The waiting is almost over. Hosts Brazil will kick off the World Cup with a tricky opener against Croatia in Sao Paulo tonight, the first of 64 matches that will determine the best football nation on the planet.
We at Unibet have recruited a team of 32 experts, one for each nation, who will go head-to-head with their expert insight and match predictions as we preview every single game in the coming 32 days.
First up, in the yellow corner is Brazilian football expert Jack Lang versus in the red corner Croatian football journalist Ivan Ivkovic
Jack Lang on Brazil: Until a fortnight ago, Luiz Felipe Scolari was expected to go with the starting eleven he settled on during last summer's Confederations Cup win. Now, though, there is a possibility that Chelsea midfielder Willian could gatecrash the side at the expense of Oscar, who looked tired in Brazil's friendly wins against Panama and Serbia. Fernandinho is the only other player who might feel he deserves a berth, but Scolari is likely to stick with Luiz Gustavo and Paulinho in the engine room.
Ivan Ivkovic on Croatia: Niko Kovač is still being discrete and hasn’t declared the starting line-up. With Danijel Pranjić injured, there isn’t a single natural left-back in the squad, and I expect Vrsaljko - a right-footed utility player - will fill in. Meanwhile, Liverpool target Dejan Lovren may miss out at centre-back. With Mario Mandzukic injured, Eduardo is an option for the striker position and Kovačić may find a place in midfield. But for me, the probable line-up is; Pletikosa - Srna, Ćorluka, Schildenfeld, Vrasljko – Vukojević, Modrić, Rakitić – Perišić, Olić, Jelavić.
Jack Lang on Brazil: The Seleção's form will make uncomfortable reading for Croatia. Brazil have won 15 of their last 16 matches, conceding just six goals in that period. Granted, many of those results came in friendlies against more modest opposition (Australia, Zambia, Honduras) but last summer's performances – especially the 3-0 victory over Spain in the final – showed that this is a side to be feared. World Cup warm-up games against Panama and Serbia also yielded victories and clean sheets, meaning confidence will be high coming into this curtain-raiser.
Ivan Ivkovic on Croatia: We haven't lost a single game since Kovač took over, which is all the more pleasing given his appointment followed a very turbulent qualification period under Igor Štimac. The new manager led the team in the last five encounters of that campaign, winning three times (Iceland and Mali at home, Australia in Brazil) and drawing twice (Iceland and Switzerland away). Although Croatia have won their last two matches, the level of performance wasn’t nearly as high as one would expect. The players have found it very difficult to penetrate through the opposition lines and have struggled to find a high-tempo of football. That said, this is surely due to some minor injuries and fatigue, so it’s likely that Kovač is still hiding his best cards.
What the manager says
Scolari on Brazil: "We're in good shape and anxious to get started. I am very satisfied with our preparation, even if there are still some tactical adjustments I want to make. This is an excellent group of players."
Kovac on Croatia: "However much we may be thinking about Brazil, I think Brazil will be thinking about us. Personally, I think Mr Scolari may be losing sleep when thinking about playing Croatia."
Jack Lang on Brazil: It was Neymar who set the tone for Brazil's Confederations Cup success, rifling home an emphatic volley in the opening game to send the crowd into raptures. He will undoubtedly be key again this summer: despite a slightly underwhelming first season at Barcelona, he can turn a match with one moment of brilliance and will be desperate to guide this side to glory.
Ivan Ivkovic on Croatia: Luka Modrić: A cornerstone of the Croatian midfield, and our player with the biggest burden on his shoulders. Having played such a successful season as a dynamic midfielder for Real Madrid, everyone expects him to do the same for the national squad. He will have to orchestrate the entire game-plan and tempo for Croatia, thus handling most of the pressure from Brazil's powerful midfield line-up. His ball distribution will be vital and a key to any possible Croatian success here.
Jack Lang: Brazil/Brazil HT/FT at 1.94. Last summer's success was built on the ability to start matches on the front foot, piling the pressure on in the early stages in search of a goal to settle the nerves. There will be more pressure this time, of course, but a raucous home crowd should spur on Scolari's men. As such, this is a much better value bet then the outright Brazil win.
Ivan Ivkovic: Ball possession by Brazil to be under 58.5% at 1.90: The biggest strength of the Croatian team is their vastly talented and technically gifted midfield. Luka Modrić, Ivan Rakitić, Mateo Kovačić and Ivan Perišić are players with very good ball retention skills and the team can easily hold the ball for long periods of time. Croatia's defence isn’t built to withstand heavy pressure; therefore their midfield players will be instructed to keep possession of the ball and take the sting out of Brazil's free-flowing attack as much as possible.
Jack Lang: Brazil 2-0 Croatia 6.50
Ivan Ivkovic: Brazil 1-1 Croatia 9.50
Watch Jack Lang and our experts in the Unibet Road to Rio Preview Show now!