Brazil 3 Croatia 1 match report: Neymar secures double to get hosts off to a winning start

The Brazilians fought back after going behind in the 11th-minute

Arena De Sao Paulo

Brazil had hoped he would deliver and he did not let them down. After the protests and the politics ebbed away last night, the man with the capability of lifting this entire vast nation stepped on to the pitch and did his work.

The hosts were not imperious. Sometimes a successful tournament is best built from modest beginnings. But Neymar’s two goals, one a penalty, lit up the night and allowed them to say that they are ready to sweep the rest aside.

Brazil’s curious semi-detachment about the tournament lasted deep into the afternoon; the hundreds of empty seats for the opening ceremony which featured walking trees and fuchsias were a manifestation of the lack of love the nation has had for a competition you expected might have been adored in the land of football. There was one more little piece of insurrection towards the Fifa suits when they sang a second verse of the Brazil national anthem, refusing the time limit the game’s tainted governors have tried to impose.

 

When it all began there really was no carnival. Half the floodlights failed after about 20 minutes, flickering back on later in testament to the way that this unfinished expensive stadium has been thrown together in a shambolic hurry, and the players were fumbling around in the dark, too. There have been grand pronouncements about how they would win it – “Our moment has come,” coach Luiz Felipe Scolari had said – but assessing the true merit of this team is difficult. They had been in a fairly dark place until last year’s Confederations Cup triumph sent expectation soaring. How good were they? Nobody really knew.

The Croats looked like the football players. Ivica Olic, a left-winger from Wolfsburg, did the dazzling. He had already hared down the left once – seizing on Oscar’s sloppy early pass – before he whipped in the cross which, after Nikica Jelavic’s miskick, went spinning into the foot of Marcelo, who could not stop himself poking it into his own net.

The view of Sao Paulo’s response to Neymar’s equaliser from the top of the stadium best revealed the complex relationship between Brazil and its World Cup. There is a view across the city from there and the fireworks which crackled told of a place which for all the bravado will be living on its nerves in the next four weeks. They hate the men in suits and the spending which the World Cup represents but they will invest every last piece of emotion in the team’s fortunes when it all comes down to it. Marcelo deflects the ball past Julio Cesar to open the scoring Marcelo deflects the ball past Julio Cesar to open the scoring

Of course, it was not so much the manner of the goal that mattered but the man who delivered it. They love Neymar because he was the one who did not forsake them by leaving for Europe at the first available opportunity. Oscar did the hard yards to create the chance for him, riding two challenges to slip the ball in. Neymar’s finish was not a masterpiece – his shot was slightly scuffed before rolling towards the left-hand post of a slow-reacting Croatia goalkeeper Stipe Pletikosa and in off the post – yet there could be no disguising the sense of a player announcing his arrival in the tournament.

Neymar scores from the spot to put Brazil 2-1 up Neymar scores from the spot to put Brazil 2-1 up There was menace in the reminder of the first half. Oscar, whose contribution arguably outweighed all others, was the threat and it was his snapshot which drew a sharp save from Pletikosa. Olic tried too many Brazilian tricks and was found out at times by Dani Alves. The Croats resorted to a very functional and basic kind of strategy, crowding out Neymar whenever he took up position and muscling him off, often illegally.

There was no zip in the stride when the Selecao returned to the field after half time, though. It was Croatia who revealed why they have been described here as the “Brazilians of Europe”, with more sharp interplay, Luka Modric seizing the midfield, ensuring that his side had the best of it, and actually pinning the host nation back in their own half. Tottenham Hotspur’s Paulinho made little impression on the game and left it a little after the hour. Hulk, the source of such Brazilian expectation, did not draw players away from Neymar as had been forecast. He left early, too,

There was minimal threat from the wide areas by the team who are expected to be champions. Japanese referee Yuichi Nishimura – still remembered for dismissing Brazil’s Felipe Melo in the 2010 quarter-final defeat to the Netherlands – was generous to the hosts; even a local commentary team admitted as much.

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The weight of expectation lay with the player on whose form you suspect the Brazil might stand or fall. It was Neymar who wriggling into space, 15 yards out form the Croatia penalty area to win a free-kick which Alves put over. And it was he who stepped up to convert the penalty which Nishimura awarded the hosts.

Dejan Lovren had a very gentle hand on Fred’s shoulder when the striker span around in the penalty area, which was enough to leave him culpable when the Brazilian dropped to the earth dramatically. Neymar’s mazy run-up was ridiculous but the finish was all that mattered. Oscar finished things up by poking home a third at the death.

Brazil started the 2002 tournament this way too, conceding first to Turkey, in Ulsan, South Korea, before winning and that fright did not stop them lifting the trophy. They had Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Ronaldinho that year and,  it seems, far fewer world-beaters this year. Neymar may  be enough.

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