Fans around the world cannot wait to tune in to watch Brazil take on Croatia in the opening match of the 2014 World Cup on June 12—even those that aren't big fans of either team.
The international championship is arguably the biggest event in sports every four years, and Brazil will kick things off as the host country with a battle against one of the toughest opponents in their group.
This makes the opening competition extremely important for a team hoping to bring home a title.
Croatia struggled throughout qualifying and only got in on a play-off victory over Iceland. However, there is a lot of talent on their roster and the European team is capable of making a deep run this summer.
This opening matchup will be vital for both squads, and it will be a thrilling moment for the millions of people watching at home. Here is a breakdown of everything you need to know for the upcoming match.
Who will win?
When: Thursday, June 12
Where: Arena de Sao Paulo, Sao Paulo, Brazil
Time: 4 p.m. ET, 9 p.m. BST
Live Stream: ESPN3
Odds (via Oddsshark): Croatia (+1139), Brazil (-333), Draw (+479)
Brazil Player to Watch: Neymar
One of the big stories of last summer was Neymar's transfer from Santos to Barcelona. He was already an exciting young player, but most people had only seen him in highlight reels. This gave him a chance to shine on the world's stage.
Although he did deal with a few injuries, the forward still dazzled with nine goals and eight assists in 26 La Liga matches. He also was quite impressive in Champions League play, totaling four goals and three assists in 10 contests against the best opponents in Europe.
The question is whether the 22-year-old star can effectively become a leader for an extremely young team. Not only is he the most talented offensive player, but the entire roster lacks much international experience.
Manager Luiz Felipe Scolari does not think this will be an issue, via ESPN FC:
I don't think this lack of World Cup experience will play a big part. Our players have been gaining experience in their leagues in Europe, and I don't think they will be affected by this too much, although in certain World Cup situations, having that experience would be important. But I fully trust these players.
This group showed its talent last summer while winning the 2013 Confederations Cup, defeating Spain in the final. If it wants to have similar success this time around, it will need a strong performance out of Neymar.
Croatia Player to Watch: Luka Modric
One of the top storylines for this match is how will Croatia cope without one of its top players.
Mario Mandzukic scored 18 goals this past season for Bayern Munich and is the national team's best offensive weapon, but he will be suspended for the first match after receiving a red card in the final play-off against Iceland.
As a result, the rest of the roster will really have to step up to overcome this enormous absence. One key player who must perform well is Luka Modric, the Real Madrid midfielder who has been a key part of his club's success in recent years.
Obviously, he plays a much different position than Mandzukic, but the striker's absence means that everyone else will have to be almost perfect. Modric specifically has to work to maintain possession while getting the ball up to the forwards as much as possible.
The good news is that he does not seem to lack confidence heading into this match, according to Fox Sports Football:
Although he might be exaggerating with this mindset, the midfielder will be key in helping Croatia succeed at both ends of the pitch.
Prediction: Brazil 2, Croatia 0
Croatia have one of the stronger midfields in the world between Modric, Ivan Rakitic and Mateo Kovacic. These players are certain to be able to find ways to create opportunities on the attack and put some serious pressure on the Brazil defense.
Without Mandzukic, however, Croatia will struggle to finish, and the experienced defense of Brazil will clear the ball away before any damage is done.
Meanwhile, there are other problems with the underdogs in this battle, as noted by Tancredi Palmeri of beIN Sports:
Not bad the Croatia XI. But they have no defense and no bench. Enough to go through group stage and then being squeezed by Spain— Tancredi Palmeri (@tancredipalmeri) May 14, 2014
The below-average defense will struggle against an aggressive and highly talented attack for Brazil. Elite scorers like Neymar, Hulk, Jo, Fred and others will be able to get into the penalty area and find ways to get the ball into the back of the net.
With the home crowd cheering them on, Brazil will take advantage of this matchup and earn an important victory.
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