A professional performance in the World Cup opening game by Brazil ensured the host nation a 3-1 victory against a strong Croatia side, who for most of the second half had the better of the game than the Brazilians.
Plaudits must go to the Brazilian attack which decided the game after a strong defensive performance – these plaudits slightly tempered, however, with the disappointment of a poor refereeing performance which, at times, appeared to favour the hosts quite heavily. A 3-1 victory for Brazil is perhaps more a reflection of two players being on song rather than a true reflection of the ebb and flow of the game.
Story of the Game
Croatia started the brighter of the two sides, showing great intent on the break. Early on, winger Ivan Perisic whipped a cross in from the right flank towards Ivica Olic, who headed wide while slightly off balance. Moments later, though, Olic made amends for his miss. Good play by Rakitic in midfield drew Paulinho out of position. Olic’s darting run, as well as a clever run by Hull’s Nikica Jelavic down the middle, confused the Brazilian defence and the ensuing low cross by Olic was unfortunately for Brazil converted off the foot of full back Marcelo, helped in large part by a miskick/sensational assist (depending on how you look at it) by Jelavic.
It was perhaps a surprise that Croatia were in front, but they’d earned the lead. With just over 11 minutes played, however, a lot of football was left to be played.
The best football of the game was played in the ensuing half an hour, the most notable moment of play coming halfway through the first half, with Tottenham midfielder Paulinho ghosting past Southampton’s Dejan Lovren and forcing an excellent save from goalkeeper Stipe Pletikosa with a powerful right footed drive. Brazil continued to probe for an equaliser, but controversy soon followed, as Neymar elbowed Luka Modric in a challenge for a ball – something that wouldn’t look out of place in El Clasico. Referee Yuichi Nishimura judged that there was no malicious intent in the challenge and in truth, there probably wasn’t – both players only had eyes for the ball – and gave Neymar a yellow card to boot.
Rather than a punishment, this seemed to push the Brazilian wizard on to bigger and better things. His first involvement after the booking was decisive. Picking up the ball after Oscar had bypassed the entire Croatian midfield with some brilliant ball control, Neymar shimmied to the left and stabbed a shot into Stipe Pletikosa’s far low corner, the Croatian wrong footed and unsighted by Lovren’s attempt to block the shot. It was a fine finish – perhaps slightly scuffed, but expertly placed – but Pletikosa really should have done better, with the shot seeming very saveable at a reasonably slow pace. Brazil continued into the break on the up, but couldn’t make their improvement heard any further on the scoreboard.
Half time came and went and again it was Croatia the more dangerous, with Luka Modric continuing to be absolutely imperious in midfield for his country and very little danger for their defence to deal with. Brazil kept the ball well – Croatia having about 7 percent position in the first 10 minutes or so of the half – but did very little, their first real chance of note coming after the hour mark with veteran defender Vedran Corluka clattering Neymar and earning the hosts a free kick, which Dani Alves duly slammed high over. Then, controversy. Oscar found Fred in the middle of the box with a good pass, and the Brazilian striker swivelled around Dejan Lovren with a clever turn before falling over. Referee Nishimura adjudged it to be a penalty for Brazil, but in reality the challenge was nothing more than clumsy placement of the arms by Lovren and clumsy placement of the feet by Fred – a poor decision which had been endemic to Nishimura’s performance all game, giving most marginal decisions to Brazil – something which wasn’t particularly surprising giving the home crowd being behind them, but was disappointing for the spectacle.
Neymar converted – despite Pletikosa getting a hand on his penalty – to take the hosts into a controversial lead, one which was perhaps even undeserved, given that the penalty was one of, if not their first, shot on target of the second half.
Croatia pushed on – Ivan Perisic and substitute Ante Rebic both coming close – and yet more controversy followed as Olic was adjudged to have fouled Julio Cesar when challenging from a cross. This controversy was largely rooted in frustration at the penalty – it’s not particular irritating or surprising to see goalkeepers receiving a bit of protection from the officials, but it rounded off a frustrating night for a Croatia side who played very well throughout.
From the final Croatian chance – the blocked Rebic shot – Brazil showed some of the flair you’d expect from one of their national teams. Oscar broke well, receiving the ball from a Ramires tackle before driving through the Croatian defence and toepoking the ball past Stipe Pletikosa. It was a sensational finish – the goal of the game – but a third goal that Pletikosa ought to have prevented.
Player ratings (out of 10)
Stipe Pletikosa – 4: Had a reasonable game, but was at fault for, at best, two of the three Brazil goals.
Darijo Srna – 5: Didn’t really put a foot wrong, but didn’t do too much to write home about either.
Vedran Corluka – 5: Was clumsy at times but was the better of the two defenders in a defensive unit which, for most of the game, kept Brazil’s attack at bay.
Dejan Lovren – 4: Allowed men to get wrong side of him all night, and gave away the penalty. If he has indeed put in a transfer request to Southampton, he’s done himself no favours in actually getting a move tonight.
Sime Vrsaljko – 7: Croatia’s best defender and a valuable contributor going forward, the Genoa full back slotted in well on his weaker flank.
Luka Modric – 7: Ran the game in midfield for Croatia. Assured in possession and useful without, Modric was at the centre of everything Croatia did well.
Ivan Rakitic – 6: Not a poor display by any means, but following an excellent season with Seville you’d perhaps expect a little more from one of the hottest names in European football.
Ivan Perisic – 6: Was one of the bright sparks going forward for Croatia, but his finishing was a little too wayward to grasp the headlines.
Mateo Kovacic – 6: For a player who wasn’t on the original team sheet, an assured performance. His substitution notably weakened Croatia, but he wasn’t quite on song.
Ivica Olic – 7: Probably Croatia’s best player going forward, Olic assisted the goal and was a constant thorn in Dani Alves’ side.
Nikica Jelavic – 6: A game of two sides for Nikica Jelavic. The Hull striker wasn’t great on the ball, but filled in for Mandzukic well in terms of running the rule over Brazil’s rearguard.
Marcelo Brozovic – 6: Showed some good touches, but wasn’t quite as good as Kovacic.
Ante Rebic – 6: Improved upon Jelavic but didn’t have enough time to show what he can do.
Julio Cesar – 5: Looked a bit dodgy at times – cases in point being his pointless parrying of several shots from range and the disallowed Croatian goal – but a better performance than his counterpart.
Dani Alves – 6: Showed some good touches and defended well, but didn’t get involved too much going forward.
David Luiz – 6: Defended well and wasn’t really at fault for the goal, but fluffed his lines notably at either end. Showed why he’s a starter for Brazil though.
Thiago Silva – 7: A professional and passionate performance by the skipper who was close to tears in the tunnel prior to the game.
Marcelo – 5: Conceded an own goal but otherwise didn’t put a foot wrong – nothing else was notable about his performance, though.
Luiz Gustavo – 6: Not a vintage performance by the Wolfsburg man, didn’t really justify his place in the team. Probably only in the team because he played Bayern when this squad came together.
Paulinho – 6: Upstaged Luiz Gustavo but didn’t do anything of note, aside from creating and missing a good chance in the first half.
Hulk – 4: Why Hulk is in this Brazil side is a question for the seers of the modern age. Was more of a hindrance to Brazil than anything else, Bernard was much better.
Neymar – 8: A brace on his World Cup debut goes some way to justify his tag as Brazil’s key man this year – also equalled Ronaldinho and Jairzinho on 33 goals for the Brazil national team with his second. Nice.
Oscar – 9: Absolutely flawless performance by the Chelsea man. Capped off the win with a sweet finish, but also was crucial in the first two.
Fred – 5: Was rarely involved, but did dive for the penalty which won Brazil the game.
Hernanes – 6: Did little of note. Decent performance though.
Bernard – 7: Was a massive improvement upon Hulk. Despite not being at the centre of very much in his 25 minutes on the pitch, he helped pull Brazil forward and was a catalyst in the victory.
Ramires – 6: Got the assist for the third goal but otherwise didn’t have enough time on the pitch to affect proceedings.
Man of the Match: Oscar
Brazil’s number 11 may have been upstaged in terms of goals by Neymar, but this was the complete attacking performance by the youngster. He took on the entire Croatia midfield for the first, threaded in the pass to Fred to earn the penalty for the second, and did it all himself for the third. It’ll be hard for anyone to match that with a more complete performance in the rest of the World Cup, which is saying something.