Brazil 1 Croatia 0: Kaka kick-starts campaign for labouring Brazil

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The Independent Football

They may yet achieve immortality during this flaming month under the German sun but, last night, the heirs to Pele, Garrincha and Jairzinho showed they are mortals after all as they strained to defeat a Croatian side that could prove as much a menace in this competition as in 1998.

With three of the fabled front four misfiring it was left to Kaka to supply the lustre both with his stylish play and the 44th-minute goal that should ensure the tournament favourites progress to the next round. But whether this XI, who unusually in this age wore shirts marked 1-11, stay the same remains to be seen.

With Ronaldinho largely peripheral, Ronaldo off the pace and Adriano out of touch Brazil's attack lacked venom. Moreover the two-man midfield was often overrun and the defence looked vulnerable at set pieces. Pretty useless then? Not quite - there was still enough creativity, inspiration and skill to ensure their next appearance, against Australia at Munich on Sunday, will stop the world from Beijing to Bolton.

"The team hasn't played a lot together and we had difficulty imposing our own rhythm," said the Brazil coach, Carlos Alberto, inadvertently admitting that critics of his limited build-up may have been correct.

By a fortunate quirk the draw had ensured that Brazil, as befits the headline act, would occupy the final prime-time slot in the opening round of games. After the likes of Argentina and the Netherlands had whetted the appetite here was the main course.

In this stadium heavy with the echoes of history Croatia's coach, Zlatko Kranjcar, created a little piece of his own, selecting his son, Nico. While the 21-year-old came with advance notices suggesting he had rich potential the pressure was on to prove it.

His team displayed a similar independence of spirit. They did not kick Brazil, nor did they pull everyone behind the ball. They took them on. Cleverly set up to counter the selecao's "quadrilateral", they showed impressive skill, technique and movement of their own. When, after a settling-in period, Niko Kovac went on a bold break, then Kranjcar essayed an ambitious but wayward 25-yard shot, the check-cloth-shirted hordes roared with approval. The stadium seemed to hold a more even split in fans than most in the tournament to date, but many of those wearing Brazilian shirts were pretenders, hailing from Europe and Japan.

Who can blame them? The reason football fans everywhere wish to ally themselves with Brazil was on view from the start as the ball fizzed between canary-shirted players with bewildering speed. Brazil may have five players over 30, and were playing on a sweltering evening, but when the ball does all the work only the opposition tire.

The champions carved their first chance after eight minutes, Kaka feeding Ronaldinho on the left and then breaking forward to receive Adriano's lay-off. In quick succession Stipe Pletikosa tipped over a long shot from Roberto Carlos, then went full length to turn Ronaldinho's drive narrowly past the far post.

With Croatia then coming into the game a goalless first half was looming when Emerson strode with scowling purpose out of defence. The captain found Cafu advancing on the left but the move appeared to falter when he rolled what appeared a risky pass to Kaka, the Milan player being closed down by Igor Tudor and Kranjcar, 30 yards out. But Kaka's first touch left Tudor standing and Kranjcar trailing. Opening his body he then curled a shot past Pletikosa. As the stadium glittered with the popping of a thousand flashbulbs the Brazilian bench erupted with joy. The reaction underlined the immense, almost suffocating pressure they are under.

To concede at such a time would shatter many teams but Croatia emerged after the interval bristling with intent. Prso soon burst past Lucio but was denied by a smart save from Dida. The goalkeeper was then grateful that Ivan Klasnic and Marko Babic shot straight at him from good openings. He also foiled Ivica Olic as Brazil's reliance on attacking players increasingly left them exposed.

What to do? There was only one answer for Parreira: take off a striker, the ineffectual Ronaldo - and bring on another one. Enter Robinho who quickly provided a cross-shot that Adriano steered just wide. With Pletikosa having previously stopped a point-blank Ronaldinho header, and seen Ronaldo shoot over when well-placed, Brazil were by no means sitting back. Indeed, as the game moved into its final quarter they reasserted themselves just enough to keep Croatia in their place.

"I told the team before the game we had to go up seven steps," Brazil's Cafu said. "We went up one and now we have six to go."