Four reasons why Croatia could spoil Brazil's party
The host nation's moment has arrived - and Brazil have been heavily backed to sweep all before them en route to an historic success in front of a fervent home support. But they won't have it all their own way against Croatia on Thursday night, as Nick Ames explains.
1. Opening fixtures rarely go totally to plan
Or, at least, they are rarely anything but tight. Since the concept of the individual opening showpiece was introduced in 1966, only one of the 12 fixtures has been settled by more than two goals - and that was Germany's far from overwhelming 4-2 win over Costa Rica in 2006. Featuring the reigning champions between 1974 and 2002, and the hosts on either side, they have tended to be cagey affairs and have upset the form book as often as they have conformed to it.
Witness Cameroon's stunning victory against Argentina in Italy '90, Senegal's upsetting of France in 2002, Bulgaria's draw with Italy in 1986 - perhaps even Belgium's win over Argentina in 1982. And when the favourites have come out on top, it hasn't been a cakewalk - Brazil only scraped past Scotland 2-1 in 1998, while Germany's 1-0 win over Bolivia in 1994 was not exactly prepossessing. Last time out, host country South Africa took the lead against Mexico amid a wave of emotion, only to be pegged back shortly afterwards.
The lesson to learn is that these game inevitably feature a little rustiness and, inevitably, nerves. Brazil will need no little motivation to tear into Croatia on Thursday, but the odds on them getting off to an explosive start do not appear to carry too much weight - and a shock appears just as likely as a resounding 'home' win.
2. Croatia carry a serious threat
Croatia haven't had a great deal of press in the run-up to this summer's tournament, partly because there are other, fresher contenders to the 'dark horses' and 'newcomers' crowns they held in the late 1990s and early 2000s; partly because they qualified narrowly and unspectacularly after feeling the sting of Igor Stimac's scrappy and underwhelming time as manager.
They've come out the other side of that, though, and are now working under a competent-looking pair of hands in the form of Niko Kovac, formerly captain of the national side. What's more, they have a midfield to die for if you like technical, creative ballplayers: Lukas Modric, Ivan Rakitic and Mateo Kovacic are as dreamy a combination as it gets, with the former pair having firmly established themselves in the top echelon of their ilk and the latter, just 20, having enjoyed a richly promising season with Inter Milan.
Kovacic may have to be sacrificed for the steelier Ognjen Vukojevic if Kovac decides Croatia need a specialist holder, but either way it's hard to imagine them not having their fair share of possession and making a few inroads with their probing around the box. Mario Mandzukic's absence through suspension is a blow, but Ivica Olic, Eduardo, Nikica Jelavic and Fiorentina's exciting Ante Rebic complete a more than competent-looking set of attacking options. Croatia aren't the strongest physically, but technically they will match up to anyone: they don't just have the players to give Brazil a decent game; they have matchwinners in their own right.
3. It's hard to tell exactly how good Brazil are
That may seem a strange point: Brazil have won 15 of their last 16 games and stormed to a convincing Confederations Cup triumph on home soil last summer, beating Spain 3-0 in the final and overcoming Japan, Mexico, Italy and Uruguay en route. But Luiz Felipe Scolari's side has only played in friendlies since, and hasn't sparkled in all of them: a 1-0 win against Serbia last week was hardly inspiring, while Switzerland beat them last August and perhaps their toughest test, a meeting with Chile last November, resulted in a narrow 2-1 win. It's folly to suggest Brazil will go into this tournament undercooked, but thrashings of weak Panama, South Africa, Australia and Honduras sides - all beaten by four goals or more in the last nine months - perhaps skew perceptions of their form slightly.
There's also a concern that they are too reliant on Neymar, whose status as poster boy off the pitch is matched by his influence on it - as 31 goals in 47 caps prove. Shackle him, and the rest of the side looks more workmanlike than inspired - and Croatia, who probably have the better ball players of the two teams, might be able to gain some semblance of control. Brazil are hardly a one-man team - quite conversely, Scolari has made sure that their biggest strength is their work as a unit - but they are relatively short of stardust, and there is no guarantee that they have the individual brilliance to settle an occasion that may end up being nervous and scrappy.
4. The pressure is on as never before
Make no mistake, the pressure on these Brazil players will be huge. A country that sees itself as football's spiritual home has been building up to this moment since the competition was awarded in 2007 - and, regardless of the headlines provoked by protests in some areas, enthusiasm and expectation will reach fever pitch by 9pm on Thursday.
Can the players cope? To a man, they are used to big occasions at both club and international level - but there will be nagging doubts. If Brazil start badly, it might not take much for the fervour to subside and a few stark realities to hit home, with the World Cup itself perhaps coming under further fire. It wouldn't take too much for an early error or two to gain momentum and an air of crippling self-doubt to descent. While this would be an occasion for any player in the world to savour, Brazil's players will need constitutions of steel to treat it as coolly and clinically as they would any other game; Croatia, away from the microscope and with little fan or media pressure on them this week, have the means to take advantage if the emotion, consciously or otherwise, becomes a little too much for hosts.