Brazil carved out an unimpressive and controversial victory over Croatia in the opening match of the 2014 World Cup to earn themselves three points and keep intact their record of remaining unbeaten in competitive games on home soil since 1975. The match got off to a firecracker of a start when Brazil, the host nation, was shocked by an own goal in the 11th minute from Marcelo after Croatia’s spirited play resulted in a low cross from the left flank from Olic that his teammate deflected into the path of Jelavic, who flicked the ball into the path of the onrushing Marcelo. The Real Madrid defender inadvertently walked the ball into the back of his own net to give Croatia an early lead after Croatia had begun the game with lively, attacking play. The goal in Croatia’s favor stunned the crowd and the home side, but Brazil remained true to their footballing pedigree by responding with possession football and creative probing marked by impressive combination play in the middle of the park as well as down the right flank.
In the 19th minute, Oscar threaded a ball to Paulinho who had a point blank shot on goal denied by the Croatian keeper Pletikosa. Minutes later, Neymar found space on the right touchline to deliver a cross that rebounded to Oscar, whose left footed shot was expertly parried by Pletikosa. Brazil continued ramping up the pressure by attacking down the center and their persistence bore dividends in the 29th minute when Oscar’s relentless up field defensive pressure allowed Neymar to pick up the ball in the latter third of the pitch and run at the Croatian defense before dispatching a perfectly placed shot past the diving keeper’s left hand. With the score at 1-1, Brazil continued to own possession and attack the Croatian goal. Dani Alves had a free kick sail just yards over the crossbar and similarly, a spate of Brazilian corner kicks failed to deliver high percentage threats on the Croatian goal as if to confirm coach Luiz Felipe Scolari’s pre-match observation that the Brazilian team had significant work to do on set pieces.
The second half, however, represented a different match entirely with both teams coming out of the tunnel with lackadaisical aplomb. Brazil failed to attack the Croatian goal with any sustained vigor and creativity until the 71st minute, when Fred tumbled in the box and the home side were awarded a penalty by referee Yuichi Nishimura, despite replays indicating little to no contact on the Brazilian striker. Neymar stepped up to the spot kick and made it 2-1 for Brazil, sending the crowd into cheers of delight as the host nation restored the expected script for the match in the form of an impending Brazil victory. Brazil spent the greater part of the remaining 15 minutes of the game defending some furious attacks from Croatia. In the 83rd minute, Croatia had the ball in the back of the net but the referee had already blown his whistle for a foul on Brazil keeper Julio Cesar by Olic that disqualified Perisic’s goal. Brazil continued to fend off intense Croatian attacks until Oscar picked up the ball near center circle and raced toward the edge of the box before sending a toe poke of a shot into the left corner of the net to make it 3-1 and seal a Brazilian victory.
Despite sticking to the same starting XI that won the Confederations Cup, Scolari is clearly experimenting with a different formation than his usual four man defense marked by Dani Alves, Thiago Silva, David Luiz and Marcelo. Instead, Luiz Gustavo occupied a deeper role and the roaming fullbacks have been largely freed of their defensive responsibilities. Meanwhile, Neymar began to take up more of a position in an attacking midfield position, in front of Paulinho, that allowed him to score the first goal, for example. Scolari’s basic strategy may be to add more width to the Brazilian attack while concurrently disrupting the scouting plans of opposing teams who are used to seeing Neymar on the wide left, Oscar in the center, Hulk on the right, and Luiz Gustavo in defensive midfield. Brazil struggled today but came away with a victory, which is often the sign of a really great team. That said, Scolari has some thinking to do in order to close some of the vulnerable spaces on the flanks that resulted, for example, in the first goal in Croatia’s favor. Regardless, the home team and favorites will be ecstatic to have earned three points as they gear up for a confrontation against Mexico on Tuesday June 17.