Brazil vs. Croatia: 5 Players with a Point to Prove
Brazil take on Croatia in the opening clash of World Cup 2014 on Thursday evening in a match that is expected to kickstart their quest for glory. To do so, though, they will need several of their side to up their performance levels and make outstanding performances.
Despite their remarkable record of 15 wins in 16 games over the past year, there are still players with question marks over their heads about current form or even long-term contribution to the national team cause.
Who, then, are the players with something to prove ahead of the opening clash?
Attacking midfielder Oscar is seen by many as key to Brazil's entire game plan, having excelled in the No. 10 role for the Selecao over the past two years.
However, his accumulation of games with very little respite has taken its toll of late with a hip injury and subsequent loss of form affecting his end to the club season. In warm-up fixtures for Brazil, he has shown little of the industry and imagination that define his best showings.
With the presence of in-form Willian on the bench, an increasing threat to his jersey, Oscar must come flying out of the blocks against Croatia or risk increasing concern over his current status in the side.
He can be a match-winner for Brazil, but he must find a way to push through his current malaise.
Tottenham midfielder Paulinho is another coming into the tournament woefully out of form, perhaps also feeling the strain of his workload over the past three years.
Unfortunately for the box-to-box midfielder, he is one player who is noticeable should his output drop. Brazil require dynamism and control in central areas, and of late, Paulinho has disappointed in such aspects.
With Fernandinho coming into the tournament off the back of a fine season and Ramires trusted by Luiz Felipe Scolari, Paulinho has reason to worry for his place.
Croatia have exceptional technical ability in the centre of midfield, but there is a feeling they can be bullied. Paulinho's task, then, is to ensure Brazil get onto the front foot early in the clash.
Powerful forward Hulk is another who will be feeling the breath of Willian on his shoulder, but he has managed to hold off his rival with two good showings in pre-tournament friendlies.
For Hulk, there is a bigger issue of long-term inefficiency in a Brazil shirt, and indeed, the Zenit star is one of the first in the side to be turned on by fans in the event of poor performances.
Scolari likes Hulk on the right of his midfield but now has viable alternatives. His trust will not last long if his forward cannot perform once the World Cup gets underway.
A big showing against Croatia would go a long way in solidifying his presence for the rest of the competition.
Veteran right-back Dani Alves' place in the Brazil side is under no real threat. Scolari is a fan of his, and as he consistently shows at club level, he is still among the very best attacking full-backs in the game.
In Brazil, though, his talents are perhaps underappreciated. For many years, it has been an accusation that he never managed the same levels for his country as he produced for his club. Fans have been quick to jump on his back.
While a poor showing is unlikely to affect his presence in the team, it would greatly add to the pressure on his back—especially given a disappointing outing against Serbia last week.
It is now time for Alves to prove his greatness on the World Cup stage.
It seems that there is never an occasion upon which Neymar can take the field without a point to prove. There is perhaps no footballer who will see their every move quite as scrutinised over the weeks ahead.
His "poor" season at Barcelona was disappointing in comparison to some of his teammates, but for a first effort in Europe, it was by no means bad. For the first time in his career, he was also forced to share the limelight.
For Brazil, he has no such issues and will be left to his own devices as the star of Scolari's side. That free role brings its own pressure as he is expected to perform in every game. To his credit, he has invariably delivered.
This World Cup, though, will be yet another occasion when his ability is reassessed by many based on a handful of games.