Neymar scored twice as hosts Brazil came from behind to defeat Croatia 3-1 on Thursday in the opening match of the 2014 FIFA World Cup at Arena Corinthians in Sao Paulo.
Brazil went behind after an own goal by Marcelo in the first half but drew level via Neymar's low shot from distance in the 29th minute.
The 22-year-old Barcelona forward grabbed the winner in the 71st minute, converting a controversially awarded penalty, before Oscar capped a fine personal performance with Brazil's third goal in stoppage time.
The victory put Brazil on top of Group A with three points, but while it was the right result for Luiz Felipe Scolari's team, the off-kilter performance was unexpected from a team widely expected to contend for the title on home soil.
Up next for Brazil is a match against Mexico on Tuesday in Fortaleza, where a victory would almost certainly ensure the hosts of passage into the next round. Croatia will play Cameroon in Manaus the next day, needing a result to keep their hopes alive.
As Bleacher Report columnists Matteo Bonetti and Aleksandar Holiga noted, Brazil's performance was not up to standard for the five-time winners.
Croatia had the game's first clear chance, Ivica Olic heading wide at the back post from Ivan Perisic's cross in the seventh minute. The Europeans then took the lead in the 11th minute following a quick attack down Brazil's exposed right flank.
Ivan Rakitic led the move, passing to Olic on the left. Olic crossed into the box, where Nikica Jelavic took a touch before Marcelo redirected the ball into his own net to give Croatia a shocking 1-0 lead.
The goal spurred Brazil into action quickly. Paulinho powered a shot straight at Stipe Pletikosa in the 21st minute, followed by Oscar testing the Croatian goalkeeper with a fine, curling effort from the edge of the box.
Jelavic directed a header on target in the 29th minute, as if to remind Brazil of the threat Croatia still posed. But within moments, the hosts drew level.
Almost inevitably, the goal came from Neymar, Brazil's star player and standout performer of last year's Confederations Cup. After accepting a pass from Oscar, Neymar dribbled to his left before shooting low across his body. With Pletikosa beaten by Neymar's fine shot placement, the ball bounced off the post and into the net.
The goal sparked exuberant celebrations from Brazil's players, as well as from the home fans throughout the stadium. But despite seizing the moment, Brazil were unable to score again before half-time, and the match was tied 1-1 at the break.
The tempo dropped in the second half as Brazil dominated possession but failed to trouble Croatia with sporadic and disjointed attacks. Brazil's first chance came in the 67th minute, when Dani Alves cured a free-kick well over the bar from outside the box.
Two minutes later, Brazil won a penalty after Fred went to ground in the box under pressure from Dejan Lovren. Replays showed minimal contact, and Croatia's players strongly protested the referee's decision.
Following a delay, Neymar converted the spot-kick in the 71st minute off both of Pletikosa's hands after the Croatian goalkeeper dived the correct way.
Leading 2-1, the hosts nearly had a third goal in the 77th minute as Oscar crossed to David Luiz at the back post. The centre-back met the pass with his head but directed his shot off target.
Croatia put the ball in the net in the 83rd minute, but the goal was ruled out for a foul by Olic on Julio Cesar in the build-up. Three minutes later, the Brazilian goalkeeper reacted slowly to Luka Modric's shot from distance but was able to push the ball away from the goal.
Cesar had to be alert once more in stoppage time, stopping Perisic's shot from the right side of the box. Within moments at the other end, Oscar sealed the victory with Brazil's third, poking past Pletikosa at the near post to give Brazil a far-from-convincing 3-1 win.
|Brazil Player Ratings|
|Hernanes (for Paulinho, 63')||N/A||5|
|Bernard (for Hulk, 68')||N/A||5|
|Ramires (for Neymar, 88')||N/A||6|
|Ratings by B/R UK|
|Croatia Player Ratings|
|Marcelo Brozovic (for Kovacic, 61')||N/A||6|
|Ante Rebic (for Jelavic, 78')||N/A||6|
|Ratings by B/R UK|
Croatia coach Niko Kovac railed against the referee's decision to award Brazil's decisive second-half penalty, calling the decision "ridiculous." As quoted by BBC Sport, Kovac said:
If that's how we start the World Cup, we better give it up now and go home.
We talk about respect, that wasn't respect, Croatia didn't get any. If that's a penalty, we don't need to play football anymore. Let's play basketball instead. It's a shame.
If you continue like this you will have 100 penalties. I think 2.5 billion people watching on TV saw this was not a penalty.
This was ridiculous and if we continue in this way we will have a circus.
Brazil coach Luiz Felipe Scolari insisted the referee awarded the penalty correctly. As quoted by Diario AS, he said:
Millions of people didn't see a penalty? Well the referee did, and so did I.
I've not come here to analyse a penalty, but I've seen it at least 10 times on the TV and it looked like a penalty to me.
We made some errors, but I'll tell my boys and not the press what they were. We can never again say that the Sao Paulo crowd doesn't support us. They lifted the team up from difficult moments.
Two-goal hero Neymar was pleased with the victory but noted that all of Brazil's goals were "strange." As quoted by ESPN Brasil (h/t Goal.com), he said:
It was the best (opening match I could hope for). We wanted to win. And starting a World Cup with two goals gives me a great happiness.
If you notice the goals, they were all a bit strange. I really did mean to put the ball between the defender's legs (for the first), but not for the shot to be as weak as it was. But the important thing is that it was a goal.
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