The 2014 FIFA World Cup kicked off with a bang on Thursday evening, with Brazil defeating Group A rivals Croatia 3-1 in an enthralling matchup.
Marcelo's own goal got the hosts off to an awful start, but Neymar's scuffed effort brought them level before half-time. Neymar converted a penalty to allow the Selecao take the lead, then Oscar capped a magnificent display by poking a late effort into the bottom corner.
Formations & XIs
Brazil used their usual 4-2-3-1, with the exact same XI that started the 2013 Confederations Cup final. Luiz Gustavo held off the challenge of Fernandinho midfield and Neymar started as a No. 10.
Croatia crammed three exceptional playmakers into their formation, playing Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic and Mateo Kovacic from the start. Dejan Lovren started and Sime Vrsalkjo played out of position at left-back.
Stunted Brazil, Direct Croatia
Right from the off, Brazil looked...off.
Hulk started on the left and Oscar on the right, belying Luiz Felipe Scolari's year-long tradition of playing the former on the right (to stretch the pitch) and the latter centrally (to attract markers).
It wasn't working, and with Croatia bagging an early, excellent goal, crowd pressure grew immeasurably as the Selecao "template" failed to come to fruition.
Neymar, playing as a No. 10, was swamped out by the studious Ivan Rakitic and Luka Modric. They shackled him easily and stopped him from receiving balls to feet. That isolated Fred in turn and stumped the attack.
The Vatreni, on the other hand, were flying from the first minute. Ivica Olic burst forward inside the first minute and broke a challenge, worrying the defence, and on the third wide attack they scored.
Line of Engagement
There were a plethora of errors in the buildup to the Croatia goal, but the major culprit—the man who put his teammates in a real hole—was Paulinho.
He's caught face-on high up the pitch and knows Ivan Rakitic has a runner (Olic) outside and a man free (Mateo Kovacic) to pass to. The last thing he should do is dive in and "force" the action from the ball-player, but that's what he does and he takes himself out of the game.
It was very Kieran Gibbs-y against Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League last season, and it's an example of how naive defending can kill you on the flanks.
There were other problems—Thiago Silva was slow to come out, David Luiz allowed his man across him and Marcelo scored an own goal—but it starts with Paulinho in the Croatia half.
Brazil eventually snapped out of it, but it wasn't a systematic change that sparked the recovery.
Yes, Hulk switched over to the right in the 36th minute, but it was individual effort and determination that allowed the Selecao to claw their way back into the game.
When a 4-2-3-1 meets a 4-2-3-1, as loosely happened in Sao Paulo on Thursday, midfields are matched man for man and it can be tough to find space. It takes an individual to beat a challenge to open it up, and that began happening as time ticked on.
First, a driving Paulinho broke into the box and split the centre-backs, then Neymar danced around Rakitic and hit the byline for a cross. Eventually it was the excellent Oscar who did the damage, battling for a 50/50 in midfield, laying it off to Neymar and letting the 50-cap wonder do the rest.
Oscar, throughout, tried his hardest to make things happen and change the flow; he delivered the pass for the penalty allowing Neymar to score his second and crossed again later when Luiz fluffed his lines for a third.
Croatia pushed forward after going down, opening the distance between their midfield and defensive lines in order to allow more players to attack.
Ante Rebic was also brought on to run at players, and Scolari matched the strategy by introducing Hernanes and Bernard.
The openness of the final 15 minutes was astounding, with space in the midfield allowing players to travel with the ball and take each other on one vs. one. Far from your cagey, careful opener, this one had all the late-game verve of a must-win fixture.
Just when it seemed as though Croatia could sneak a late equaliser under immense pressure, Oscar charged down the the other end and punted an 18-yard effort into the corner to seal it.
Tactical Man of the Match: Oscar