Brazil 3 – 1 Croatia
A disappointingly controversial beginning, after such high expectations.
Croatia got little chance from anyone before this game – more than one person I follow a Twitter was discussing the game only in terms of how much Brazil would win by – but they came out and played just as they needed to: attacking, putting the Brazilian midfield and defence under pressure, and taking advantage of a certain narrowness in how the host team operated. Brazil seemed to surrender a very large amount of space on the wings in the first half, and from there Croatia struck, Marcelo clumsily unable to direct the ball anywhere but into the goal, his only notable impact in the game other than constantly whining when challenged even slightly.
Brazil did respond, with speed and decent passing, but the Croatian backline seemed able to deal with any of their attempted flair. The equaliser was unfortunate for Croatia, with Neymar given as much space as he would ever get in the match. His scuffed shot arguably could have been saved, but it was not the worst moment for keeper Pletikosa.
With Brazil level you might have expected them to press on and clinch it, but Croatia kept them frustrated, with limited opportunities. Brazil had most of the ball, and pressured the opposition excellently whenever they didn’t, but before the penalty it was still very unclear as to who, if anyone, would be getting the three points.
Fred’s dive was appalling, as was the referee’s inability to see it for what it was. Neymar’s penalty sneaked in, and again Pletikosa might have done more. Croatia threw themselves forward, with Modric stepping into the midfield playmaker role with aplomb, and they should have been level but for another appalling referee error. More incompetence that could be fixed with the most basic kind of video referral, and they weren’t the only incidents – the Neymar elbow/forearm in the first half could have warranted a red card.
Brazil seemed under pressure, but Croatia were dead on their feet in the final minutes, and Oscar – in my opinion, Brazil’s best player on the night – punished them for that, with a wonderful toe-poked effort. Now that was one that Pletikosa really should have saved, but we should also apportion some blame for his defence, who simply didn’t have the conditioning to keep up with the canary shirts at that point in the game.
Brazil bounced back but resorted to cheating tactics when the openings failed to appear in the second half. Their defence proved itself weak and could easily have conceded several goals. With better officials, they might just struggle more than expected through the rest of this group. Croatia will rightfully feel aggrieved, but their tournament now rests on how they react to this shameful display of officiating incompetence. They clearly have the ability to best Mexico and Cameroon. They just have to go out and do it, and I hope they do.
(Note: “Matchdays” in this context are based off GMT and will be reported on the morning after the day the games were played.)