Brazil under pressure against Croatia after history of opening-match shocks

Photo: Hopes of a nation on his shoulders ... Brazil forward Neymar. (Getty Images: Buda Mendes) 

Brazil under pressure against Croatia after history of opening-match shocks - Opening matches in World Cups can be extremely dangerous propositions for big sides, and there is no side bigger than the host Brazil, who will carry the hopes of the nation when it takes on Croatia to kick off World Cup 2014 on Friday morning (AEST).

Nothing less than winning the tournament for a record sixth time will satisfy Brazilian fans, but the Selecao cannot underestimate the Croatians when they play at Sao Paulo's Corinthians Arena.

Usually the hosts or defending champions are selected for the opening match of the tournament, often against an underdog opponent. 

However, the results do not always go to form.

Take 1990 in Italy, when defending champion Argentina was stunned 1-0 with a headed goal by Cameroon's Francois Omam-Biyik (helped by a dreadful blunder by goalkeeper Nery Pumpido) making the difference.

Argentina recovered to scrap its way to the final, where the team lost to Germany.

In 2002, defending champions France paid an even heavier penalty for a poor start. 

Les Bleus were beaten 1-0 by Senegal through a goal from Papa Bouba Diop in the African nation's first ever World Cup finals game. 

The shell-shocked French never bounced back, exiting the World Cup at the group stage without scoring a goal.

No one is predicting that a similar fate awaits Brazil, but there is an incredible amount of pressure on Luiz Felipe Scolari's men, who cannot afford to make a slow start to the tournament.

'Big Phil' looking to steer Brazil to sixth title

Scolari, known as "Big Phil", has strong history as an international manager, coaching Brazil to victory in the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea, and then taking Portugal to the semi-finals of Euro 2004 and the 2006 World Cup in Germany.

He returned to the Brazilian national team in 2012, and under him the side has added some defensive steel to go with Brazil's traditional attacking flair. 

A 3-0 thumping of world champions Spain in the final of the 2013 Confederations Cup added to the sense that 2014 could be Brazil's year.

On paper, Brazil goes into the game as strong favourites, with a brilliant defence headed by Thiago Silva and Dani Alves, midfielders like Paulinho, Oscar and Willian, and a superstar number 10 in Neymar to complement centre forward Fred.

Brazil has won the team's opening game at the last eight World Cups, and had a 1-0 win over Croatia in the two sides's only previous World Cup finals meeting in 2006.

But the Croatian team will be no pushover in Sao Paulo.

Strong Croatian midfield a challenge for Brazil

 Photo: Playmaker supremo ... Croatia's gifted midfielder Luka Modric. (Getty Images: Cameron Spencer) 

The Socceroos made some ground out wide against Croatia last week in Salvador, but they could not find the net in a 1-0 loss.

Croatia's strength is in the midfield, where playmaker Luka Modric - who has just won a Champions League title with Real Madrid - Ivan Rakitic and young star Mateo Kovacic could cause problems for Brazil.

A bonus for the home side will be the absence of Croatian striker Mario Mandzukic, who has been suspended for the opening game after he was sent off for a terrible studs-up tackle against Iceland in the World Cup qualifying play-off last November.

Possible replacements include Nikica Jelavic, who plays for Hull in the Premier League, and Brazilian-born Eduardo, who plays for Shakhtar Donetsk in the Ukraine. 

The tournament starts at a time of tension and protests in Brazil, as the public vents its anger at the money being spent on this four-week festival.

In addition, Brazil expects success from its national team - in Brazil's final warm-up match for the World Cup, against Serbia last Saturday (AEST), the home side was booed off at half-time having failed to score.

The Brazilians won 1-0 in the end with a well-taken goal from Fred, but there were still more than a few discontented fans when the final whistle blew.

A bad result against Croatia is not the end of the world, with games against Group A opponents Mexico and Cameroon to come.

But if the Selecao lose the tournament opener, then expect the levels of tension in the host nation to increase exponentially.
This article originally appeared in : World Cup 2014: Brazil under pressure against Croatia after history of opening-match shocks | | By Andrew McGarry | Posted Thu 12 Jun 2014, 2:28pm AEST

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