dominated the opening minutes, attacking with speed and catching Brazil unprepared.  A seventh-minute move set the tone for Croatia’s play – Modric went on a storming run through midfield before laying it off wide to Perisic, who sent in a great cross from the right into the area.  Olic got away from Dani Alves but couldn’t keep his powerful downward header on target.  The opening goal resulted from a similar move three minutes later.  This time it was Rakitic laying it off wide to Olic on the left, who aimed a low cross at Jelavic.  The Croatian striker missed his shot, but the ball ricocheted off Marcelo behind him for an own goal.  Both Brazilian defenders in the box let their Croatian marks get in front of them.

But the shock of going behind after only ten minutes seemed to jolt Brazil awake, and they promptly upped the tempo to match Croatia’s start.  Neymar got the crowd going with a 22nd minute run, powering past Rakitic.  His cross to Hulk was blocked but fell nicely for Oscar, whose strong shot was brilliantly blocked by Pletikosa diving to his right.

Brazil’s chances throughout the game usually started with a player making a key interception or fighting off several Croatian players in the center of the pitch, and then releasing a teammate forward with a quick pass.  The equalizer came after Oscar escaped the attentions of three opponents and fed the ball to Neymar, who failed to get much power behind a tentative shot from distance, but managed to bounce it off the inside of the right post and into the net.  Pletikosa might have gotten down a little faster, but his view was obstructed by his defenders, and what Neymar’s shot lacked in power it made up for with accuracy.

The second half started off slowly and nervously, the Brazilian fans in the stadium quiet and tense.  There was little in the way of attacking from Brazil, but Croatia were sitting back more cautiously than they had at the start of the game as well.  Neither team created any noteworthy scoring opportunities until the game-changing penalty decision.

Contentious calls change the game

Referee Yuichi Nishimura, who had been doing a decent job of controlling a scrappy game so far, made the crucial call to penalize Croatia’s Dejan Lovren for a bringing down Fred in the 69th minute.  Replays clearly showed minimal contact between the two, with Fred seeming to simply fall to the ground without any help from the Croatian defender.  Neymar embarked on his trademark stuttering run-up before taking the penalty, which Pletikosa nearly saved, getting both hands on the ball but failing to keep it out of his net.

Another dubious call came in the 83rd minute, when Perisic put the ball in the net from close range but found his goal disallowed due to Olic having been judged to have fouled Julio Cesar in the buildup.  Again, replays showed the decision had been harsh against the Croats, with Olic simply out-jumping the Brazilian goalkeeper in the challenge.

But Croatia appeared to have run out of steam, and Oscar’s goal early in extra time sealed their fate.  Pletikosa could be given some benefit of the doubt for the first goal, and he almost proved a penalty-saving hero on the second, but the final goal was entirely his fault.  Oscar’s toe-poke was weak, and Pletikosa had plenty of time to get down to make the save but was far too slow.

Key performers – Brazil

All eyes were on Neymar in the buildup to the World Cup, and he did not disappoint with two goals and a solid all-around performance in his first World Cup match.  Earlier in his career, he looked far too lightweight and fell under challenges far too easily, but he has added a degree of physical tenacity and resilience to his game.  Granted, the Croatian midfielders he was up against are more renowned for their technical quality than their tackling ability, so it remains to be seen how he fares against more specialized defensive midfielders later in the tournament.

Oscar had a fine game as well, also exhibiting a degree of physicality and defensive discipline not often expected of a player in his position.  While Neymar drifted to the left and stayed largely upfield, Oscar put in a solid defensive shift on the right, leading the Brazilian team with seven tackles and interceptions, a remarkable statistic for a creative attacking player.  His defensive contribution helps to counteract any weakness on the right side caused when the right back Dani Alves is caught upfield after a forward run.  Oscar’s defensive work also serves as a platform for swift counterattacks – several promising Brazilian attacks stemmed from Oscar winning the ball and laying it off for Neymar.  Also in the offensive department, two of his crosses nearly created chances – a 15th minute ball that was a tiny bit too high for Fred and a 76th minute cross that David Luiz sent over the bar with a diving header.  Oscar was up against a surprisingly solid Croatian left back in Vrsaljko.  He should have even more opportunities if played wide right against Cameroon and Mexico, two sides with subpar left flanks.

Key performers – Croatia

The 22 year old Sime Vrsaljko had a fine game deputizing for the injured first choice left back Danijel Pranjic, even though he is more accustomed to playing at right back.  He linked up well with Ivica Olic on the wing ahead of him, with the pass combination between the two being the second most frequent on the Croatian team, behind Modric – Rakitic.  Vrsaljko also held his own defensively against Oscar for most of the game, limiting him to two successful crosses.  If he continues in the next two games he should have an easier time than against the formidable Brazilian pair of Dani Alves and Oscar.  Cameroon’s Aboubakar and Nyom are a decent right flank but not of the same class as today’s Brazilian opponents, and Mexico play with a weak right back and no right winger.

As expected Luka Modric ran the show in the middle of the park.  Up against the physical central pairing of Luiz Gustavo and Paulinho, he still completed 51 of 57 attempted passes.  Brazil’s sluggish tempo throughout most of the game allowed him time to orchestrate Croatia’s play with passes to Olic and Perisic on the wings.  Croatia had surprisingly little possession in this game, given the quality of their midfield, but on the other hand, they also weren’t overrun by a more physically robust midfield as some feared, given their lack of a specialist holding player.  Though this is due in part to Brazil’s lack of attacking intent through the middle in this game, the next two games against weaker Cameroon and Mexico sides should allow Croatia’s midfielders more opportunity to shine.

What the coaches will need to improve

Luiz Felipe Scolari will be furious at the slow pace that Brazil started both halves with.  They are likely to face Chile, Spain, or the Netherlands in the first knockout round, all of which will take advantage of a low tempo start from the hosts.  The opening own goal also betrays a hint of defensive inconsistency that Brazil only got away with for the rest of the game due to a lack of ruthlessness from Croatia’s forwards.  To be fair, the center backs – David Luiz in particular – made some key interceptions later in the game, indicating that they should go back to their usual standards in future matches.

Up front, both Fred and Hulk were totally anonymous.  Even though their role in the side is more to create space for Neymar than to score most of the goals themselves, they were totally anonymous in this game, each completing only seven passes and having no presence near the goal at all.  Their lack of impact was one of the main reasons why Brazil had to get their goals from two scrappy long range shots and a penalty.  Scolari will be looking for better ball retention and penetration from his side in the final third of the pitch.

Niko Kovac should be reasonably pleased with most of his Croatia side’s performance and will be lamenting poor refereeing at a point when a draw or even an upset win was still within reach.  Though they can still reasonably aim for victories against both Cameroon and Mexico, Croatia will need to patch up their inconsistent defense to ease worries.  Though Pletikosa could have played better in goal, the defenders in front of him also should have closed down Neymar and Oscar better to prevent their long-range shots, particularly since Fred and Hulk weren’t providing too much of a threat.

The other disappointment was the lack of impact from Kovacic.  The young midfielder came into the side with high expectations but was largely neutralized in this game by Luiz Gustavo and Paulinho.  Croatia should be able to dominate possession in the next two group games however, which may give Kovacic more opportunities.

Croatia will feel rightly aggrieved at the scoreline after giving a decent account of themselves against the hosts and tournament favorites.  Brazil will have to improve if they hope to beat the likes of Spain, Germany, or Argentina if they meet in the knockout stages.

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