It is never easy when pressure of an entire country is heaped on you, expecting you to carry the team all the way to the World Cup title. Many a man has stumbled under that pressure, but Neymar seems to just thrive under such scrutiny, showing yet again, in the colours of Brazil, just why he is not the next big thing, but already a bona fide superstar.
It was not pretty, it was not blink-and-you-will-miss-an-attack-and-a-goal, but it was three points courtesy a brace from the magician Neymar and another from Oscar. Brazil, charged-up and determined to start the FIFA World Cup 2014 they are hosting on the best possible note, huffed and puffed a little in the early stages, going down to an early own goal from Marcelo, before Neymar found that magic dust to fire his team to a 3-1 victory over Group A rivals Croatia.
Brazil looked to roar themselves into a fast start at the Arena Corinthians Stadium in Sao Paulo by belting out the national anthem with great vigour, but it was the Croatians who found the perfect tune right at the beginning.
Ivica Olic threatened on a couple of occasions before the first goal, firing in a low cross which just evaded his teammates, before a header, off a cross from Ivan Perisic, from the former Bayern Munich man just went past the post.
Olic would make his third chance count, though, firing in a wicked low cross from the left, which was mishit by Nikica Jelavic, filling in for the suspended Mario Mandzukic, with that mishit catching out Marcelo, who, with horror in his eyes, watched the ball creep into the net off his boot – the first own goal scored by Brazil in a World Cup, 98 matches and all.
That 11th minute goal woke Brazil up a little, with the hosts putting the pedal to the metal and forcing Croatia, who already did not have much of the ball, even if they were a lot more productive in the opening 11 minutes, way back into their own half.
Luka Modric did not have enough of the ball in the first half, while the other two gifted playmakers in Ivan Rakitic and Mateo Kovacic also could not quite get into the game. That was partly due to Brazil's dominance with the ball, with Neymar playing in the hole behind the striker, as Hulk, on the left, and Oscar, on the right, took up wide positions, looking to pull the strings.
That plan was not exactly working to a T for Brazil, however, as Croatia looked fairly comfortable in defence, while always making the Brazil defence look shaky; but that moment of brilliance from the home team was always on the horizon.
Neymar produced one on 23 minutes, jinking his way past Rakitic on the right-hand channel before firing in a low cross which was cleared to the edge of the box. Oscar, easily the best player on the pitch, was lying in wait, with the 22-year-old producing a wonderful curler, which looked to be headed to the top corner only for Stipe Pletikosa to pull off a wonderful one-handed save.
Brazil kept at it, not letting Croatia breathe or get out of their own half, with possession statistics favouring the hosts heavily. However, possession means little if the score reads against the dominant side, and the frustration of being unable to unlock the Croatia defence seemed to just be getting to Brazil, with Neymar picking up a yellow card for a needless elbow on Luka Modric – a bit of the La Liga rivalry coming into play there between the Barcelona forward and the Real Madrid midfielder.
Just minutes after that yellow, though, Neymar would grab the spotlight for the right reasons. Oscar, dogged and unrelenting refused to give possession to Croatia, poking the ball somehow to Neymar, who picked up the ball in space 40 yards from goal, took a couple of touches which brought him closer, before firing in a low drive into the bottom corner – it was not the greatest of shots, and Pletikosa might have done better, but Brazil and Neymar did not care one hoot.
With a little over 15 minutes remaining in the first half, and the volume at the stadium, which was down to a hush before the equaliser, pumped up to full volume, Brazil went for the goal that would give them the lead, but 1-1 it remained as the players headed into halftime.
The first 24 minutes of second half had little to no action, with Brazil unable to find any penetration, while Croatia, barring a couple more crosses from Olic from the left, did not threaten too much either.
The game turned in the 69th minute, though, as Brazil were given a penalty. Oscar was the creator yet again, playing in a low cross to Fred, who until then had made being on the periphery look like a man of the match contender. The striker while looking to take a touch and turn, fell down under the challenge of Dejan Lovren. There seemed to be little contact on the Brazilian, but Japanese referee Yuichi Nishimura deemed it enough to give a penalty and a yellow card to Lovren.
Croatia were expectedly incensed at the decision, but it did not stop Neymar from scoring from the spot, with Pletikosa, again failing to stop the ball from going into the net, despite getting two hands to it.
With Croatia now needing to open up a little more, Brazil, who had brought on forward-thinking players Hernanes and Bernard prior to the second goal, found more space, with David Luiz coming close off another brilliant cross from Oscar.
Croatia posed a threat going forward as well, breaking those shackles completely in search of the equaliser, an equaliser they thought they had scored in the 83rd minute. Croatia had scrambled the ball into the back of the net after a couple of ricochets, only to see that dreaded whistle being blown again, with the referee calling a foul on Olic when he went up for the ball off a cross from the left with Cesar – again it was a soft foul, and could, and probably should, have gone Croatia's way.
The side from Europe did their best to squeeze in that equalizer, but try as they might the goal would not come as Brazil finished things off with a wonderful goal from Oscar, the man of the match toe-poking a shot past Pletikosa from 20 yards out to ensure his side would begin their quest for their first World Cup title at home in the perfect manner.