BRAZIL 3 CROATIA 1
A BRACE from Brazil’s golden boy Neymar saw the World Cup hosts recover from an early setback to win the tournament opener last night.
After Real Madrid defender Marcelo scored an early own goal, Barcelona’s Neymar struck the equaliser, then a controversial second-half penalty, before Chelsea playmaker Oscar wrapped up the points late on.
A host nation has never lost their opening game of the World Cup and there was a sense of great expectation among the 62,000-crowd following a colourful opening ceremony.
Croatia, with no hint of being overawed, gave the hosts an early warning that they were not in Sao Paolo just to make up the numbers when Ivica Olic headed Ivan Perisic’s cross just wide.
But Brazil failed to heed their warning and fell behind on 11 minutes when Hull’s Nikica Jelavic turned Olic’s low cross towards goal and covering defender Marcelo inadvertently stroked the ball into his own net.
Brazil’s desperation to level was immediate as tension grew inside the stadium. Two crosses from Oscar narrowly evaded Neymar and David Luiz, while Paulinho struck a fierce effort straight at goalkeeper Stipe Pletikosa.
Pletikosa was soon called upon again to push away a curling effort from Oscar and, as frustration grew, Neymar was cautioned for a forearm across the face of Luka Modric.
Relief was palpable when Neymar marked his 50th cap with the equaliser on 29 minutes, a low 25-yard effort creeping in off the post.
With parity restored the first half meandered to an end and the second period began tentatively too.
But the contest burst into life again with 20 minutes remaining when Japanese referee Yuichi Nishimura felt Fred was tugged down inside the penalty area by Southampton defender Dejan Lovren, to the anger of the Croatian players.
Pletikosa dived the right way after Neymar tip-toed his way to the spot, but could only palm the ball inside the side netting.
With Croatia rattled, Brazil wasted two chances to wrap up the points when Luiz then Fred headed off target.
In a final flurry, a low fizzing effort from Croatia’s midfield linchpin Luka Modric was pushed away by Julio Cesar and the Queens Park Rangers stopper again saved from Perisic.
But Oscar wrapped up the win in the 91st-minute with a toe-poke from 20 yards that caught Pletikosa unawares at his near post.