By Andrew Downie
THE last time Brazil played at home in the World Cup finals a 2-1 loss to Uruguay ended their hopes of a winning a first world title and plunged the country into a state of mourning.
When the Brazilians face Croatia in the opening match of this year’s World Cup on Thursday 64 years after that tumultuous loss, the pressure to win will be just as huge.
Defeat by Croatia at the Corinthians arena would not mark the end of Brazil’s World Cup chances.
It would, however, deflate a nation of 200 million people who expect the home team not only to win this match but every one of their games over the next month. Nothing except a sixth world title will suffice.
The omens are good for a positive result against Croatia as no host nation has ever lost their opening match in the World Cup.
Brazil are favourites not just because of their great World Cup record but also because Luiz Felipe Scolari’s team have won 15 of their last 16 games, including five in a row to win last year’s Confederations Cup.
Scolari has no injury doubts and barring any late surprises the team that lines up against Croatia is expected to be the same one that beat Spain in the final 12 months ago.
Julio Cesar will be in goal, hoping to bury the ghosts of 2010 when his error against the Netherlands led to Brazil’s elimination in the quarter-finals.
Thiago Silva and David Luiz will be in the heart of the defence, with Marcelo and Dani Alves on the flanks.
Paulinho, Luiz Gustavo and Oscar will form a three-man midfield, with Neymar and Hulk working between them and centre forward Fred.
Brazil’s hopes rest with Neymar, the 22-year old Barcelona forward who seems to rise to the occasion when wearing a yellow shirt.
Croatia, meanwhile, are missing some of their top players.
Banned centre back Josip Simunic and long-term casualty Ivan Strinic were written off before Niko Kovac named his squad, left back Danijel Pranjic was ruled out of the opening fixture with an ankle sprain and Gordon Schildenfeld is doubtful with a hamstring problem.
That means Kovac will probably field Sime Vrsaljko on the left and the inconsistent Dejan Lovren could be deployed alongside the tried and tested Vedran Corluka in the middle.
Corluka acknowledged his partnership with Lovren had malfunctioned in the past but hoped it would be a different story in Sao Paulo.
“We’ve only played together a few times and I can’t say that it worked to perfection,” Corluka told reporters.
“But there is a first time for everything I hope we will click at crunch time and this is certainly it.
“I have a positive stage fright because this is a big match on the biggest stage. Every child who’s ever kicked a ball dreams of playing in the World Cup and here we are in the opening game against Brazil.”
Captain Darijo Srna will fill his usual right back slot while Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic are to pull the strings in the centre of midfield behind a three-pronged forward line of Ivan Perisic, Mateo Kovacic and Ivica Olic.
The robust Nikica Jelavic will probably be preferred to Brazilian-born striker Eduardo da Silva as a lone striker.
The match kicks off at 5pm local time (11pm in Cyprus) in the Corinthians arena on the outskirts of South America’s biggest city.