Brazil are at full strength, with the only real doubt over personnel being who will start as the two holding midfielders: one of Paulinho, Fernandinho and Luis Gustavo will miss out. Croatia, though, have two major issues. Firstly, Mario Mandzukic is suspended for his stupid red card for a senseless lunge on Johan Gudmundsson during the second leg of the qualifying play-off victory over Iceland. That could mean Nikica Jelavic, who scored the only goal in the friendly victory over Australia last Friday starting up front or it could mean Ivica Olic shifting from the flank into the centre, which seems marginally more likely. Croatia will also be without their left back, Danijel Pranjic after he suffered an ankle injury against Australia. He will probably be replaced by the inexperienced Sime Vrsaljko, who is more naturally a right-back. There is also a question over who will operate alongside Vedran Corluka in the middle of defence, with Gordon Schildenfeld seemingly favourite ahead of Southampton’s Dejan Lovren.
Since Niko Kovac replaced Igor Stimac as Croatia manager for the play-offs, he has tended to play a 4-3-3-cum-4-2-3-1. That, though, leaves an issue of personnel. Kovac, really, could do with himself reincarnated as he was a decade ago. Croatia have no high-class holding player, and so the temptation could be to use Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic as deep-lying playmakers with Mateo Kovacic just ahead of them. That, though, seems unduly attacking in the circumstances and so it seems likely that Ognjen Vukojevic will come in alongside Modric at the back of midfield with Rakitic taking the more advanced central midfield position, Kovacic going to the right and Olic shuffling into the centre to take Mandzukic’s place.
NEYMAR v SRNA
Whether you place much store by Pele’s words or not, he was right this week when he said that the pressure on Neymar at the World Cup is huge. Brazil are expected to win and Neymar is expected to be the key man. He starred at the Confederations Cup and had a good if not brilliant first season at Barcelona, and the way Marcelo overlaps on the left favours his preference for cutting infield onto his left foot. He faces a major challenge in the opening game, though, taking on Darijo Srna, Croatia’s captain and still, at 32, one of the best attacking right-backs in the game. Their battle will be key: Srna is likely to have to more defending that he would ideally like, but the possibility is there for him to take advantage of the space that will be left on that flank to surge forwards.
If Brazil have a flaw, it’s that the attacking thrusts of their full-backs can leave spaces behind them on the flank. The obvious way for sides to look to combat them is to sit deep, absorb pressure, particularly in the first 20 minutes or so when – if the evidence of the Confederations Cup is significant – Brazil will tear into them, and then, if the storm has been weathered, look to spring counter-attacks into those gaps. That makes the roles of Ivan Perisic and whoever plays on the right (probably Kovacic) vital. They have to maintain their discipline, track the forward charges of Dani Alves and Marcelo, while also being alert to opportunities to break.
When Brazil won the Under-20 World Cup in Colombia in 2011, their key player was Oscar, who played out of position on the left side of a midfield diamond. Three years later he has graduated to the central creative role he prefers, but there has been some dissatisfaction over him recently. His form for Chelsea in the past month or two of the season was poor – so much so that Jose Mourinho hinted that he felt Oscar was saving himself for the World Cup – while there has been much discussion in Brazil as to whether he is tough enough. That could add to the pressure he would be under anyway with Vukojevic looking to close him down as he also has to prevent Modric from creating the play. If Oscar plays poorly, there are suddenly major question-marks in the centre of the Brazilian side; if he plays well then this remains the settled side Luiz Felipe Scolari has selected for most of his 20 matches in charge.
Croatia are better than they were in qualifying and will relish the role of trying to upset Brazil in the opener, but Scolari’s side have won 16 of their last 20 and, with Croatia’s problems at left-back and at the back of midfield, it’s hard to see beyond a Brazilian victory. Given their fast starts – Brazil took the lead in the first 10 minutes of three of their five Confederations Cup matches and were up by half-time in the other two, back Brazil to be winning at the end of both halves seems sensible at 1.92.
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