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The hosts got their party off to a winning start but Niko Kovac's side proved in Sao Paulo that Brazil, among the tournament favourites, have chinks in their armour

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By Richard Jolly

It might be an exaggeration to say the world was watching but much of it was. Some were not merely watching but picturing proof that they were doing so. Daniel Sturridge should be leading England's attack on Saturday; from a vantage point in his hotel, he tuned in to watch a likelier Golden Boot winner, Neymar.   

It is part of Brazil's capacity to captivate. More significant for the participants in World Cup 2014 is the quest for knowledge. Neymar’s excellence may not have constituted news – although his ability to deliver under unimaginable pressure was instructive – but more revealing, for England and the other teams who belong in the second rank of sides, was the sight of chinks in the armour of one of the favourites.    

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Brazil’s greatest footballer previewed the World Cup by saying that this was no typical Selecao side and that, unlike most of their predecessors, Luiz Felipe Scolari’s team were stronger in defence than attack. Wonderful player as Pele was, he has proved a reliably hopeless pundit and, once again, he may be wrong.

Scolari’s charges had only conceded two goals in their previous nine games but, within a quarter of an hour, one full-back – Marcelo – had put the ball in his own net after the other, Dani Alves, went missing and allowed Ivica Olic to cross. Perhaps more culpable than either was David Luiz, who allowed Nikica Jelavic to get ahead of him at the near post, indirectly resulting in Marcelo becoming a history-maker as the first Brazilian to score an own goal in the World Cup.

When the Chelsea man’s move to Paris Saint-Germain is ratified, he will become the most expensive defender in footballing history but Luiz can still display an idiosyncratic approach to defending. He brings eccentricity to a position where many prefer solidity. Behind him, Julio Cesar, who lost his place in the QPR goal during their relegation season of 2012-13, was out-jumped by Olic when the excellent Ivan Perisic had a leveller harshly disallowed. Brazil lived dangerously as Croatia competed valiantly.

If it is too soon to say that this is another Selecao side with a soft underbelly, theirs scarcely seemed a watertight rearguard as Croatia attacked intelligently. Alves looked the Brazilian Glen Johnson, exposed more than once and afforded too little protection. Hulk, who normally shields him, was switched from the right wing and ineffectual. Fred, the sole striker, did little apart from win the decisive - but dodgy - penalty.

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Oscar was brighter than he had been during an underwhelming second half to Chelsea’s season and garnished his display with a late goal but, compared to the feared front four fielded in 2006 – Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Adriano and Kaka – the class of 2014 have less stardust ... with one exception, however. While this was a match to illustrate the size of the load on Neymar’s young shoulders, he delivered.

His equaliser was scarcely his cleanest strike but angled in off the post; his second was almost a superb save by Stipe Pletikosa. The important element for Brazil was that both shots crossed the line. The hosts trailed for 17 minutes and toiled for long periods. They prevailed without stamping their authority on the match or the tournament.   

Croatia, a team in meltdown at the fractious end to Igor Stimac’s reign, could count themselves distinctly unlucky to depart pointless. The broader conclusion may be that the gulf between the best and the rest is not unbridgeable. Fine margins – or imperfect officiating – could decide many a match.

So, too, could Neymar. He did not just have the England players reaching for their camera-phones. Kaka, who could have been wearing the prestigious No.10 shirt, was sat in the Sao Paulo stands, looking to capture the moment as his precocious successor converted the spot kick. Yet while the hosts got the much-desired win, it did rather serve to support a theory: stop Neymar and you could stop Brazil.

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