Any World Cup where the host nation does well is all the better for it, so for the good of the tournament we probably want to see Brazil triumph in Sao Paulo in the opening game tonight, especially given the mood in the country at the moment.
But this is not a gimme – it is a very tough game for Luiz Felipe Scolari’s side. Croatia can certainly spoil the party. Brazil are probably not as strong as many people think and I certainly don’t regard them as favourites for the tournament.
They have been fantastic in some of their friendlies but something doesn’t look quite right with the Selecao and if there is a team that can take advantage in that group, it is Croatia. They have nothing to lose and boast players with the experience to manage pressure on the biggest stages. It won't be as straightforward as many think.
Croatia have a strong team and good pedigree. The fact they are playing Brazil in the opening game means people are overlooking Niko Kovac’s side but I watched Brazil against Serbia the other night and they only won 1-0. There were some encouraging signs for Serbia's neighbours and rivals.
Croatia are a better team than Serbia and Kovac's side will be clever enough to know that all they need to do is wait. All the pressure is on Brazil and Croatia won’t go chasing the game; they will wait for their opportunities to come, and come they will.
Croatia’s strength lies in their incredibly impressive midfield: Luka Modric has just played a key role in Real Madrid winning the Champions League; Ivan Rakitic is on the verge of signing for Barcelona; and Mateo Kovacic has been turning heads at Inter Milan.
It must be one of the best midfields at the World Cup, and it also has a nice balance. It’s not a midfield which has a designated No. 6 and No. 8 – it is a fluid unit and everyone can do a bit of everything. Take Modric for example: you look at his slender frame and think he lacks the strength needed for the midfield battle, but he finds a way of coping and he is an all-round midfield player; he can drop deep and start attacks but he is also capable of going forward and finishing them off too.
In terms of balance, I like their midfield much more than the Brazilian one. Scolari has Luiz Gustavo who is a defensive holder and Paulinho, who I am not quite sure about. With the Croatian players you know exactly what they are going to bring as a unit.
With Brazil pushing Neymar, Oscar and Hulk up in support of Fred, it could also be three v two in midfield, allowing Croatia to pass it around the Brazilian pair. Croatia will have the advantage and they will be calm enough to exploit it.
While Modric is the best known of the Croatia midfield, Rakitic has also had a fantastic season, scoring 12 goals and claiming 10 assists in La Liga for Sevilla this season. It is no wonder Barcelona are about to sell Cesc Fabregas in order to buy him – and that tells you everything you need to know about his quality. Barcelona don’t tend to buy too many players, they like their own, so that fact they are sacrificing an academy graduate for Rakitic is very noteworthy.
There will be lots of fans who haven’t seen very much of him but in a few weeks’ time we could be coming away and saying a new world star has been born as Rakitic has the ability to be one of the players of the tournament.
I haven’t seen too much of Kovacic but there’s one thing you know about Croatian footballers: technically they are very good. Just think about the likes of Robert Prosinecki and Zvonimir Boban; they always have good awareness, love being on the ball, and none of the current crop would look out of place in the vintage 1998 team.
Meanwhile, the stereotype of a Brazil side is a team full of wonderful attackers but, unexpectedly, the current crop’s strength is actually at the back. They have three genuine world class defenders in Thiago Silva, Marcelo and Dani Alves, even if there is a question mark over David Luiz despite becoming the most expensive defender in the world.
Croatia are missing Mario Mandzukic due to suspension and that gives Brazil a lot of confidence as his replacement could be Hull City’s Nikica Jelavic, who hasn’t been in any sort of form for a long time now. Mandzukic takes more responsibility and without him in attack they will suffer.
Nevertheless, the Croatian midfielders are the real stars of the show and I think they are strong enough to carry Jelavic. If the game hinges on the midfield battle, then Croatia could certainly spring a surprise.
No one tipped them to get to the semi-finals in 1998 and while I don’t think a repeat is possible, they will certainly be aiming to get out of a group which also contains Cameroon and Mexico. Brazil beware.
- Jan Molby is covering the World Cup as an expert pundit for Eurosport-Yahoo.
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- Luiz Felipe Scolari