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Jun 12, 2014

Brazil benefit from home cooking?

Host nation? Home-field advantage? Check and check.

Brazil rode both to come from behind against a determined Croatia squad and start their World Cup on the right foot. As long as they get stronger as the tournament progresses, Thursday's performance -- and the way the three points were attained -- won't matter much. But for now, you can't help but reflect on how Fred's flop and a highly dubious penalty decision delivered the win.

No surprises in the starting lineup, but there were tweaks to Brazil's formation. Hulk lined up wide left, with Oscar wide right and Neymar through the middle. What's more, both hugged the touchline more than usual, at least initially. They would flip flanks after roughly half an hour, but it was a strong hint that Luiz Felipe Scolari and Carlos Alberto Parreira aren't the type of managers who haughtily spin the "we'll play our game and force the opposition to adjust to us" line. It was evident immediately that Hulk was deputized to slow Darijo Srna, Croatia's marauding right-back.

BrazilBrazil
CroatiaCroatia
3
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Match 1
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The threat did come from wide, but not from Srna. Rather, Ivan Perisic and Ivica Olic ran with an early freedom you rarely see. Perisic found Olic cutting in at the far post; his header surprised the napping Dani Alves, but was wide of the mark.

Early warning? If so, it wasn't quite picked up.

In the 11th minute, it was Olic's turn to deliver a threatening cross. David Luiz lost track of Nikica Jelavic. The latter failed to connect, but the ball ran through to Marcelo, who accidentally shinned it past keeper Julio Cesar. Marcelo, eyes as wide as the Amazon, looked at his teammates in disbelief.

It wasn't pretty, but Brazil emerged victorious in the World Cup opener.

It was Brazil's first own goal in World Cup history. It was also a test of nerves. This was the big stage, this was where the "weight of the shirt" was going to be felt. Ominously, shortly thereafter, nearly half the lights in the stadium went dark. It wasn't a good time to be a superstitious Brazil fan.

This was where Croatia had a decision to make. Nico Kovac's team featured no fewer than three midfield playmakers: Mateo Kovacic, Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic. Plenty of quality and creativity, but not a single natural defensive midfielder with a physical presence. That's the curse of smaller nations. The gods of football can give them talent, but sometimes they mischievously give them too much in a single position, leaving them perilously bare elsewhere.

And so square pegs must fit in round holes. With that in mind, the choice became to play to the midfield trio's strength and attempt to keep possession, forcing Brazil to chase and foul, or take the more traditional route: sit deeper and hit on the break.

There is no correct answer and you can't prove a negative. Kovac opted to retreat and counter and, with Olic and Perisic in good form, it may have been the right decision. However, it also meant exposing his midfielders under a pressure they're not accustomed to (and probably unsuited to physically). At Real Madrid, Modric has Xabi Alonso; at Sevilla, Rakitic could rely on Stephane Mbia. Here, they had to take turns doing the grunt work.

Neymar began finding space, Paulinho's runs became more incisive. In the 22nd minute, Neymar did what superstars with magic in their feet and minds do. He eluded Croatia's defensive shield and materialized in the box, ready to seize Alves' pinpoint perfect pass into space. The chasing Rakitic ran him down, but Neymar, with a combination of guile and muscle, skipped past him by the touchline and hit a low center. The ball caromed out to Oscar, whose shot prompted an exceptional save from Stipe Pletikosa.

Hulk and Oscar swapped flanks; no need to worry about Srna if he was going to sit. Neymar, perhaps feeling the need to carry the side, began to get physical, planting an elbow on Modric.

Neymar Starts The Party
Neymar was inspirational, but was he fortunate not to be sent off in the first half?

Yellow or red?

It's a more legitimate question when you watch the replay and see Neymar peeking at Modric before extending his arm out. Japanese referee Yuichi Nishimura opted for a yellow. It's a big call that might well have gone a different way if we had not been inside half an hour of the opening game of a World Cup on Brazilian soil, and if Neymar weren't Brazil's biggest star. But also, all told, a common-sense decision.

Just before the half-hour, Brazil equalized by exploiting the most obvious flaw in the Croatian setup. Oscar fought his way through two opponents and laid it off to Neymar, whose left-footed strike from the top of the D sent the Brazuka pinballing off the post to the left of Pletikosa and into the back of the net. Would a defensive specialist have stopped Oscar? We'll never know. The point is, Kovac did not have one at his disposal.

Maybe that's why, in the second half, Croatia pushed on and became more possession-oriented. If they were going to go down, they'd do so swinging, not forcing Modric and Rakitic to turn into something they're not.

Truth be told, it worked. Brazil saw less of the ball in the first 20 minutes after the break. Alves and Marcelo were forced back. Neymar expended energy chasing the ball. Scolari turned to the man some call "O Profeta" -- the "prophet" -- Hernanes in place of Paulinho. Then, on came Bernard, the darling of Atletico Mineiro, looking about 15 years old with his youthful peach fuzz, in place of Hulk, who had contributed little. The formation didn't change; the impetus did. Hernanes is much more of a playmaker than Paulinho.

But the turning point came with a refereeing decision. Oscar found Fred in the box, with Dejan Lovren on his back. Lovren hand-checked Fred for a split second, and it was enough for the centre-forward to go down on his rear end.

A dive? Erm ... yes. And a pretty darn blatant one as well.

Nishimura pointed to the spot. The Croats surrounded him. Jelavic was booked for dissent. Fred raised both fingers and looked to the heavens, possibly thanking whatever deity gifted him the penalty. Up came Neymar who, after his usual stutter-step routine, smacked it home, despite Pletikosa getting a hand on it.

The goal was an evident weight off Brazil's shoulders. Still, Croatia came with what they had left. Cesar stretched to save two long-range efforts. Luiz swept away danger at the far post. Scolari, ever the pragmatist, replaced Neymar with Ramires to bolster against the final Croat attacks. With Brazil pushed back, Oscar broke to score a third on the counterattack, sealing the win.

Croatia can feel aggrieved. But if they carry this form -- and attitude -- into the games against Cameroon and Mexico, they'll be well-placed to advance. Scolari can take home some positives -- Neymar's performance, Oscar's fitness, the reaction shown to get back into it -- but there is still plenty to work on. As for the referee? We may not see him again in this tournament.