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Brazil and Neymar are off and running

THEY believe it is destined to be his World Cup.

Neymar celebrates after beating Julio Cesar from the penalty spot last night. Picture: Getty Images
Neymar celebrates after beating Julio Cesar from the penalty spot last night. Picture: Getty Images

From beach to favela, there is a sense that this is his time, his opportunity to show he can, indeed, become the latest in a line of great No.10s.

Neymar da Silva Santos Junior certainly knows how to make a nation sweat, though.

On Monday, Brazil pretty much stopped in its tracks as the 22-year-old went down injured in training with an ankle problem. Less than an hour before kick-off in the Corinthians Arena in Sao Paulo last night, he pulled up again after appearing to catch his studs in the turf.

Perhaps the sharpest intake of breath among his 200 million countrymen, however, came 28 minutes into this most absorbing and entertaining Group A curtain-raiser when Croatia, noses in front thanks to an own goal from Marcelo and enjoying plenty of the play, swarmed around the wholly unconvincing Japanese referee, Yuichi Nishimura, to demand the Barcelona forward be sent off.

It has to be said they had a case. Neymar had clearly glanced to his left and taken note of where Luka Modric was before raising his arm as they challenged for the ball in the centre of the field and thumping his Real Madrid rival, barely recognisable with his new short back and sides, flush in the face.

The protests from Niko Kovac's players were predictably forceful. In truth, Nishimura probably got it right when brandishing a yellow, but games can hinge on such borderline decisions. This one certainly did and the referee, whose performance became progressively more erratic at the night went on, had plenty more up his sleeve.

Within a minute of that influential call, Neymar had capitalised on Croatia's failure to mop up the ball in midfield, advanced to within around 22 yards of the goal and released a low shot, well-placed if not exactly thunderous, that beat goalkeeper Stipe Pletikosa to his left to find the corner.

Croatia have some lovely players in the centre of the field. In addition to Modric, Internazionale's Mateo Kovacic maybe didn't show his true form before being replaced while the sublime Ivan Rakitic, deserving of his move to Barcelona after a great spell as captain of Sevilla, is better in a more advanced role. Neither of them is a good, old-fashioned thug, though, and they just needed someone to deal with the danger before it reached crisis point.

If Nishimura was correct in allowing Neymar to remain involved in the game ahead of his goal, the decision to award the penalty that permitted him to rubberstamp his position as the hero of the hour was considerably more questionable.

Fred, not exactly impressive as the central figure of the Brazilian forward line, dived. Simple as that. There was minimal contact from behind from Dejan Lovren as he endeavoured to shield the ball inside the area and he threw himself to the ground.

It was one of the few things that worked out for him all night. Even then, though, Neymar, a lad whose year has contained an increasing amount of drama since Barcelona's president Sandro Rosell resigned over his transfer, was hardly likely to keep things straightforward.

Whatever he was thinking about as he performed that ridiculous run-up, a display of hopping and skipping reminiscent of Michael Flatley in his pomp, he ought not to let it go through his mind again.

Pletikosa got two hands to the ball when the shot finally came his way. He should have saved it. As it was, he didn't, the ball squirmed into the net and Croatia's hard luck story was complete. Well, almost complete. Nishimura can only explain why he blew his whistle before the Balkan outfit put the ball into the net with nine minutes to go. If it was for a foul by Olic on goalkeeper Julio Cesar, it was harsh in the extreme.

The result, itself, was harsh on Croatia, who ended the match the stronger team of the two and forced two fine saves from Julio Cesar before Oscar caught them on the break in stoppage time to make it 3-1.

None other than Pele had previewed the competition by stating that this Brazil side was uncharacteristically stronger in defence than in attack. He may well be correct. Hulk and Fred were a major disappointment up front and you wouldn't fancy them to keep the team afloat should Neymar's heavily-strapped ankles keep playing up, but the defence hardly covered itself in glory against the Croats either.

Certainly, every member of Brazil's four-man rearguard earns his corn at clubs generally looked upon as part of the European elite and they do have a solid, dependable captain in the Paris Saint-Germain centre-back Thiago Silva.

Yet, Croatia, quick and effective on the counter, caused them problems from beginning to end. Let's not create the impression that this was some kind of nightmarish display from Scolari's men at the back, but more accomplished teams with aspirations to rival them for that famous trophy at the end of the month will have seen enough to suggest they can be "got at".

Dani Alves can be a joy to watch with those spectacular, far-reaching and utterly relentless gallops up the right flank. He is such a powerful asset in attack, but that admirable commitment to getting forward can often come with a price.

He was easily beaten in the air by Ivica Olic after just seven minutes and relieved to see the header from a man, who once spent every summer being named as a signing target for an altogether different Rangers, bounce wide of the near post.

Olic enjoyed a fair degree of success on the left, particularly in the first half, and served as the source of Croatia's opening goal. With Alves posted missing, his low cross was sclaffed by Nikica Jelavic, a guy who did play for that altogether different Rangers, and ricocheted off a largely helpless Marcelo before crossing the line.

Jelavic deserves credit, mind you, for outfoxing David Luiz in the lead-up to the moment that mattered. Luiz won his fair share of headers, showed he is content to lump the ball out of play when in danger after just 25 seconds and is a player of considerable ability.

The Chelsea centre-half can switch off at times, though, and he definitely allowed his mind to wander at the opening goal. He failed to match Jelavic's run, allowed the Hull City forward to get on the wrong side of him just a matter of yards from goal and paid the penalty.

Brazil and Neymar are off and running, but it is t empting to suggest that this victory was, at least to some extent, Made In Japan.

Contextual targeting label: 
Football

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