Brazil's performance was dodgy yet encouraging

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

While they struggled at times against a spirited and unfortunate Croatia, Brazil's 3-1 victory demonstrated a few significant positives for Luiz Felipe Scolari's side.

There is no such thing as a bad 3-1 victory, particularly against an opponent as capable and committed as this Croatia side. But while Brazil's victory in the opening game of their World Cup wasn't quite a ringing endorsement of their status as favourites, owing as it did much to limp and ludicrous performances from the opposing goalkeeper and the referee respectively, there were still plenty of positives for the hosts to take.

First and most obviously, Neymar is scoring. The player at the centre of everything has to start quickly, because a slow start affects everything around him. Hulk and Paulinho weren't very impressive, but that's fine, because Hulk and Paulinho aren't going to be the difference between winning and not-winning the tournament. Neymar, though, could easily have seen each of his goals tipped around each of the posts. If he ends up with the Golden Boot, and Brazil with the trophy, he might want to consider sending Stipe Pletikosa a basket of fruit.

The second is what the performance demonstrated about the squad. Up front, Fred plays partly because Luiz Filipe Scolari likes and trusts him, but mostly because there isn't really any alternative. Jo, though not quite the figure of fun that Manchester City and Everton might remember, is an inferior alternative, and the best Brazilian striker at the World Cup plays for Spain. But while he may not be the scariest option, except when he's diving, but he doesn't really need to be. As long as he can take up a space, occupy a defender, have the ball bounce off him helpfully a few times . There are many ways to win a World Cup, and as Stephane Guivarc'h will tell you, running into channels ahead of a brilliant midfield is one of them.

Because while he may not have an obvious replacement, behind him, as we saw demonstrated yesterday, Scolari is blessed with a vast array of complementary options. Not only are the starting trio of Hulk, Neymar and Oscar exceptionally flexible — Oscar started centrally, then moved right, Hulk began on the right flank before switching to the left, and Neymar, though he has license to drift, began left then moved central — but their back-ups give Scolari a genuine range of options.

So when it became obvious that Hulk's hulkingness wasn't scaring the Croats, on came Bernard, quite literally half the player. Hulk's questions are those of power and pace; his diminutive replacement is a player of subtler gifts. Or later in the game, once Brazil had the lead, their coach was able to remove Neymar and introduce Ramires, whose endless running and on-the-edge tackling make him precisely the last person any tired opponent would want to see trotting onto the field. Indeed, it was his tackle that gave Oscar the ball for Brazil's third, game-killing goal.

Between times, the largely ineffective Paulinho had been replaced by the more elegant Hernanes; had Scolari decided that more energy was the way to go, Fernandinho was available. Chelsea's fourth Brazilian, Willian, didn't even get onto the pitch, despite offering a perfectly decent alternative to either Hulk or Oscar. In truth, it's only the spine of Fred, Neymar and Luis Gustavo — who picked up a yellow card late on yesterday, raising the possibility of an inconvenient suspension come the knock-out stage — that are truly undroppable. Scolari's cup runneth over.

The other big positive that Brazil can take from yesterday is that they have answered one of the lingering questions about Scolari's decision to pick a squad with minimal tournament experience. The hosts won the 2013 Confederations Cup -- an eight-team mini-tournament featuring the champions of the various continental competitions -- in convincing style, defeating Italy and Uruguay on the way to the final, where they overturned Spain 3-0. But they did so without ever once going behind. Could they overcome a setback, claw back a deficit, and triumph in adversity?

Well, now we know. After conceding early, they indulged a few minutes of entirely acceptable panicking before settling down and started to squeeze the Croats back into their penalty area. While the goals themselves were a touch fortuitous -- a scuffed shot ambling past a slow-diving goalkeeper, followed by a penalty entirely undeserved and nearly saved; Croatia will also feel aggrieved that they had what looked a decent goal rule out -- but before each the pressure had building for a while, and offered evidence that Brazil aren't going to fall to pieces the moment things get inconvenient.

Of course we don't know what would have happened had Croatia taken the lead with ten minutes remaining, but from the hosts' point of view it was nevertheless an encouraging sign. No World Cup champion ever look brilliant in every game, just as all of them get a fair dollop of luck along the way. The first test passed, and the trickiest goup game negotiated. Not in style, perhaps, but plenty of time for that later.

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