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Croatia to test hosts
A build-up that has witnessed social unrest and highlighted the chasm between the haves and have-nots in one of the most vibrant countries on the globe could be put to the test today as the 20th World Cup kicks off with hosts Brazil meeting the unpredictable Croatia in Sao Paulo.
The hosts have the time-honoured tradition of getting the tournament under way so it won’t be long to gauge whether the febrile expectations of 200 million Brazilian citizens will inspire them on to ultimate glory or prove an impossible burden.
The Selecao may well be the clear favourites but anything less than lifting the trophy in Rio on July 13 will be considered a failure for Phil Scolari’s team.
Let’s not forget as well they will be expected to play with a panache and flair that we all associate with football in this part of the world.
Many think Croatia will be sacrificial lambs and would probably not hold out much hope for a side that was beaten twice by Scotland in qualifying but changes have been made with former coach Igor Stimac shown the door and replaced by the inexperienced but hugely respected Niko Kovac.
He managed to galvanise the nation enough to ensure qualification via the play-offs and although this is a daunting opener, his optimism is not misplaced.
He said: “If we had to be drawn in the same group as Brazil, then the best outcome for us is to meet in the first game. The pressure is all on them and I am hopeful of springing a surprise.”
Croatia’s footballing highlight remains their Davor Suker-inspired third place in France back in 1998 but this team is hardly bereft of the talent capable of serving it up tonight.
They have a midfield of Ivan Rakitic, Luka Modric and Mateo Kovacic that any world side would look upon enviously and although main striker Mario Mandzukic is suspended for this game, veteran Wolfsburg hitman Ivica Olic looks raring to go in relief after an excellent season in the Bundesliga.
As for the hosts, this is obviously the chance to send out a message not only to their rivals but also ensure the population is right behind them and singing from the same hymn sheet at a very early stage.
The latter aspect may not be quite so straightforward.
Barcelona wing-back Dani Alves has every right to feel they will hit the ground running now the tournament starts in earnest but a scruffy 1-0 win last weekend over Serbia was accompanied by a chorus of boos throughout from unimpressed spectators with the Serbs unfortunate not to actually claim some sort of result. Golden boy Neymar will need to settle in quickly and although an average first season at Barcelona should be discounted, the pressure is on the 22-year-old to deliver both creatively and with goals.
Conversely, Croatia have been in relaxed mood.
Kovac demands discipline as well from his players—they have much more about them than to just simply frustrate Brazil—so the ability to keep possession for decent spells should allow them to establish some sort of foothold in the game.
Brazil vs Croatia
Sao Paulo, 4 pm
The host nation has never lost their opening World Cup game, with the 20 previous hosts winning 14 and drawing six of their openers. Eight of the last 12 opening matches at World Cups have produced one goal or less.
Croatia have only conceded 11 goals in 13 World Cup games (0.85/game). It’s the best ratio among the 32 teams taking part in 2014.
Brazil are taking part in their 20th World Cup. They are the only team to have taken part in every single tournament.
Brazil have won eight of their last nine World Cup games in the group stages (1 draw). Their last defeat dates back to 23 June 1998 against Norway (1-2).
World Cup record
Five-time winners (1958, 1962, 1970, 1994, 2002), twice runners-up (1950, 1998), twice third (1938, 1978), fourth (1974)
World Cup record: Third (1998), twice group stage (2002, 2006)
Julio Cesar, Jefferson, Victor; Dani Alves, Maicon, Marcelo, Maxwell, David Luiz, Thiago Silva, Dante, Henrique; Luiz Gustavo, Paulinho, Ramires, Fernandinho, Oscar, Willian, Hernanes, Bernard; Fred, Neymar, Hulk, Jo.
Manager: Luiz Felipe Scolari
Stipe Pletikosa, Danijel Subasic, Oliver Zelenika, Darijo Srna, Dejan Lovren, Vedran Corluka, Gordon Schildenfeld, Danijel Pranjic, Domagoj Vida, Sime Vrsaljko, Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic, Ognjen Vukojevic, Ivan Perisic, Mateo Kovacic, Marcelo Brozovic, Ivan Mocinic, Sammir, Mario Mandzukic, Ivica Olic, Eduardo da Silva, Nikica Jelavic, Ante Rebic.
Manager: Niko Kovac