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FIFA World Cup: Neymar, the redeemer

Neymar saves Brazil the blushes with a brace in WC opener after the team fall behind courtesy an own goal.

Neymar celebrates his second goal, off a penalty kick, during the Group A match between Brazil and Croatia at the Arena de Sao Paulo on Thursday. (Source: AP) Neymar celebrates his second goal, off a penalty kick, during the Group A match between Brazil and Croatia at the Arena de Sao Paulo on Thursday. (Source: AP)

It began with heartbreak. Crunch, it should have echoed. But echoes are only heard in silent environs, which the Arena Corinthians was anything but. The supporters draped in the red-and-white checks of Croatia were loud, very loud. They didn’t even let a nation mourn in peace, with their chants of ‘Croooo-aaa-sia-sia-sia’ thundering about a shell-shocked Sao Paulo.

As early as the 10th minute of the opening game, Croatia sliced open a shaky Brazil defence and collective aortas with one incisive move. Ivan Rakitic found Ivica Olic, Croatia’s 34-year old playmaker, wandering about a vacant left-flank, setting him free in Dani Alves’s absence. Alves sometimes forgets that he’s a defender after all, but Olic knows his role. He rifled down the empty corridor and clipped in a cross to Nikica Jelavic, hacking Brazil’s centre-halves of captain Thiago Silva and David Luiz in two.

THE SHOCK

Jelavic fumbled his chance, but sweeper Marcelo didn’t. The ball ricocheted off the back of the Brazil and Real Madrid man’s shin and trickled past a blindsided ’keeper Julio Cesar. The World Cup had gotten off to a most miserable start for the gracious hosts.

Brazil must have cursed the devil for writing this script. But he knew what he was scripting, this devil. The shock revived Brazil electro-convulsively. And there must have been a wicked twinkle in his eye as the match hurtled forward from there on at breakneck speed, along the way ticking every box of a template thriller — an own goal followed by an exquisite equaliser, a controversial penalty, a disallowed goal and a late hurrah, all of which ended in the five-time winners’ favour.

In the end, Brazil had scored four times on the night to win 3-1. A nation sighed, relieved and slept with three points under their pillow. The Croatians, on the other hand, stayed awake thinking of what could have been. Yes, they controlled play in Brazil’s half for long quarters of the first half, they must have thought. But there’s only so much one can do against a team that has 13 men on the field.

Despite the own goal, the crowd rallied behind the Selecao as the proverbial twelfth man. And by pandering to their every need and call, referee Yuichi Nishimura from Japan was the unlucky thirteenth for Croatia. So, with the ref by their side and the roar of support on their backs, two players from Brazil’s original eleven — Neymar Jr and Oscar — lifted the moral of an otherwise nervy side with some breathtaking play.

A wise man once said that a lot can happen within 90 minutes. Here, almost all the drama unfolded in 80. Shortly after Marcelo’s own goal in the 11th minute, the lights shining over Brazil’s left flank conked off. But it didn’t matter, as the man stationed there — Hulk — wasn’t seeing much of the ball anyway. And coach Luiz Felipe Scolari noticed that fact just in time.

Throwing Oscar out wide into a more influential position than Hulk’s and dragging Neymar into the hole behind Fred from his starting position on the right, Scolari made the necessary changes to press ahead. It worked almost instantly. In the 29th minute, Oscar found himself singlehandedly holding off Rakitic and Croatia’s large defenders, Vedran Corluka and Dejan Lovren, until Neymar slipped to his left.

THE RELEASE

Oscar released Neymar and the ball into space and Brazil’s electrifying number 10 took off. He began his run from the centre of the field with his right foot, tapped the ball left on sighting traffic and pulled the trigger from way outside the box. Kicking with his wrong foot and a little too early, it initially seemed as if Neymar had shanked it. But the darting ball kept travelling, until it sizzled past ‘keeper Stipe Pletikosa and knocked against his left post, deflecting in the right way.
In celebration, all of Sao Paulo quaked.

Before this equaliser, the word on the street was that Neymar was all style and little substance. Scolari, however, had never lost faith in his 2013 Confederations Cup hero, defending him furiously at every press conference leading up to the tournament. Now he needed to do little, apart from receiving a kiss on his cheek from Brazil’s poster boy, who had galloped directly towards him during his emotionally charged celebration.

If Brazil’s first goal was sensational, the second was a shame. Twenty or so minutes into the second half, the phenomenal Oscar — easily Brazil’s best player on the field — put in yet another point-perfect cross into Croatia’s box. But Fred was in no mood to make something of it. Instead, on the slightest of contacts with Lovren, Brazil’s number nine made a meal of it and collapsed like a bag of batatas. The ref pointed towards the spot and Neymar slotted it home.

From here on, Croatia attacked relentlessly, throwing everything from their defenders to the kitchen sink up front. Rakitic continued to create breaks in play, Olic whizzed down the flanks like there was no tomorrow and Luka Modric — largely unsighted until then — helped create an equaliser, only for the referee to flag it down.

DOUBLE FAULT

In the dying minutes of the match, Olic soared over ’keeper Cesar to receive a threatening cross from Modric. But as the ball squirted into the net, ref Nishimura penalised the Croat with fouling the goalkeeper, when it was clear for all to see that the valid move was anything but one. Apart from the small section of Croats, not one of the 63,102 fans present at the Arena Corinthians complained.

And they complained even less when Oscar ran the ball ahead and then ran some more. Wrongfooting the ’keeper to his right, the Chelsea boy bunted left outside the box, toe-tapping Brazil’s third past Pletikosa to put the result beyond reasonable doubt.

The 90th minute goal was how the match ended, sending the ticket-buyers home with thumping hearts. This time around, no Croat could stop you from hearing it. They resounded right across the nation. Thump, thump, thump.

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