Brazil vs. Croatia: 6 Things We Learned
Brazil got their 2014 World Cup campaign off to a flying start on Thursday evening with a 3-1 victory over Croatia in Sao Paulo. However, it was a clash tinged with some controversy.
Neymar, though, eventually grabbed the headlines, as many had predicted, but was given a helping hand in doing so by the referee who failed to show him a red card in the first half and who generously awarded a penalty in the second half.
So what did we learn from the opening game in Sao Paulo?
Goalkeeping and Refereeing Standards Make Headlines
Despite a game packed with some excellent players, it is the referee who will steal many of the headlines on Friday morning for a penalty award which was both controversial and took the game away from Croatia.
It was not the only decision of the game that Croatia will contest, with Neymar having avoided a possible red card in the first half and a foul having been awarded for a challenge on goalkeeper Julio Cesar when they looked to have grabbed an equaliser.
However, the Japanese official will also share some of the headlines with Croatia goalkeeper Stipe Pletikosa, who arguably should have done better on all three Brazilian goals.
With a number of 'keepers coming into the tournament off the back of limited playing time or less-than-spectacular careers, it could become a common theme.
Oscar's Form Is No Worry
Coming into the game, there were understandable worries over the form of Brazil star Oscar in the second half of the Premier League season and also pre-tournament friendlies. On Thursday, though, he was simply outstanding.
Playing predominantly from an unusual position on the right flank, he troubled Sime Vrsaljko all night and delivered a number of telling crosses into the penalty area for colleagues.
Showing strength, industry and ambition, the Chelsea man was key to Brazil as an attacking unit, and his star shone brighter than even that of Neymar on the World Cup's opening night.
A fine toe-poked finish from outside the box in the final minutes also ensured he would end the match with his name on the scoresheet.
Full-Back Worries Still Exist
It was a hot topic for discussion following Brazil's friendly win over Serbia last week and is yet to be resolved. Brazil's full-backs leave space behind them when attacking, and teams are exploiting the holes left.
However, it is more serious than that, given that when Dani Alves is in position, he has been too easily beaten by opponents, with Ivica Olic giving him a torrid time early in the game on Thursday.
Both Croatian wide players, Olic and Ivan Perisic, were excellent, while their side's playmakers in central areas ensured they were given the ball quickly when they sought to counter.
In the first half, when manager Niko Kovac's side shot out the blocks, they were well deserving of their early lead in the game, and crosses were very much the thorn in Brazil's side.
Neymar Will Take Centre Stage Throughout
Even when he is not the best player on the pitch, Neymar has an unerring ability to steal the limelight. He thrives on attention, and if there was any player going to come well on the night, it was him.
His goal in the first half, while not the purest strike of his career, was desperately needed by Brazil at the time. His directness caught out Croatia, and his side, who had been second best, were back in the game.
Despite not playing as the main centre-forward, he was Brazil's biggest goal threat throughout and never hesitated from putting himself in position to score. But for David Luiz deflecting a cross headed in his direction, he could have been looking at a hat-trick on his World Cup debut.
It was Neymar's 50th game for his country, and he grabbed two goals to celebrate, making early inroads in justifying his status as the face of the tournament.
Croatia Look Like a Good Bet to Advance
While Croatia will be majorly disappointed with the refereeing decision they will argue cost them the game, they can also finish the night proud with their own showing in what was a high-pressure game.
Playing against hosts Brazil in the opening game of the World Cup is not easy, but they worried their opponents and showed that they have both a decent defensive unit and talented individuals in attack.
They will need to approach the ties against Mexico and Cameroon with more attacking intent and indeed have midfielders who can come to the fore in those games if they look to dominate possession.
Once the dust settles regarding tonight's controversies, Kovac can be proud of his team's approach and performance.
Brazil Will Not Be Handed a Pass to the Knockout Rounds
Brazil could be forgiven for coming into the World Cup full of confidence, having won 15 of their past 16 fixtures. However, if they needed reminding of the difficulty of the task at hand, Croatia provided a stark warning.
For the opening 25 minutes, Brazil were unable to pose any real threat to their opponents. Conversely, Croatia looked a real threat every time they ventured forward with the ball. The crowd was silenced.
While Luiz Felipe Scolari's side responded well in what will likely be their toughest test of the group stage, they must ensure that they hit the ground running against Mexico and Cameroon—or they will face a similar challenge.
Brazil are the side every opponent would love to beat. Therefore, they must ensure that they harness the energy of the crowd to get on the front foot and take control of games from the off. It will save them a lot of hard work later in the match.