As tournament hosts, Brazil have the honor of opening the World Cup in São Paulo on Thursday (4 p.m. ET, ESPN). According to the script, the Seleção are supposed to run out comfortable winners amid a cauldron of noise at the Arena Corinthians, and set the tone for a successful tournament. But one problem: Croatia are far from guaranteed to follow the script.
They may have only squeezed into the World Cup thanks to a narrow aggregate victory over minnows Iceland, but Niko Kovač's team are more than capable of taking advantage of anyone that dares to underestimate them. With a smattering of genuinely world class players, they arrive in Brazil with a great chance of making it through to the knockout stages, as well as spoiling the opening day party.
Luiz Felipe Scolari will almost certainly start with the tried and tested 4-2-3-1 that saw Brazil storm to the Confederations Cup on home soil last summer, with the only real tactical question mark over who will partner the more defensive anchorman Luiz Gustavo in the midfield pivot. The early favourite is Paulinho, who Scolari has generally preferred since taking charge, though there's the slight possibility Brazil's other energetic box-to-box midfielder, Ramires, will be given the nod.
This may be the World Cup opener, but Croatia are still missing a key player through suspension. First-choice striker Mario Mandžukić is unavailable after turning the second leg of the playoff against Iceland into a karate match, leaving Kovač with a dilemma over who to start up top. He'll likely opt for one of Nikica Jelavić or Eduardo, with the former a more like-for-like replacement. There's a question over who'll start in midfield, with defensive anchorman Ognjen Vukojević possibly set to start over the advanced playmaker Mateo Kovačić in a bid to counteract Brazil's attacking firepower.
Projected lineups (left to right)
Brazil (4-2-3-1): Júlio César; Marcelo, David Luiz, Thiago Silva, Dani Alves; Paulinho, Luiz Gustavo; Neymar, Oscar, Hulk; Fred.
Croatia (4-3-3): Stipe Pletikosa; Danijel Pranjić, Dejan Lovren, Vedran Ćorluka, Darijo Srna; Ivan Rakitić, Ognjen Vukojević, Luka Modrić; Ivica Olić, Nikica Jelavić, Ivan Perišić.
The midfield battle - Heading into the World Cup, Croatia Kovač seems to prefer using a 4-2-3-1, with Kovačić starting centrally ahead of a midfield pivot of Luka Modrić and Ivan Rakitić. While that's one of the most creative and exciting sounding trios in the entire tournament, and would be great for crushing weak teams who'll let Croatia dominate possession, it might not be so good against Brazil.
Rakitić loves to dribble the ball up the pitch -- and plays his domestic football as an attacking midfielder at Sevilla -- while Modrić is also a playmaker rather than an anchorman. Should they play together, Croatia run the risk of allowing space in between their midfield and defence for Neymar, Oscar and Hulk to work their Brazilian magic, meaning it'd be a safer bet for Kovač to drop Kovačić to the bench and play a true defensive midfielder in Vukojević behind Modrić and Rakitić. Whoever dominates this space will have the upper hand.
Brazil's full-backs vs. Croatia's wingers - You're not going to find a more attack-minded full-back pairing anywhere in the World Cup than Brazil's Dani Alves and Marcelo. They love to push forward into the midfield line in the offensive phase, and with Hulk and Neymar both having a tendency to drift infield from the flanks, overlapping runs from the full-backs are a requirement in Scolari's system.
Thus, Croatia's wingers -- most likely Ivica Olić and Ivan Perišić -- will almost certainly be looking to get in behind down the flanks, and Modrić and Rakitić will try to feed them with long diagonal passes. Should they counter efficiently, Croatia will cause Brazil problems.
Mario Mandžukić's replacement vs. Brazil's defense - Bayern Munich boss Pep Guardiola sure isn't Mandžukić's biggest fan, but there's little doubt that he's one of the best pure strikers in world football at present, and he'll be sorely missed by Croatia against Brazil. His ability to hold up the ball for his teammates on the break is as good as his finishing, and Croatia have no comparable options up front. But if they're going to have any chance of a result here, they need his replacement -- be it the more static, powerful Jelavić or the mobile, nimble Eduardo -- to step up to the plate and cause Brazil's strong centre-backs harm.
Croatia shouldn't be pushovers, and with their personnel, they could certainly harm Brazil on the counter. However, there's no doubt that the absence of Mandžukić seriously harms their chances, and they'll almost certainly prove to be too shaky defensively to keep their sheet clean. 2-0 Brazil.