Croatia a stiff test for Brazil in WC opener

James Sharman breaks down who to watch during the World Cup in Brazil, and why he thinks Neymar could be the breakout star of the entire event.

Hosts Brazil face Croatia in Group A in the opening game of the 2014 FIFA World Cup on Thursday in Sao Paulo.

The Selecao will play their record 98th World Cup match as they begin their quest to avenge their heartbreaking loss in the 1950 World Cup final to Uruguay on home soil.

The Canarinho’s opponents, Croatia, are considered to be the second favourite to qualify from Group A, but have a stern test to start off their campaign.

Here are three things to keep an eye on.

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Can Neymar produce more magical moments?

In the hosts’ first game of the 2013 Confederations Cup last summer against Japan, Brazil forward Neymar scored a screamer from distance after just three minutes, sending the crowd into a frenzy on route to a 3-0 win.

The Barcelona man also bagged a decisive goal in the final against Spain when Brazil recorded another 3-0 victory. That came just one month after Neymar agreed to join Barca. Those who didn’t believe that the Santos product would be worth the money spent were silenced.

Now the weight of an entire country is on his shoulders. When Neymar had to be helped off the training pitch on Monday with an apparent ankle injury, over 200 million people held their breath.

That’s because like Pele, Zico, and Ronaldo before him, the 22-year-old is the face of the national team and it’ll be up to Neymar to get his team off to a flyer.

How will Croatia cope without Mandzukic?

Bayern Munich striker Mario Mandzukic will miss the World Cup opener due to the red card he picked up in the playoff against Iceland in November.

Mandzukic was Croatia’s top scorer in qualifying and his work rate is a valuable asset for manager Niko Kovac. That leaves the tactician with a decision to make on who plays up front against Brazil.

Kovac mainly deploys a 4-2-3-1 system with Mandzukic up front, but he does have four other strikers to fill his spot. Ivica Olic appears to be the favourite to start, but Eduardo, Nikica Jelavic, and Ante Rebic all provide different options for the Croats.

Rebic’s inexperience may keep him on the bench, Jelavic underwhelmed this season in the Premier League, scoring just four goals in 25 appearances for both Hull City and Everton, meaning it’ll most likely be Eduardo or Olic who will be up front versus the Brazilians.

Whoever replaces Mandzukic, it’ll be difficult to replicate what the 29-year-old provides and will be sorely missed on Thursday.

Modric key for Croatia

Luka Modric struggled in his first season with Real Madrid, but under Carlo Ancelotti, the midfielder resurged this past campaign and has lived up to the potential everyone had of him. Now Modric has to bring that form and utilize it to his advantage for his country’s sake.

Modric will most likely play a bit deeper than he does at Madrid, but the 28-year-old is capable of providing assists and key passes from anywhere. He recorded nine assists in all competitions for the Champions League winners and will surely have a similar impact with his national team.

Modric also completed over six long passes per game, and was accurate with 90 percent of his passes, completing an average of 60 every match per Since the Croatian maestro will have more freedom, those numbers could go up dramatically.

Without Mandzukic starting, Modric will be even more important for Croatia against Brazil.

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