Group F
Brazil v Croatia
Kick-off 20:00 (BST)

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A carnival atmosphere is guaranteed this evening at Berlin’s renovated Olympic Stadium as holders and everybody’s favourites Brazil kick off their 2006 World Cup campaign against Group F rivals Croatia.

Following Australia’s dramatic late victory over Japan on Monday, Brazil fans will be looking for a win by three clear goals to put their team on top of the group at this early stage.

Realists, including coach Carlos Alberto Parreira, will simply be hoping for three points and no injuries to any of Brazil’s star players. Brazil have often been slow starters in major tournaments and Parreira and his staff will be attempting to deflect as much of the hype and pressure away from his squad as they begin their quest for a sixth World Cup and their first on European soil since 1958.

Interest in Brazil’s Swiss training camp prior to the World Cup reached fever pitch, with as many as 10,000 fans descending on it to watch them go through their preparations. As usual, live pictures of some training sessions were also beamed back to Brazil to satisfy the population’s thirst for the ‘Selecao’.

Playing down expectations
The experienced and pragmatic Parreira, who coached Brazil to the 1994 World Cup and was a member of the staff during their iconic triumph in 1970, has been keen to temper the excitement and expectations of Brazil’s army of fans. He has warned the media, fans and players that they mustn’t underestimate any of their opponents – least of all the Croatians, who pose a realistic threat this evening.

“The rest of the world is acting as if we have already won the World Cup,” he told the press on Monday.

“It’s a huge pressure, but I guarantee it’s coming from the outside world and not from within our camp. Croatia are very strong, and they have some very good technical players who can hurt us. I think they are a team that can give us lots of problems during the game. We will have to play good football to get a good result tonight.”

A glance at the Brazilian squad, in particular the likely starting eleven, makes the hype from the supporters and the media understandable. They possess two of world football’s most celebrated full backs, Roberto Carlos and captain Cafu, who possess over 250 international caps between them. In Emerson of Juventus they have one of the finest holding midfield players in the world and ahead of him lie Kaka and Ronaldinho, who in most people’s eyes is the finest player in the world. Ronaldo leads the forward line, despite having endured months of negative press about his private life and physical condition, and is still one of world football’s most clinical strikers. His partner, Adriano, has endured a moderate second half of the season with Internazionale, but has looked fearsome in all of Brazil’s warm up games.

The problem for Brazil’s opponents is finding a weakness to exploit. Aside from finding a pile of Kryptonite to negate this team of apparent Supermen, the main hope, as with many of the Brazilian teams of the past, is to exploit their defence. The goalkeeper Dida has not enjoyed the most solid of seasons with Milan, and many Brazilian observers have been calling for his replacement with the popular Rodrigo Ceni of Sao Paulo. The centre-halves Juan and Lucio look to be as strong a pair as Brazil have ever had, but they could be made to look vulnerable by the attacking instincts of Roberto Carlos and Cafu down the flanks.

Observers of Brazil’s warm-up games will note that the two veteran full-backs spent far more time near the opposition penalty are than their own. Both are renowned around the world for their work rates and reserves of stamina, but a combined age of 69 will be enough to cause Parreira, Lucio and Juan concern. Emerson offers excellent protection to the two centre-halves, but the other holding midfield player, Bayern Munich’s Ze Roberto, is an attacking midfielder by instinct. The level of discipline he can maintain in his new position will be one of the keys to Brazil’s success. If Parreira fails to be convinced then he has a far more natural defensive midfielder in reserve – Arsenal’s Gilberto Silva, who was a key figure in the 2002 triumph.

‘Fantastic Four’
The strong point, of course, is the so-called ‘fantastic four’ – Ronaldinho, Kaka, Ronaldo and Adriano. Ronaldo’s doubters will do well to remember his form in 2002, when he scored 8 goals in the finals on his way to the golden boot. That year, like this one, much pre-tournament debate centred on his perceived lack of fitness and the fact that he had hardly played in two-and-a-half seasons. His performances there made a mockery of such suggestions, and few should bet against him rising to the challenge again.

The bewitching Ronaldinho and the graceful Kaka – who moves so effortlessly that at times it looks as if he is on wheels – hardly need much of an introduction. The only doubt remains their defensive ability and their willingness to provide much needed protection to the attacking full backs on each flank. Both players occupy a more advanced and central role for their clubs, roles that place almost no emphasis on the need for cover or defending.

All of the talking will finally stop this evening, as Brazil start their journey to claim their second World Cup in Europe. Those who subscribe to the theory that they are a sure thing will do well to remember the 1982 team, considered by many to be the most fluid of all time but who ultimately failed in Spain.

The players are eager for the talk to stop and the playing to begin.

“Everyone says we will reach the final but we need to take every opponent as they come,” said Cafu on Monday.

“We know the whole world will be watching us to see what sort of shape we are in.”

“It will be a difficult game – you always feel the pressure in the opening match of a World Cup,” revealed Gilberto Silva.

“But this is a good feeling. Everyone has been talking about us for so long and it’s been boring watching the other games on TV!”

Impossible task
On the surface it appears that Croatia face an impossible task, despite the warnings from Parreira. The reality is, however, that the best time to play Brazil may be in the opening match, and Croatia coach Zlatko Kranjcar has been keen to remind his team of this fact in the build up to the game. A regular for both Yugoslavia and Croatia during his playing days, Kranjcar won three league titles in Croatia before taking over the national team following Euro 2004.

“Football is an unpredictable sport and the World Cup consistently throws up surprise results, especially in the opening fixtures. So there is no reason why we cannot pull off a surprise ourselves,” he predicted on Monday.

One of Krancjar’s first moves upon taking the job was to change the Croatian formation to 3-4-1-2, using his son Niko in the hole between the two strikers. The formation served Croatia extremely well during their successful qualifying campaign and there should be no real reason for the coach to change things dramatically, regardless of the opposition.

Niko Kranjcar has long been identified as Croatia’s most talent player to have emerged over the last few years, though he has been sporadically inconsistent since his inclusion in the team. While few observers doubt his talent or his worthiness of a place in the squad, his father’s reluctance to drop him after a poor performance has sparked claims of nepotism on the part of the coach. At 21 there is plenty of room for improvement and plenty of scope for him to find a consistent level, and when the cards fall right for him he is a technically gifted playmaker who possesses a real threat on goal from outside the penalty area. The World Cup Finals could be his chance to earn a move to one of Europe’s high profile leagues, which would surely help his development.

Any team that is going to cause Brazil problems needs a strong defence, and Croatia’s is packed with experience and ability. The three centre-halves who are likely to start this evening – Robert Kovac of Juventus, Dario Simic of AC Milan and Josip Simunic of Hertha Berlin – all have experience in abundance. This is, however, offset by a lack of real pace, so much will depend on the protection offered to them by the holding midfielder Igor Tudor.

A centre-half by trade, Tudor spent several successful seasons with Juventus and his versatility and ability on the ball has enabled his international coach to deploy him in front of the centre-halves. His main job this evening will be to stop Ronaldinho and Kaka drifting inside from their position on the flanks, something that both Brazilians will attempt to do regularly.

Aside from Niko Kranjcar, Croatia’s main attacking threat will come from the right-sided wing-back, Shakhtar’s Darijo Srna, and the two probable strikers – Dado Prso of Rangers and Ivica Olic of CSKA Moscow. Both strikers have excelled at club level but have found scoring international goals far more difficult. Their success will depend on Srna’s ability to get balls into the penalty area, from open play down the flanks and also from set-pieces. His ability from these positions has led to the nickname of the Croatian David Beckham, and he has been strongly linked with a move to several English Premiership clubs.

While the coach is confident of an upset, Tudor in particular is more cautious about tonight’s meeting with the number one team in world football.

“99% of the world is saying Brazil are the favourites,” he said yesterday.

“A draw would be a success and it would be a sensation if we won. We are favourites to be second in the group. We don’t hide from that.”

Following Australia’s win yesterday, getting something from this evening’s game – however unlikely – has taken on added significance if they are to safeguard that position.
By Mark Robinson

Probable teams:
Brazil: Dida; Cafu, Lucio, Juan, Roberto Carlos; Emerson, Ze Roberto; Kaka, Ronaldinho; Ronaldo, Adriano

Croatia: Pletikosa; Simic, R Kovac, Simunic; Srna, Tudor, N Kovac, Babic; Kranjcar; Olic, Prso

Referee: Benito Archundia (Mexico)

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