And so it begins – The 2014 World Cup, as the host nation, Brazil, with an enormous amount of pressure and expectations on their shoulders, begin the road to what hopefully, for them, ends with lifting the trophy for a sixth time, while Croatia, on paper the second strongest team in Group A, will try and make it yet another surprise in the history of World Cup openers.
Sao Paulo will be working fine on the day of the match. No strikes, probably, and a stadium that is pretty much finished, or at least should be ready to host 61,606 fans with plenty of VIPs among them. But that is less important. The opening ceremony and everything surrounding the game is nice, but we’re here to talk about football, and what might happen in the first 90 minutes of the tournament.
Brazil are the favorites, without a shadow of a doubt. Just how much better are they? If there’s one area in which Croatia can feel like they have a nice matchup with Brazil is the midfield. Luka Modric has really turned himself into one of the best in the world this season while Ivan Rakitic, after a fantastic season with Sevilla, got an upgrade by joining Barcelona. The hopes for Croatia in this match, especially with Mario Mandzukic suspended, lay with the two stars from the La Liga.
Not that Brazil have a midfield problem. Paulinho and Luis Gustavo might not be too impressive when they play for their clubs in Germany and England, but their roles are different with the national team, and their performance changes accordingly. Gustavo will be the one matching up with Rakitic, trying to slow the playmaker down, while Paulinho is known for his ability to join the front four, scoring five goals in 26 caps for the Celesao.
Brazil don’t have a star striker. Fred is good, solid, but he isn’t young, and has never been a world class scorer, despite an impressive record of 17 goals in 34 caps. But he might be the right man for the job, as the more dangerous men for Brazil play a bit wider. Hulk, who usually takes care of the setting up and will have to keep Mateo Kovacic and Daniel Pranjic very busy along with Marcelo playing behind him, and the youngster in the role of the potential national hero, Neymar.
It wasn’t a very good season for Neymar at Barcelona, especially when considering the money spent on him and comparisons to Gareth Bale. But it seems the last four years have led him up to this moment – playing, starring in the World Cup and opening it by playing in the city he was born near. He has an impressive record of 31 goals in 43 caps for the national side, and will be facing Darijo Srna in this match, with the Croatian veteran needing help from Corluka or Lovren probably.
What can Croatia do? Counter attacking through Modric and Rakitic is probably what we’ll see. Ivica Olic does provide some dimension of speed but not too much at 34, and we might see Eduardo or Nikica Jelavic take over very quickly, if not from the start. Set pieces is something Croatia might be looking to take advantage of, although against the fantastic Brazilian defense, it’s more likely that a Srna free kick will do the damage than a corner from Modric or Rakitic.
Unlike the opening match four years ago, this one has star power written all over it, even coming from the Croatian side that struggled scoring so much during the qualifiers and the playoff against Iceland. Brazil don’t have a target men that clubs in Europe dream of, but they’re stacked everywhere else, especially defensively. The saying about tournaments suggests that’s the most important thing, which should be a sign of cautious optimism for the hosts.