Three Points: Brazil defeat Croatia
SAO PAULO -- Reaction to Brazil's 3-1 Group A win versus Croatia in the opening match of the World Cup.
1. A win was the main thing
This was a win for the hosts and featured a defining performance from the great hope, but much of it came courtesy of a series of awful home decisions -- not least the key penalty, which Neymar converted to put Brazil 2-1 ahead.
There was a completely innocent but still somewhat symbolic moment toward the end of the game, as the match-winner shook referee Yuichi Nishimura's hand before being substituted.
Both had a key hand in Brazil's victory, not least when the official pointed to the spot on the 71st minute to finally swing the game the way of the hosts. Shortly after that, there was the surprising decision to give a free kick to Brazil for a Croatian aerial challenge that could have made the game 2-2. The officiating will only escalate all the debate about technology and managers being able to challenge referees a certain amount of times.
Nishimura, after all, couldn't possibly have been expected to properly see the full extent of Fred's poor dive, which led to the penalty. In that, he was almost as much a victim as Croatia. The visiting side, however, were ultimately the victims of Neymar, too, not to mention the equally impressive Oscar.
It all means that Luiz Felipe Scolari has those key three points, but also some real concerns, as this was not all that convincing. For the moment, the pragmatist in the manager will accept. He did also speak before the game that such first fixtures tend to be cagey, and Brazil have a history of them. Here, they kicked off the World Cup in the only way that really matters. Neymar certainly did.
2. Neymar stars
Scolari claimed before this game that Brazil's time has arrived, but so far that can only really be said of Neymar. Neither the nature of this performance nor the stakes can be ignored. The Brazilian who carries the most responsibility ultimately carried the team, if ably assisted by the excellent Oscar. He certainly drove them, and thereby banished so many existing questions about his career.
On the biggest possible stage so far, with the biggest possible pressure, Neymar delivered. That was never truer than in the minutes after Croatia took a surprise lead, when he immediately began to demand the ball and to try to do proper damage.
Nikica Jelavic may look on such a statement in a different way after the Brazilian forward's poor elbow, but that served only to show the edge in Neymar's game, too. The majority of the greats have it, and the 22-year-old began to show he belongs with them. He certainly made the pitch his own on the 29th minute, powering at goal before finishing with such precision.
It was a genuinely electrifying moment, an exceptional combination of anger, abandon and cold calculation. The key winning penalty wasn't quite so precise, but it did produce the desired outcome. Neymar certainly produced the desired performance, even if so many others didn't.
3. Defensive dithering is a concern
It wasn't exactly the most graceful or greatest moment to open the tournament, to properly ratchet up such a rousing opening game. In fact, there didn't appear much design to the first goal of the World Cup at all.
The Brazilian back line failed to cut out Ivica Olic's cross, and Nikica Jelavic failed to get any kind of meaningful connection, but that only ensured Marcelo failed to get out of the way. He wasn't the only Brazilian defender, however, who didn't seem in the right position.
The hosts' defence was strikingly shapeless and looked stretched any time Croatia got forward, not least down the left. It was often as if Dani Alves failed to realise he can no longer combine the roles of right-back and right-winger in the way he used to, which left the entire back line always looking fragile.
Opportunity repeatedly presented itself for Croatia, and that is perhaps one of the most important elements this game revealed and possibly the biggest concern for Scolari. It was said before the tournament that his defence is stronger than a stuttering attack. If that is the case, it does not bode well, especially on this evidence.
Whereas in 2002, the likes of Roque Junior played above themselves to ensure the Brazilian defence was much more than the sum of its parts under "Big Phil," this back line looked exactly what it was: a collection of faded players or technically good ones who don't completely convince. It was one other reason Brazil don't yet completely convince as a whole.
At the least, however, they have Neymar.
Miguel Delaney is London correspondent for ESPN and also writes for the Irish Examiner, the Independent, Blizzard and assorted others. He is the author of an award-nominated book on the Irish national team called 'Stuttgart to Saipan' (Mentor) and was nominated for Irish sports journalist of the year in 2011.