Hosts Brazil are set to kick off the 2014 World Cup with an exciting opening-night matchup against Croatia as the month of action begins with what is sure to be a thriller.
The Brazilians have been waiting for this moment for years, and the squad led by manager Luiz Felipe Scolari is destined for a run at what would be a sixth World Cup title. But they will be hoping to make the most of their home-field advantage and avoid slipping out of the gate against a dangerous Croatian team with plenty of weapons.
The hosts have been pegged by many as the favorites heading in, while Croatia is one of the dark-horse candidates with plenty of standouts across European club football. Brazil may be the favorite, but anything is possible over the span of 90 World Cup minutes.
Let's break down the upcoming matchup in Group A.
When: Thursday, June 12
Where: Arena de Sao Paulo, Sau Paulo, Brazil
Start Time: 4 p.m. ET, 9 p.m. BST
Live Stream: WatchESPN
Revitalized Julio Cesar Will Open with Clean Sheet
Julio Cesar hasn't seen the best of fortunes in club football in recent seasons, but Scolari looks to be giving the 34-year-old the starting goalkeeper job for his third and final World Cup appearance.
Cesar saw his way out of a seven-year relationship with Internazionale and then struggled through a Premier League relegation with Queens Park Rangers. In January, he made an intriguing move to Toronto FC in U.S. Major League Soccer—where he conceded nine goals in seven appearances.
Still, the coaching staff believed in him and gave him another shot, which makes Cesar all the more grateful, per AFP via FIFA.com:
"After all that happened to me at Inter, at Queens Park Rangers, I never stopped plugging away," Cesar said, per AFP. "It was the confidence I felt from the coaching staff which ensured that I am here today. Had another coaching team been in charge of the Seleção I don't know if I'd be here."
He may have lost his touch in world football, which isn't surprising considering he's 34 years old. But as shown by Italy's Gianluigi Buffon, 36, goalkeepers can stay ripe well into their 30s and regain their world-class form in international competition, if even for a few moments.
It remains to be seen whether or not Cesar will handle the onslaughts of some of the best teams in the tournament, but that won't be seen for some time. With a buzzing squad playing in front of him and an overmatched Croatian team attacking, Cesar will see his way to an early clean sheet.
Croatian Midfielders Modric, Rakitic Set for Early Struggle
Croatia's midfield received a setback when it was revealed that Niko Kranjcar would miss the World Cup, per BBC Sport, but it still has a share of stars in Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic.
However, they'll be no match for Brazil.
On offense, there should be nothing doing for many of the 90 minutes as a back line of Marcelo, David Luiz, Thiago Silva and Dani Alves could prove impenetrable. In the midfield, they will have to deal with Paulinho, Luis Gustavo and naggy attacking mids like Neymar and Oscar.
Modric and Rakitic, both of whom had stellar seasons in La Liga play with Real Madrid and Sevilla respectively, certainly have the talent to be able to find some success. But against a team with world-class players at literally every position and no real room to move, they will more than likely be out of luck against the Brazilians.
Brazil's Oscar, Fred Find Chemistry in Opening 90 Minutes
There's never been a question as to whether or not Brazil can field enough star talent on the attacking end—it's the chemistry that has often been the problem.
And if the hosts find success in 2014, it will have to come through striker Fred and central attacking midfielder Oscar, who will get off to a high-flying start against the strongest defense they'll face in the group stage.
Fred's experience at 30 years old has allowed Brazil's midfielders the peace of mind to play off him and not leave him on an island, and Oscar is the driving force. Even though he's only 22, he already has 29 international caps and an integral role in the middle of the attack.
Neymar is the star of this attack and will be featured heavily, but he will need time to gain his footing and Brazil will be keen on attacking through the middle to build up chemistry between Fred and Oscar. That will result in plenty of scoring chances between the two of them.
Croatia's defense is filled with experience, but not enough world-class talent to match what the Brazilians offer up front, and that will allow the hosts to penetrate often on the attack.
They may not each get a goal, but the form built in the middle of the attacking third between these two players will be of the utmost importance moving forward and out of Group A.