Brazil wins World Cup opener in most unexpected manner
By Rick Olivares, Unblogged Sports Updated Friday June 13, 2014 - 2:39pm

Assistant referee Nagi Toshiyuki from Japan watches as Brazil's Neymar celebrates his second goal on a penalty kick during the group A World Cup soccer match between Brazil and Croatia, the opening game of the tournament, in the Itaquerao Stadium in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Thursday, June 12, 2014. (AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev)

MANILA, Philippines - If we were to rest on the reputations and laurels heaped on a team then the favorites should always come up aces. Except that not everything goes according to plan and this is why games are played.

Having said that, even for a wholly young side for Brazil, no one tabbed them to lose to Croatia.

RELATED STORY: Neymar leads Brazil to 3-1 win over Croatia

The Croats don't have a particularly large base to choose from in terms of football talent as compared to Brazil and one can see why they opted for a more cautious approach. Stay in your defensive half and attack on the counter.

Brazil was aggressive early in the match while Croatia clumsily nipped at their fleet feet. But even so, Croatia gave a portent of what was to come with two lightning quick counter attacks that caught Dani Alves and even to an extent David Luiz napping.

And it happened in the 11th minute, on a third counter, when Ivica Olic fired from the left side of the box to a cutting Nikica Jelavic. David Luiz had an opportunity to turn the ball away but he missed it. Incredibly so did Jelavic. The last man on the ball, Marcelo, tried to turn it away with his root boot but he nudged it past his keeper, Julio Cesar for an ignominious goal to open the World Cup.

The predominantly Brazil crowd at Arena Corinthians fell silent. It was at this point Brazil and Marcelo had an Andres Escobar moment - the favored team going down to an own goal.

Even if Croatia was in a defensible position, Brazil could not really move the ball up the way they wanted. Matters were compounded when the home side became a little more cautious after conceding the early goal and for a moment it looked like Neymar was going to get sent off for what seemed to be an intentional elbow to Luka Modric. He was mercifully given a yellow card (for me could go either way).

With a second chance at life, Neymar made good on his fortune. A miscue at the half hour mark by a pair of Croatian midfielders whose indecision to indecision to clear the ball away saw Oscar poke the ball away and switch to attack mode. He played an unmarked Neymar well and whose shot from some 25 yards out - though far from the best - just evaded the fingertips of a diving Stipe Pletikosa for the equalizer.

Marcelo was off the hook and it gave Brazil life.

However, Croatia held on to keep the score at 1-1.

In the second half, it seemed that the match was headed for a draw. Croatia showed enough muster to keep Brazil's defenders honest. The newfound aggressiveness of Niko Kovac's side kept their attacking defenders back home. This was reflected on the possession statistics.

The Selecao owned 65 percent of possession in the first half, but the strong performance by Croatia in the last 45 minutes saw them whittle that down to 59 percent.

Brazil head coach Felipe Luiz Scolari tried to mix it up, switching Neymar and Hulk's places from left to right as it also helped. This allowed that link up between Oscar and Neymar that proved devastating in the end.

Scolari thought it wasn't enough so he countered by bringing in Hernanes for Paulinho and Bernard for Hulk to spark their sputtering offense.

Then came some dramatics from Fred, Brazil's forward who Oscar found inside the box. Fred back sealed in Dejan Lovren who in the briefest of touches made contact with the Brazilian who mysteriously fell to the ground. The Japanese referee Yuichi Nishimura pointed to the ground indicating a penalty.

The Croats were aghast and protest to no avail. Incredibly, it was Nishimura who sent of Melo when he stomped on the Netherlands' Arjen Robben in the quarterfinals of the last World Cup.

Neymar made good on his penalty shot although Pletikosa got a hand on it but not enough to push it away from the goal.

The go-ahead goal further lifted that weight off the Selecao's shoulders.

Croatia had come unhinged for a few minutes as what they deemed was a cheap goal gave the hosts an unfair advantage. They felt further aggrieved when Ivan Perisic's blast into an unguarded net was disallowed by Nishimura after a Croat teammate supposedly fouled Brazil keeper Julio Cesar who lost the ball in the air.

And later on, Alves tripped another Croat who was a stride ahead and seemingly headed for a breakaway but play on, Nishimura ordered.

Oscar later sealed the deal when another poor defensive play in the midfield cost the Croats possession and ultimately the game.

Oscar was no doubt rewarded for his hard work as he showed great pace and derring-do even as teammates like Hulk and Paulinho faltered. Brazil's 3-1 victory was deserved but no doubt helped on by three crucial calls that swung the home team's way.

Brazil is a notorious slow starter and they can only get better - supposedly if we are to follow their World Cup trends - as the tournament goes on. But opponents will learn a thing or two about the Selecao's defense that looked spotty. Kovac's squad turned on the jets in the last 10 minutes and nearly scored. It took a pair of terrific saves by Julio Cesar to turn back their unlucky opponents.

Croatia will have to fight off the bile of this stinging loss that should have properly been a draw. They'll come away with some confidence but putting that on the field against Cameroon on June 18 and Mexico on the 23rd is altogether another thing.

Now hopefully, we have seen the last Nishimura who (this early is this World Cups Koman Coulibaly) spoiled what could have been a great World Cup opener.

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