World Cup 2014: group stage, day 1
BRAZIL 3-1 CROATIA
(Neymar x 2, Oscar; Marcelo OG)
The World Cup opener was an exciting game, with Croatia taking an early lead and playing well throughout – Brazil were flattered by the two goal-victory.
The key feature of the match, and a rather surprising one, was the frequency of crossing. That wasn’t something we expected – Brazil usually field inverted wingers cutting inside to shoot, whereas Croatia hold the ball for long positions in central midfield. But in the first half, both sides crossed the ball regularly.
One obvious cause was the format of Brazil’s attackers. Oscar is usually central, with Neymar left and Hulk right. But Scolari changed this completely, with Oscar wide-right, Hulk wide-left and Neymar playing as a support striker, effectively an inside-left. This was probably because Scolari knew Croatia lack a recognised holding midfielder, using two silky passers in that zone instead – so he knew Neymar would get plenty of space between the lines.
Neymar struggled to receive the ball in dangerous positions when Croatia sat deep, and instead it was Oscar who inspired Brazil’s comeback from Marcelo’s own goal. Although accustomed to playing in the middle, Oscar was capable of going down the line and dribbling past Sime Vrsaljko, a natural right-back who looked uncomfortable tackling with his left foot.
Oscar whipped in a couple of dangerous crosses within the first 15 minutes, played a clever through-ball for Paulinho towards the end of the first half, and also helped Brazil attack by scrapping, winning the ball high up the pitch. The best example of his wide play was his superb whipped cross to David Luiz on 78 minutes – the defender probably denied Neymar a hattrick by getting in front of him. Oscar was the game’s best player, even before his clever late goal, in a role we’ve rarely seen him play. On the left, Hulk was more disappointing.
Croatia were equally dangerous with crossing. Before this match, there was a suspicion that Brazil were vulnerable to counter-attacks into the full-back positions, and this was obvious from the opening stages. Croatia essentially used two forwards out wide – Ivica Olic is literally a striker, while Ivan Perisic is more comfortable on the flank, but possesses the characteristics of a forward.
They charged up and down the line all game, and constantly found space on the wings simply because they’d sprinted forward quickly to get into those positions. Some good diagonal balls from the central midfielders, Luka Modric and particularly Ivan Rakitic, meant they were supplied quickly and Croatia were very dangerous on the break.
Marcelo’s own goal was a little unfortunate, but Brazil had received a warning a few minutes beforehand when Perisic crossed from the right-flank to Olic at the far post – he headed wide. The goal came from the opposite flank but was the same thing – one winger finding space, and his cross exposing the full-back on the far side.
This continued into the second half, and Croatia had legitimate reasons to complain about the referee’s decision that Olic fouled Julio Cesar when they fought for a left-wing cross.
Space between the lines
Another feature was the space both teams found between the times at various points. As mentioned earlier, this possibility was probably why Neymar was fielded centrally in the first place, and he tended to find more space when Brazil attacked quickly, with Modric and Rakitic high up the pitch. They’re not natural ball-winners, but position themselves intelligently when Croatia have men behind the ball.
After all, this Brazil is primarily a counter-attacking team – the roar from the crowd was notablewhen Brazil had chances to break. Neymar collected the ball centrally and was keen to take on opponents and shoot from range, the obvious example being his opening goal. He wasn’t as good as Oscar, but his impact on the game was considerable.
But Croatia also found space between the lines, with Mateo Kovacic (and his replacement Marcelo Brozovic) encouraged to stay high up the pitch rather than overloading the midfield zone. Luiz Gustavo generally did a good job in front of the back four, but Paulinho darted forward into attack and left space to break into.
A final talking point from the game was the poor goalkeeping. Stipe Pletikosa will feel disappointed about all three goals – the first was a Neymar scuff that dribbled past him frustratingly, the second was a Neymar penalty he got both hands to, but pushed into the net, and the third was an Oscar toe-poke when the Croatian goalkeeper hadn’t got ’set’ for the shot.
But Julio Cesar didn’t look much more comfortable – twice he fumbled two relatively easy saves, and he struggled when challenging Olic for that cross, too.
This could be a feature of the tournament. Some of the outsiders simply have poor goalkeepers, while all three favourites (Brazil, Spain, Argentina) have goalkeepers that have barely played this season.
Mexico v Cameroon - Could be an interesting tactical battle, with Mexico fielding a back three and likely to dominate possession, and Cameroon trying to break quickly into the channels.
Spain v Netherlands – A repeat of the last World Cup final. The big question is whether Dutch coach Louis van Gaal fields a three-man defence or a back four. Either way, his side should press in midfield, and Vicente Del Bosque will need players who can get in behind the defence – Pedro Rodriguez could be crucial.
Chile v Australia – Chile might be the most exciting team in the competition, and will look to work the ball forward extremely quickly. Australia’s full-backs attack enthusiastically, but could be caught out on the break.
World Cup 2014: group stage, day 1