FIFA World Cup Preview: Brazil v Croatia
By Football News
FIFA World Cup hosts Brazil go into the opening game against Croatia carrying the weight of a nation's expectation on their shoulders.
Football's greatest showpiece kicks off this Thursday at Sao Paulo's Arena Corinthians, with both sides looking to get their Group A campaigns off to an ideal start.
There is no doubt the greater pressure will be on Brazil, staging the finals for the first time in 64 years, desperate to avoid a repeat of the Maracanazo.
In what was effectively the final between Brazil and Uruguay in 1950, the home nation fully expected a glorious triumph, but their opponents stunned a packed Maracana and ran out 2-1 winners.
Home hopes are just as high in 2014 - especially given Brazil's success in last year's FIFA Confederations Cup - and they may feel buoyed by the fact that the host country has never lost its opening tournament fixture.
It was under current head coach Luiz Felipe Scolari that Brazil last won the World Cup in 2002 and they have been in impressive form in the build-up to the finals, winning 15 of their last 16 matches in a run stretching back to June last year.
Far from becoming a burden, Luiz Gustavo believes the backing of a partisan crowd can only aid the team.
"I believe that we, us players together with Brazilian fans, we can get this going throughout the whole tournament and that together we can get it," he said.
"We got the Confederations Cup. And now in the World Cup, we are counting on the support from everyone. We want the support of all the fans since together we can, step by step, reach the end objective."
Croatia qualified for the finals courtesy of a 2-0 aggregate victory over Iceland in the play-offs and have won their two most recent warm-up friendlies, against Mali and Australia.
Head coach Niko Kovac concedes his team will go into the game as underdogs, but insists his players are not there to simply make up the numbers.
"As the host team, Brazil is a clear a favourite," he said. "But we feel optimistic and we won't be raising the white flag."
Key man Luka Modric meanwhile, fresh from winning the UEFA Champions League with Real Madrid, is aware of Brazil's threat, but pointed to Croatia's team ethos as their fundamental strength.
"Brazil has a phenomenal team, from defence to attack, they are all world class," he said. "They have no weak point.
"Most important for us is that as a team we are real, and not one person. Croatia are neither Modric nor (Ivan) Rakitic, Croatia gained good results when we all fought for each other."
Fears over an ankle problem for Brazil forward Neymar were quickly allayed earlier this week, while Croatia continue to sweat on the fitness of Danijel Pranjic, who suffered an ankle injury in Saturday's 1-0 win over Australia and is undergoing treatment.