BRAZIL 3, CROATIA 1 (WORLD CUP GROUP A)
There was plenty of proof if it were required that Brazil will have to scrap every step of the way if they are to fulfil their ‘footballing destiny’ and win the World Cup on home soil after they used a huge slice of luck to finish 3-1 winners against Croatia in the opening game of the 2014 World Cup.
No Would Cup host nation had ever lost the first game of a World Cup but there were brief glimmers of a Croatian upset as Phil Scolari’s men found it hard to break down their European opposition – they had help from some questionable refereeing decisions and a below par performance by Croat ‘keeper Stipe Pletikosa.
Neymar’s equaliser for Brazil cancelled out an early Marcelo own goal although the young Barcelona striker might not have been on the pitch after a seemingly deliberate elbow on Luka Modric moments before. A 71st minute penalty squirmed out of the grasp of the luckless Pletikosa to put Brazil in front and Neymar was withdrawn to resounding applause in the 88th minute – his work done.
Oscar rounded off the win in added time as Brazil counter attacked and sent an early shot past a sluggish Pletikosa.
The first of what could be many twists at the World Cup in Brazil came after just ten minutes when Nikica Jelavic’s scuffed shot was turned into his own net by a bemused Marcelo.
The Real Madrid full back put through his own net minutes after Ivica Olic could have done better with his header from an Ivan Perisic cross.
The Brazil defence, containing mistake-prone former Chelsea defender David Luiz, was all at sea as they failed to deal with a much more disciplined Croatian side containing several familiar names to followers of the Barclays Premier League.
Former Manchester City defender Vedran Corluca was at the heart of the Croat back line alongside Dejan Lovren of Southampton while a freshly shorn Luka Modric, formerly of Spurs, pulled the strings from midfield and Jelavic had been plying his trade with Hull City on loan from Everton and was filling in for the suspended Bayern Munich striker Mario Mandzukic.
Croatia may have enjoyed a fraction of Brazil’s possession but they kept their cool in the Sao Paulo cauldron while their hosts wasted the chances that came their way. Stipe Pletikosa made a good save from a particularly good curling Oscar effort midway through the first half but things were soon to go downhill for Croatia.
Frustration grew for Brazil and Neymar was perhaps lucky to stay on the pitch after he appeared to aim an elbow at Modric as he shaped to head the ball.
Jelavic almost punished Brazil by extending Croatia’s lead with a 29th minute header at the back post.
It was to be a costly miss as Neymar equalised seconds later with a long range strike, after Oscar had laid the ball off to him, that crept in off the post with Pletikosa way behind the action. It was the Brazilian talisman’s 32nd international goal in 50 games for the 22 year old and the sense of relief was palpable.
Brazil still dominated the possession stats in a less intense second half but once again it was Croatia could could have capitalised on a slip by their hosts. Veteran Olic had a shout for a penalty turned down in the second half when Dani Alves appeared to trip him.
Corluka was booked for bringing down Neymar as he danced through the Croat defence after 65 minutes though Dani Alves sent his free kick well over the bar.
Fred won a contentious 70th minute penalty after he was felled by Lovren, it was a soft penalty (if indeed it was a penalty) but the Saints man was booked for what appeared to be the slightest of shirt pulls.
The heat was on Neymar and the boy wonder duly delivered goal number 33 with a penalty that was too close to Pletikosa should have saved. He got his hands to the ball but the pace took it out of his grasp and looped behind him into the net.
Luiz almost levelled the scores again with a wild clearance over his own net after the restart as the game finally started to open up in the final quarter and the meaty tackles started flying in but the Croats missed a predatory striker as they wasted presentable chances to equalise late on.
Olic was penalised for a foul on Julio Cesar in the 83rd minute while Modric tested Cesar with an 86th minute sighter and Perisic’s shot was parried by an increasingly nervous Brazil ‘keeper but there was to be one last sting in the tail for Croatia as Oscar secured victory in added time with an early shot that beat Pletikosa as Brazil counter attacked.