You just couldn't ask for a better team to open the World Cup than Brazil. Yes, as the host nation, they are given the honor of kicking off the event, but few teams have the capability of opening the tournament with more flash and sizzle than the Brazilians.
Croatia, on the other hand, probably isn't so thrilled with the excitement and talent the Brazilians bring to the table. The European side is strong, no doubt, but playing in front of a Sao Paulo crowd will make a difficult task all the less enviable in their opening match.
It's a heck of a contest to open the proceedings; that much is for certain. Let's break it down.
When: Thursday, June 12 at 4 p.m. ET
Where: Arena Corinthians, Sao Paulo, Brazil
The immediate concern for Croatia in this match will simply be where the goals come from. The country scored a modest 14 goals in 12 European qualifiers (including the 2-0 aggregate win over Iceland in the playoff) and will be without Mario Mandzukic against Brazil after he was sent off against Iceland.
That puts added pressure on Wolfsburg forward Ivan Perisic to find the net, and although he scored two goals in a 2-1 win over Mali in a pre-World Cup friendly, the going will surely be much tougher against mighty Brazil.
Perisic did net 10 goals in 33 Bundesliga appearances this year, so he's no slouch, but Mandzukic would have given the Brazilian defense a more dangerous target to concern itself with.
As for Brazil, well, scoring goals is generally not an issue. Led by Barcelona's Neymar and Chelsea's Oscar, the Brazilians have a fluid and fast attack that punishes teams lax enough to be caught on their heels. The host side will swarm Croatia in the midfield and look to quickly win the ball back before pushing the ball forward in the attack, so Croatia must be poised in that area if they are to slow down the game and stifle Brazil.
The key man in that role, then, is Real Madrid's Luka Modric—Croatia's best player and the key facilitator from his position in the midfield. A maestro of the pass and a player capable of quarterbacking Croatia through peril, he'll need to be sturdy against Brazil's pressing tactics.
If Croatia can solve the press, they may find opportunities to nick a goal or two. For all of the talent Brazil have in defense, they can at times be vulnerable in the back, especially when fullbacks Marcelo or Dani Alves are caught forward after their excursions down the wing in the attack.
In general, however, Brazil should control possession and the pace of this game. They are the more talented side by leaps and bounds and should have the added boost of the home crowd behind them. If the pressure of the moment doesn't overtake them—and this is a roster full of players from top European clubs, so pressure is nothing new—the Brazilians should control this match throughout.
Even if Mandzukic were playing, Brazil would be heavy favorites. This is a balanced, talented team that keeps opponents out of any rhythm by swarming the ball—just ask the Spain team that lost to them in the Confederations Cup final, 3-0—but can also kill you with individual moments of brilliance from their cadre of superstars.
Which team wins?
Croatia will not make things easy on the Brazilians, but they won't be beating them, either. In fact, it seems unlikely this result will ever be in doubt. They'll likely sink into a defensive shell, occasionally flow forward on the counter-attack and play for a point.
They won't get it. Brazil wins, 2-0.