Belfast Telegraph

World Cup 2014 Brazil 3 Croatia 1: Neymar double gives host nation winning start

By Martyn Ziegler

Brazil's Barcelona talisman Neymar lit the fireworks for Brazil's World Cup party to begin in earnest after inspiring victory for the host nation in the tournament's opening match against Croatia.

Neymar proved the key for the 3-1 victory in a sparkling - and controversial - match that may well set the tone for a World Cup of thrills and skills.

Each Brazil goal, two scored by Neymar - the second after a dubious penalty won by Fred - and a third by Oscar was greeted by a flurry of fireworks bursting across the Sao Paulo skyline.

Croatia had had the impertinence to take the game to the hosts - and score first courtesy of an own goal by Marcelo but the drive of Brazil not to fail on such an occasion proved decisive.

This was a game brimming with breathtaking technical skill, and not just from Brazil.

All eyes had been on the green and gold shirts in the days beforehand, but inspired by Luka Modric, it was those in red and white checks who had by far the better of the opening exchanges.

Croatia, displaying their own technical gifts, gave fair warning when Ivan Perisic's perceptive cross was met by his Wolfsburg team-mate Ivica Olic with a powerful downward header. Brazil held its collective breath but it bounced up past the angle.

That relief turned to dismay in the 11th minute as Olic took advantage of some wide open space down the left to fire in a cross that nicked off Nikica Jelavic's instep and bounced off the bewildered Marcelo to roll into the net.

This started to look serious: Brazil, the only country to play in every World Cup, were in danger of becoming the first host nation to lose their opening match unless it raised its game.

As it turned out, the shock of going behind was electrifying. Brazil began to attacked with gusto, Neymar's wonderful feet at the centre of the action.

The influence of Chelsea's Oscar began to grow, and his dangerous cross hung temptingly in the air but Neymar's acrobatic attempt failed to make the right contact.

Oscar then tried himself, bringing a terrific save from Stipe Pletikosa as the ball seemed to be curling into his top right-hand corner.

It was time for Neymar to take centre stage, after being only booked for what looked a forearm smash on Modric, he struck the equaliser in the 29th minute. Oscar was deeply involved in the build-up and though it may not have been the cleanest strike Neymar has ever hit, his shot went through the legs of a defender and in off the post.

The darkening skies around the Arena Corinthians lit up as a nation celebrated.

Croatia's touch deserted them, the task suddenly seemed too daunting, and there was a heady air of expectation among the home fans.

Into the second half and Brazil took a more patient approach, putting Croatia under increasing pressure.

Dani Alves fired a free-kick too high after Vedran Corluka had crudely chopped down Neymar, then Oscar picked out David Luiz but he couldn't keep his header down.

Then came the controversy. Fred manoeuvred for the ball in the Croatia penalty area, and Southampton centre-back Dejan Lovren laid barely a finger on his shoulder for the Brazil striker to fling himself down. Japanese referee Yuichi Nishimura awarded the softest of spot-kicks, dispatched by Neymar despite Pletikosa getting his fingers to it.

Croatia tried to respond, and had the ball in the net only for Olic to be penalised for a hefty challenge on keeper Julio Cesar, and it was left to Oscar to surprise Pletikosa with a steered finish with the toe of his boot to send the hosts into raptures.

Neymar clockwatch

Neymar lived up to his star billing as Brazil's golden boy by sparing the 2014 World Cup hosts from a surprise defeat to Croatia on the opening night.

The Barcelona striker scored twice to take his goal tally for his country to 33 in 50 appearances, drawing level with Ronaldinho and Jairzinho in the all-time scoring charts.

Before kick-off: Brazil holds its breath as Neymar appears to turn his ankle during the warm-up, but he shakes it off and starts the game.

Nine minutes: Pings a free-kick into the Croatia box but Ivan Perisic clears the danger with his head.

15: Shortly after Croatia take a shock lead thanks to Marcelo's own goal, he comes up just short on Oscar's cross to the far post.

16: Latches onto the ball on the edge of the area but Sime Vrsaljko blocks his snapshot.

22: Almost helps Brazil grab an equaliser. After bursting past Ivan Rakitic to get into the box, he pulls the ball back for Oscar to unleash a drive that Croatia goalkeeper Stipe Pletikosa does very well to punch away.

27: Shown a yellow card after catching Luka Modric with his elbow.

29: Drags Brazil back into the game with his 32nd international goal. Oscar wins possession in midfield before sending Neymar running towards the D, from where he beats Pletikosa with a scuffed shot.

42: Tries to curl a free-kick around the wall but Rakitic puts his face in the way.

52: Lines up a free-kick near to the corner flag after Vrsaljko fouls Oscar, but Vedran Corluka heads clear.

62: His influence on the game briefly looks like waning as he miscontrols Marcelo's pass and almost allows Croatia to break forward.

65: Corluka is forced to bring Neymar down as Brazil mount a quick counter-attack - the Croatian defender is booked for his troubles.

71: The turnaround is complete as he fires Brazil ahead from the spot. After Dejan Lovren makes minimal contact with Fred to concede a soft penalty, Neymar finds the back of the net following a stuttering run-up. Pletikosa did get a glove to the ball, though.

76: All of a sudden the 22-year-old is reinvigorated in his pursuit of the hat-trick goal. He might well have scored it from a good position had David Luiz not intervened to head Oscar's promising cross over the bar.

88: Given a rapturous ovation by the home crowd as he is withdrawn for Ramires with time ticking away in Sao Paulo. Oscar goes on to make sure Brazil run out comfortable 3-1 winners with a goal from long range in time added on.


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