Brazil Make Slow Start Against Croatia in World Cup Opener

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Brazil Make Slow Start Against Croatia in World Cup Opener
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Sweat, graft and a large slice of good fortune—if this performance was anything to go by—could well be the theme of Brazil's World Cup quest. The 3-1 scoreline may look comfortable in the record book, but this was anything but.

Brazil were given a real fright by Croatia as they opened the World Cup at the Arena Corinthians in Sao Paulo. Indeed, without more than a little help from Japanese referee Yuichi Nishimura, this could have been a whole lot worse.

The Europeans caused their hosts numerous problems, especially down the flanks during the opening exchanges. Dani Alves was caught out of position twice in the first 15 minutes and looked exposed without the protection of Hulk, who had been switched to the left flank.

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Neymar's penalty, which finally put Brazil ahead after 71 minutes, was fortuitous in the extreme. The slightest touch from Dejan Lovren, and forward Fred hit the deck like the proverbial sack of spuds.

It is no exaggeration to observe it was his most meaningful contribution of the afternoon. In the first half, he managed to touch the ball just once.

It took Oscar's late strike to put breathing space between the sides. The Chelsea midfielder put in a man-of-the-match performance, had a hand in both previous goals and ensured the biggest talking point was not an inept refereeing decision that gifted the hosts a shaky opening-day victory.

Even at 2-1, there were heart-in-the mouth moments for the home crowd. The referee blew for an extremely soft foul on Julio Cesar as he was challenged in the air by Ivica Olic, and their misfortune was confirmed at the death with Oscar's toe-poked effort.

Despite some early nerves, Brazil were marginally the better side, and it was thanks to the No. 11. Paulinho, Hulk and Fred were particularly poor, the latter struggling for goalscoring form after an electrifying first half to 2013. His goal against Serbia last week is his only strike for the Selecao since the Confederations Cup.

There were encouraging signs, however, that Brazil can begin to simmer in this World Cup once they gain some rhythm. Their equaliser, having fallen behind to Marcelo's own goal, the first from a Brazilian in a World Cup, showed the side at their best.

Oscar, operating almost as a right winger at times as well as dictating play through the middle, battled and refused to give up on retrieving the ball. He laid it to Neymar, who advanced around 15 yards before driving home from the edge of the area.

Elsa/Getty Images
Oscar was Brazil's best player against Croatia.

Croatia goalkeeper Stipe Pletikosa went down in installments, but Neymar's shot was right in the corner, eluding his outstretched drive. Two minutes previously, the Barcelona forward arguably should have been dismissed for an elbow on Luka Modric.

Brazil got the lucky break. And the rest, as they say, is history.

There is huge pressure on Brazil at this World Cup, and it showed before kick-off. During the national anthem, several players looked on the verge of tears, and as the music died down they continued an a capella version, to spine-tingling effect.

But huge credit must go to Croatia. They didn't wilt in the face of such an intimidating atmosphere and gave Brazil a far sterner test than many expected.

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Brazil are the clear favourites to win the group, yet there was no sense that Croatia would focus their attentions on Mexico and Cameroon. They went for the jugular and came perilously close to ruining the party.

When the visitors took the lead, there had been little in the way of threatening action from Brazil. But as the game progressed, the 50/50 calls went the way of the hosts.

Neymar booked when he could have seen red; a dubious penalty when Fred went to ground; a chalked-off goal as Olic jumped with Cesar.

Brazil got the job done and got the rub of the green, but they failed to convince in the curtain raiser. If they are to lift the trophy at the Maracana on July 13, they will need more than a lung-busting Oscar and the benefit of dubious judgment calls.

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