With the 2014 FIFA World Cup just one agonising day from commencing, we bring you the first of an in-depth series of match previews that centre on tactics, team selections and predicted XIs.
Brazil vs. Croatia kicks off the tournament and will shape the first of our previews, with the hosts under serious pressure to get off to a dream start.
How Brazil Will Shape Up
Brazil have adopted the 4-2-3-1 formation as their own under Luiz Felipe Scolari, rarely straying from it and using it exclusively throughout their successful 2013 Confederations Cup run.
It starts with Julio Cesar at the back and captain fantastic Thiago Silva in defence; his partner is typically David Luiz, though Dante can easily waltz into this back line and perform if required, and provides world-class backup too.
Marcelo plays an outrageously attacking left-back role, free to surge forward, overlap, underlap, breach the box and combine with Neymar in the final third. As a result Dani Alves plays a more reserved, tempered role, and at times he's the direct opposite of the marauding presence seen at the Camp Nou all year round.
The holding midfield duo for the past year has been Luiz Gustavo and Paulinho, with the former—a prototypical anchor—sitting off and allowing the latter to run with the ball.
Ahead of them is the hardworking Oscar as a No. 10, belying his (poor) club form and impressing hugely in a Selecao shirt. His role is to attract markers and create space for Neymar; Hulk, on the right wing, stays touchline-wide to stretch the pitch and open half spaces on the other flank.
Fred, the lone target man, battles defenders and chests balls down. Everything is built around Neymar; Neymar is the sole focus of Scolari.
How Croatia Will Shape Up
Like Brazil, Croatia have seemingly settled on the 4-2-3-1 formation ahead of the finals.
Manager Niko Kovac took charge for the qualifying playoffs and led his nation past Iceland over two legs with basic tactics, then experimented a little in the friendlies that followed.
Josip Simunic, Croatia's battle-hardened, 105-cap central defender, was banned for 10 games, following his fascist salute at the end of the Iceland win, and has lost his appeal to play at the World Cup, per The Daily Mail.
That leaves Kovac no choice but to plug Dejan Lovren or Gordon Schildenfeld in alongside Vedran Corluka, and while that's no real issue given the replacement's quality, Lovren is decidedly less acclimated to the national setup, and Schildenfeld is slow.
Left-back is a problem with Danijel Pranjic injured and Ivan Strinic not in the squad. Schildenfeld could also feature here, but right-footer Sime Vrsaljko is the more likely choice. Darijo Srna is certain to start on the right.
Luka Modric, Croatia's most important player, will start in central midfield alongside fellow La Liga playmaker Ivan Rakitic of Sevilla. This is the heart of the side, and anything positive from the Vatreni during qualifying could be sourced to either of these two players.
Mario Mandzukic is suspended for the opener, meaning Eduardo will likely get the nod up front. He'll play ahead of an Ivica Olic—Mateo Kovacic—Ivan Perisic trio, though Rakitic could come into the No. 10 role if Kovac pairs Modric with a more natural defensive midfielder. Milan Badelj, Ognjen Vukojevic or Ivan Mocinic represent the options there.
Three Tactical Clashes
1. Matching Shapes
It's 4-2-3-1 vs. 4-2-3-1 to kick off the tournament: a fitting and timely reminder that, despite some teams working against the grain, this formation continues to reign supreme in world football.
Brazil will be expected to see more of the ball, and with Paulinho, Luiz, Alves, Oscar and Co. on board, they'll retain it with ease if that's their choice. But Scolari's side have been anything but steady and careful in their warmup games, and the ball is moved between the lines quickly to engineer attacks.
Croatia will counter-attack and feed balls into their wide men from deeper positions. Modric and Rakitic can both thread the eye of a needle with their passing, and the latter's two-footedness makes him tough to clamp down.
When two formations match up man for man, the result can often hinge in individual player movement. Who, in midfield, can engineer a yard of space and make the difference?
2. Srna, Neymar, Space and Tracking
Croatia's strongest side is where Srna is, and Brazil's strongest is wherever Marcelo and Neymar combine. Both sides will be tested severely in the opener, with defensive nous and commitment a big question mark.
When Croatia steal possession with both Marcelo and Neymar forward, can Srna use the space and fire off a quick counter? When Kovac's men are on the ball, just how willing will Neymar be to track the runs of the right-back?
You can bet the Vatreni will be the picture of caution in tracking the Selecao's runners and overlappers, but will the hosts—who expect to win and will put numbers forward—reciprocate?
3. Brazil's Defensive Midfield
Creating centrally has been an issue for Brazil, with neither Paulinho nor Gustavo capable of engineering chances from deep.
Fernandinho could come in to relieve this problem, and if he does, Croatia may find some joy behind the defensive midfield line as it becomes less disciplined—particularly if Paulinho and Fernandinho are paired.
Either way, there's a small weakness for Scolari to try and cover here, and few teams in world football can boast a central creative trio such as Rakitic, Modric and Kovacic.
Alves is more assured in defence than many know, while Luiz slides out to the left to cover for Marcelo superbly when required. The concern is pressure on Gustavo and Co. in deeper areas, and barring crosses from Srna, that's going to be the way Kovac exerts pressure on the hosts.
Bleacher Report will do a tactical preview and review of every single 2014 FIFA World Cup game. Stay tuned to this link and check it every day for more.