Pressure builds as Brazil prepare for action
Ahead of Brazil's first pre-World Cup game, against Panama last week, coach Luiz Felipe Scolari sounded a warning to his players after a training session at the Granja Comary complex. "I didn't like what I saw at all," he told reporters. "Everything was wrong. Lots of space, too many counter-attacks... a whole load of things that I don't expect from these players. Maybe someone was impressed, but I wasn't."
If that was a way of keeping his charges on their toes, it appeared to work: Brazil romped to a simple win against Panama and followed it up with a hard-fought 1-0 victory against Serbia. Despite the positive results, however, Felipao has a couple of things to think about ahead of the big kick-off on Thursday.
Oscar is out of sorts
The Chelsea man has been a vital player for Brazil under Scolari. Posted ahead of Paulinho and Luiz Gustavo, he is the closest the Selecao have to a bona fide playmaker, capable of linking play tidily as well as bursting beyond the forwards to score goals. He also naturally drifts to the flanks when Neymar and Hulk foray inside, ensuring that the full-backs are not exposed when Brazil lose possession.
But having played over 100 games since the beginning of 2013, Oscar is tired. It showed during the closing months of the Premier League season and it showed last week. His poor display against Serbia may be attributed to the fact that his first child was born in the run-up to the game, but the problem appears to be more profound than just lack of sleep. He may have peaked too early in Brazil's World Cup preparations.
Other Prem players are ready to come to the fore
While Oscar struggles, one of his Chelsea teammates looks to be timing his ascent perfectly. Willian came off the bench in both of the friendlies, impressing with his movement and link-up play. He may not have the goal threat of the very best attacking midfielders, but he lends Brazil a little more fluency.
The same can be said of Fernandinho. The Manchester City midfielder is a more convincing passer of the ball than either Luiz Gustavo or Paulinho, and gave the Selecao more impetus from deep in the second half of the Serbia game. Even if he is unlikely to break into the starting XI against Croatia, he has become a useful option for his coach.
Neymar is ready to shine
In the Confederations Cup, it was Neymar who provided the spark for Brazil, settling the nerves of fans and players alike with a delightful goal three minutes into the opening game against Japan. His ability to turn a match single-handedly was on display once more against Panama: his inch-perfect freekick opened the floodgates, allowing Brazil to play with more freedom.
The only slight worry is that his status as team talisman will encourage him to do too much himself; against Serbia, for instance, he frequently tried to dribble past a cluster of defenders rather than circulate the ball. His teammates must step up to the plate to ensure he doesn't feel over-burdened by the responsibility.
Unequivocal support is not guaranteed
The support for Brazil last summer was as moving to the neutral as it was fundamental to the Selecao's performances. As protestors shut down the streets in cities all over the country, the national team emerged (or rather re-emerged) as a unifying force -- a symbol of the patriotism Brazilians feel despite the corruption and inequality that plague their country.
This was most visible before matches, when home fans and players defied FIFA regulations to sing the full version of Brazil's anthem a cappella after the shortened edit on the stadium PA systems had ended. Oscar had to stifle a tear; Julio Cesar felt no shame in letting them flow.
Against Serbia, however, we were reminded that Brazilian supporters can be a fickle bunch. After a first half of relatively little promise, the Selecao were booed off the pitch, while Neymar didn't exactly receive a standing ovation upon being substituted after the interval.
Scolari played down the boos after the game, describing them as "normal... if the team isn't performing." But he will be acutely aware of the perils of a slow start to the tournament. His players are already under enough pressure without supporters turning against them.