I am thoroughly looking forward to this World Cup but have to admit feeling a little uncomfortable in a build-up that has witnessed social unrest and highlighted the chasm between the haves and have-nots in one of the most vibrant countries on the globe. But the hosts have the time-honoured tradition of getting the tournament under way so we won’t have long to wait to try to gauge whether the febrile expectations of 200 million Brazilian citizens will inspire them on to ultimate glory or prove an impossible burden.
The Selecao may well be the clear favourites but anything less than lifting the trophy in Rio on July 13 will be considered a failure for Phil Scolari’s team. Let’s not forget as well they will be expected to play with a panache and flair that we all associate with football in this part of the world.
First up are Croatia, who many punters think will be sacrificial lambs to the slaughter but I am inclined to disagree somewhat.
Before analysing the match up, the following statistics may want to be considered:
• The host nation has never lost their opening World Cup game, with the 20 previous hosts winning 14 and drawing six of their openers.
• Eight of the last 12 opening matches at World Cups have produced one goal or less.
• Croatia have only conceded 11 goals in 13 World Cup games (0.85/game). It’s the best ratio among the 32 teams taking part in 2014.
• Brazil are taking part in their 20th World Cup. They are the only team to have taken part in every single tournament.
• Brazil have won eight of their last nine World Cup games in the group stages (1 draw). Their last defeat dates back to June 23 1998 against Norway (1-2).
You would probably not hold out much hope for a side that was beaten twice by Scotland in qualifying but changes have been made with former coach Igor Stimac shown the door and replaced by the inexperienced but hugely respected Niko Kovac.
He managed to galvanise the nation enough to ensure qualification via the play-offs and although this is a daunting opener, I believe his optimism is not misplaced.
He said: “If we had to be drawn in the same group as Brazil, then the best outcome for us is to meet in the first game. The pressure is all on them and I am hopeful of springing a surprise.”
Croatia’s footballing highlight remains their Davor Suker-inspired third place in France back in 1998 but this team is hardly bereft of the talent capable of serving it up on Thursday night.
They have a midfield of Ivan Rakitic, Luka Modric and Mateo Kovacic that any world side would look upon enviously and although main striker Mario Mandzukic is suspended for this game, veteran Wolfsburg hitman Ivica Olic looks raring to go in relief after an excellent season in the Bundesliga.
As for the hosts, this is obviously the chance to send out a message not only to their rivals but also ensure the population is right behind them and singing from the same hymn sheet at a very early stage.
The latter aspect may not be quite so straightforward.
Barcelona wing-back Dani Alves has every right to feel they will hit the ground running now the tournament starts in earnest but a scruffy 1-0 win last weekend over Serbia was accompanied by a chorus of boos throughout from unimpressed spectators with the Serbs unfortunate not to actually claim some sort of result.
Golden boy Neymar will need to settle in quickly and although I would discount an average first season at Barcelona to some extent, the pressure on the 22-year-old to deliver both creatively and with goals is immense.
Conversely, Croatia have been in relaxed mood.”There is no fear. We will play our game,” said goalkeeper Stipe Pletikosa and that sort of approach will be a hugely important factor.
Kovac demands discipline as well from his players – they have much more about them than to just simply frustrate Brazil – so the ability to keep possession for decent spells should allow them to establish some sort of foothold in the game.
Two betting markets interest me here; the over/under 2.5 goals and the handicap market (Croatia +1.5). Croatia’s past results also point to a low scoring affair. Nine of their last 12 competitive matches have gone under 2.5 goals and all of those have fallen under the 3.5 line. They’ll come to defend and frustrate and it will be up to Brazil to make the running. Under 2.5 goals is slightly favoured by the market at -116 with overs at +110 – it’s a market which is bang on the money according to my thinking. I fancy the under but the value is too thin to recommend a bet.
So my opening play at the World Cup is to bet on the potential for some serious Brazilian jitters. They may still just pinch a narrow victory but the Croats with a two-goal start on the handicap at -110 looks a pretty safe play as we as punters find our feet as well. Evergreen Croatia full-back Dario Srna and former Tottenham man Vedran Corluka are very tactically shrewd and possess good positional sense while, in Modric and Sevilla skipper Ivan Rakitic, the Europeans have two men that can take the sting out of a game.
The core of this Croatia side remains from the one that frustrated both Italy and Spain in Euro 2012, drawing 1-1 with the Italians and only succumbing to an 88th minute Jesus Navas against the subsequent champions.
• 2 units Croatia +1.5 goals
Tournament P+L to date:
+0 units (0/0)