World Cup 2014 started with a whimper in the Arena de Sao Paulo, Brazil, today as the hosts put on a nervous and at times halting display in the first half yet managed to raise their level in the second to pull out a shaky 3-1 win over Croatia.
The Brazilians recouped some swagger in the second half as they were firing on more if not all cylinders. But this was not start the hosts were looking for in the opening match of the quadrennial tournament.
The game started slowly with a lot of miscues and though Brazil had possession it was Croatia that was the more dangerous side. Brazil seemed nervous and most of their attacks were crosses into the box, a curious strategy to use against the tallest team, overall, in the tournament.
It was a quick counter that provided the first dangerous play at the 5th minute and Ivica Olic missed a golden header that Julio Cesar would have been late to reach with his dive. The ball went wide of the far post. But the rhythm continued--Brazil dominating possession, Croatia more dangerous on the counter.
Finally an 11th minute counter led to a fumbled clearance attempt by Marcelo and the opening goal of World Cup 2014 became an own goal: Croatia 1, Brazil 0.
The game became a bit rougher then, as the Brazilians attacked furiously but found the Croats were a match and frustration set in. In a silly foul Neymar clobbered Luca Modric while going for a header about 40 years away from the Brazilian goal, earning a yellow card. But barely a minute after the booking Neymar scored the equalizer.
He took the ball about 40 yards away from the Croatian's goal and dribbled right to left, surprising his markers who assumed he was play-making, looking to pass, and not attacking, and they gave him some room to maneuver. The striker kept going left and took a rolling, angled, 25-yard shot that was millimeter perfect and which the diving Croatian goalkeeper, Stipe Pletikosa, just missed reaching. Game tied!
The half, despite or because of several yellows, was mostly well officiated by Japan's Yiuchi Nishimura. When he blew the whistle, ending the half, the score line was 1-1.
The second hal started with the same players on the pitch and soon settled into a back and forth rhythm as Croatia felt it still had a chance even though Brazil was pressing. Then at the 71st minute Fred pulled a fast one. He was grabbed in the box, the way players grab each other in the box on corner kicks, a foul that should be called but usually never is. Only this time Fred sold the foul as he was already turning to try a shot on goal and he simply continued the move and let himself fall. A pretty soft penalty was called.
Neymar stutter stepped and then shot poorly, at waist height, to his left. Pletikosa guessed correctly and got both hands on the ball, only in succession, and that was not enough to push the ball out. Instead the ball slipped into the net for a 2-1 Brazil advantage. The striker's celebration by the corner flag seemed one of grateful release and relief rather than joy.
Neymar had taken the team on his shoulders and shown them the way out of a very tricky first game. He was building a case for top scorer and best player of the tournament, from game one.
The game continued being a tight match and Cesar was called upon to make several good saves on what could have easily been the equalizer from Croatia.
Then, at the 91st minute (four were added as stoppage), what seemed a mid-field foul by Oscar was ruled a fair retrieval, and the Chelsea midfielder was off and running toward goal. As the closest defender seemed reach him for the block, Oscar toe-poked the ball from just outside the box and perfectly placed it next to Pletikosa's right post. Brazil 3, Croatia 1, was the final score.
Truth be told, two of the three Brazilian goals were questionable but the one that was true was beautiful. Croatia showed just how good they were and why they should be considered a strong candidate to progress from the group.
Ref Nishimura did not do a good job in the second half and his inconsistency seemed to turn the tables. His performance should leave enough of a question mark to make him a poor selection for the second round.
Brazil left the pitch with the objective accomplished but the job left undone.