SAO PAULO, (Reuters) – Brazil’s poster boy Neymar scored twice and the outstanding Oscar added a late third as the hosts came from behind to beat Croatia 3-1 in a thrilling World Cup opening match today.
The Group A game tipped the hosts’ way after a controversial 71st-minute penalty awarded when Japanese referee Yuichi Nishimura harshly ruled that Croatia skipper Dejan Lovren had hauled down Fred when it clearly looked as though the Brazil striker threw himself to the ground.
After the Croatian players furiously remonstrated with Nishimura, Neymar kept his composure and put Brazil ahead for the first time with a right-foot penalty which Croatia keeper Stipe Pletikosa got a hand to but could not save.
Apart from that misjudgement Nishimura controlled the superbly-balanced game well as both teams went looking for goals and created chances at both ends.
Neymar, under enormous pressure to produce the kind of football that could lead Brazil to their sixth World Cup, did not disappoint with some stunning passes and moves as he held off some rigorous challenges by the stylish Croatians.
He hauled Brazil back into the game after 29 minutes with the equaliser after defender Marcelo put through his own net after 11 minutes to give Croatia a shock lead.
Brazilians clearly wanted one of their team to score the first goal of the finals, but not in the way it came about and Marcelo’s misfortune meant he became the first Brazilian ever to score an own goal at the World Cup.
The cross that bamboozled him came from Ivica Olic whose low ball from the left went through the legs of Brazil skipper Thiago Silva, clipped Nikica Jelavic’s foot and bounced in off Marcelo with keeper Julio Cesar helpless.
Croatia could have gone ahead even earlier when Olic headed narrowly wide from a pinpoint Ivan Perisic centre.
Neymar created Brazil’s first opening when he jinked along the byline, resulting in a half-cleared ball to Oscar who slammed in a curling 25-metre drive that Pletikosa acrobatically pushed away.
But Croatia’s reprieve only lasted seven minutes and the equaliser was greeted by scenes of unbridled joy by Brazilian fans and players with fireworks visible on the city skyline through the huge openings on the corners of the stadium.
Oscar, at the core of most of Brazil’s attacks, started the move by beating two men in midfield before finding Neymar who advanced a few metres before cracking in a low left-foot shot that went in off the base of Pletikosa’s left-hand post for his 32nd goal in his 50th international.
Neymar scored his 33rd with the penalty and although Croatia never stopped battling, Oscar wrapped up the win in the first minute of stoppage time with a low drive.