After weeks and months and years of expectation and build-up, Brazil got the World Cup underway with the victory that 200 million souls so dearly craved.
But while a 3-1 scoreline implies a level of comfort, the success over Croatia was what locals might call a “vitória suada” – a sweaty victory. Brazil were made to work for their reward at the Arena São Paulo, forced to dig deep after Marcelo’s misfortune had given their visitors the lead in the opening stages. From that point, this was always going to be a battle rather than a victory march.
Cometh the hour, cometh the man. It was Neymar (who else?) who dragged Luiz Felipe Scolari’s side level, guiding a shot past Stipe Pletikosa on 29 minutes. “I didn’t mean to hit it that softly,” he later laughed, but the relief on the field at that moment was palpable. A fresh start. A clean slate.
The Barcelona striker would go on to add a second, converting somewhat fortuitously from the spot after Fred had tumbled for a laughable penalty. It surprised few when he was named FIFA’s man of the match. It was a good start for a man clearly hoping to make this tournament his own.
Yet Thursday’s match was not about Neymar. Not really. For he was outshone by Oscar, whose all-action display was far more fundamental on the night.
The latter’s place in the side had been called into question in the run-up to the game. He was disappointing in the friendly wins over Panama and Serbia, while his understudy, Chelsea team-mate Willian, had shone off the bench.
Oscar claimed this was down to tiredness in the wake of the birth of his first child, but those displays were in keeping with his late-season performances at club level. The former Internacional man looked fatigued – and understandably so, having made over 100 appearances since the start of 2013. Had he peaked too soon?
Luiz Felipe Scolari, true to form, stood by his man. “I’m the one who picks the team,” he seethed after the Serbia match. “I don’t care if Paulo, Pedro, Joao or Juca says that [Oscar] is playing badly. I decide who plays. That’s what I’m paid for.”
He was rewarded handsomely here. Stationed on the right, Oscar tormented Šime Vrsaljko and whipped cross after cross into the area. His forays inside also bore fruit: he set up Neymar’s first with some determined tackling before plundering a goal of his own at the death with an instinctive toe poke.
His importance to the side’s defensive solidity was also in evidence. After getting caught slightly out of position for the opener, he spent the rest of the game tracking back diligently, snapping away at the Croatian midfield.
Speaking to the Brazilian press after the final whistle, Oscar dedicated his strike to his daughter and his wife, and vowed that Brazil would improve in the coming games. With him back in the groove, they shouldn’t have much trouble doing just that.