Croatia came prepared.
In the opening game of the World Cup against Brazil in São Paulo on Thursday, hours and hours of preparation came through in a lot of what the Croatians managed to do well. They were tightly spaced in midfield. They pressed when they were supposed to.
Of course, Croatia coach Niko Kovac didn’t have as much time as he probably would have liked to prepare his team for this World Cup, since he was only appointed last year and had only previously guided the team through five friendly games. But as is so often the case with coaches who take over a team for the first time, they usually start with the fundamental aspects, like defending and team shape, and clearly they were well-drilled in these areas beforehand.
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Despite ultimately losing the game 3-1, the Croatians proved to be a real handful for the hosts. They found the breakthrough first, albeit fortuitously, early on in the first half, and were able to keep the Brazilians’ attack at bay for most of the encounter. After Neymar managed to tie the game for the Brazilians in the 29th minute, it seemed inevitable that Brazil, backed by a boisterous home crowd, would soon be able to add a second and third.
But the Croatians remained resolute. It was only until 71st minute, after Japanese referee Yuichi Nishimura awarded a very generous penalty kick to the Brazilians, that they were able to find the breakthrough. Neymar stepped up to the penalty spot and added a second to his tally.
With Croatia pushing for the equalizer in the dying minutes of the game, Oscar notched a third for Brazil on a rare counterattack opportunity.
As much as Brazilian coach Luiz Felipe Scolari will be happy with his team starting the group stage with a win, he has to be concerned with his side’s overall performance. Brazil struggled to find ways to play through a stingy defense and often looked vulnerable whenever the Croatians decided to get forward, which wasn't, however, often enough.
Ivan Rakitic and Luca Modric in particular, were excellent in midfield, but they lacked quality options in front of them, especially with star forward Mario Mandzukic missing due to suspension. But there were moments where the Croatians could have been more adventurous, could have pushed their fullbacks forward and created numerical advantage on the flanks, but lacked the bravura to do so.
There’s no question Brazil is the favorite to win the World Cup, but if it carried an air of invincibility coming into this tournament, that’s surely gone now. Anyone watching Brazil against Croatia, especially the other tournament favorites, will probably like their chances a little more.
Brazil will need to play a lot better than they did. They will face teams that will be just as tough to break down, if not more so, than Croatia was, and certainly more daring, deadly and intricate when in possession.
But if the Brazilians have one major weakness, which showed in the second half, it’s that they lack quality depth: the alternatives on the bench aren't so stellar.
So much of their success will hinge on the performances of Neymar, but perhaps too much.
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