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Brazil 3-1 Croatia

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Courtesy of Flickr/Jose Martinez

Neymar scored twice as Brazil came from behind to defeat Croatia in the opening match at the World Cup.

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Luiz Felipe Scolari fielded his expected starting XI with Fred leading the line ahead of Neymar, Oscar and Hulk. Luiz Gustavo and Paulinho started in the double-pivot.

Without the suspended Mario Mandzukic, Niko Kovac was forced to start Nikica Jelavic upfront ahead of Ivica Olic, Mateo Kovacic and Ivan Perisic. Talented midfielders Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic formed a midfield duo in Kovac’s 4-2-3-1.

Croatia enjoyed a positive opening 15 minutes before Oscar stamped his authority on the match. However, a poor decision by the referee tilted the momentum in Brazil’s favour, and the hosts dealt with Croatia’s late onslaught.

Croatia’s defensive approach

The key to Croatia’s shape in the opening minutes was partially based around their shape. Kovac’s decision to field three ball-playing midfielders led many to believe that Croatia would attempt to control the match. Croatia, however, maintained a medium defensive block, as they dropped into two banks of four without the ball.

Kovacic and Jelavic sat off the Brazilian centre backs and positioned themselves ahead of Luiz Gustavo and Paulinho to cut off passing lanes into midfield. The Brazilian duo was forced to play conservative passes into wide areas, and Kovac’s pragmatism ensured that Croatia negated one of Brazil’s main strengths.

Perisic and Olic – two wide forwards – tirelessly pressed Marcelo and Dani Alves and prevented the full-backs from pushing forward. Considering Marcelo and Dani Alves’ offensive impact in the Confederations Cup, Kovac’s decision to instruct his wingers to limit their threat was pivotal.

Croatia’s approach without the ball was logical, and equally effective in the opening period.

Croatia attacks

Croatia surprisingly took the lead in the opening 10 minutes courtesy of a Marcelo own goal, but the goal and a previous opportunity followed the same pattern.

Modric ignited the break from midfield before playing a pass to Perisic on the right flank, and the Croatian winger’s cross towards the back post saw Olic out jump Alves and steer his header inches wide of the post. Subsequently, Rakitic’s ball to Olic on the left flank led to Jelavic guiding the Croatian winger’s cross off Marcelo and into the net.

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There was always space behind Alves and Marcelo as they continuously aimed to maraud forward, thus leading to the duo conceding possession and being caught out of position. Equally, Croatia aimed to use their wide players’ physical presence to outmuscle Brazil’s diminutive full-backs. Along with Olic’s early chance, Perisic received a cross from Jelavic, and out jumped Marcelo, but he guided his header directly at Julio Cesar.

Croatia’s intelligent midfielders quickly transitioned into attack when they won possession, and exploited the physical and positional deficiencies of the Brazilian full-backs.

Oscar

Scolari’s men were poor in the opening 15 minutes, and their shape was often disjointed when they were in possession. Brazil required a link between midfield and attack, as Neymar was forced to drop too deep to receive the ball, while the midfielders couldn’t facilitate passes towards the wide players and Fred.

Oscar’s start to the match was quite shaky, but he did play two good crosses into the box that shouldn’t be overlooked. The Brazilian continued to take advantage of Vrsaljko – who isn’t a natural left-back – by pushing the ball towards the byline to earn a corner and delivering a cross into the six-yard box that evaded both Neymar and Fred.

Most of Oscar’s play continued down the right; his curling effort following Neymar’s magic was pushed aside by Pletikosa, and he played a great ball into Paulinho between the lines, but the midfielder’s shot was saved by Pletikosa. Oscar usually moves to the right to create space for his teammates, but here he served as the link that Brazil required. Oscar was equally impressive on the defensive end as he protected his full-backs out of possession, and completed key tackles in midfield to halt Croatia’s breaks on the counterattack.

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Likewise, the Chelsea man was involved in all three Brazilian goals. His persistence in a challenge against Rakitic and Modric enabled the Chelsea midfielder to break free and flick the ball to Neymar who opened the scoring. Oscar impressively ran past Vrsaljko and Marcelo Brozovic and played a great pass into Fred, which resulted in the referee harshly awarding a penalty to Brazil for Dejan Lovren’s non-foul on Fred. Lastly, Oscar received a loose ball and capped off his tremendous performance with a low shot past Pletikosa to double Brazil’s lead.

Oscar nearly created another goal from the right flank as his cross into the box to an unmarked David Luiz was steered wide of the net. Oscar was undoubtedly the best player on the field, and oddly it was from the right flank – a position he isn’t naturally accustomed to playing – as he was the catalyst in Brazil’s comeback with his deliveries from wide areas, clever passes, and tireless work rate.

The 22-year old displayed why many classify him as Brazil’s most important player.

Second half

Prior to Neymar’s controversial second goal, Brazil continued to struggle as a unit. Their passing tempo was vividly slow, and Croatia did a better job in attempting to nullify Oscar’s threat. Croatia dropped a bit deeper in the second half, but continued to exploit space behind Alves and Marcelo.

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On a few occasions Olic and Perisic broke into space behind the full-backs, but their poor final ball was often cleared, and Thiago Silva and David Luiz made several timely last-ditch clearances and tackles. Perisic, in particular, enjoyed a good game with his admirable defending, reliable passing, along with his pace and power to drive forward down the flanks. Rakitic and Modric saw more of the ball in the second half as players tired. Oscar and Gustavo harried the latter in deep areas, and without Neymar closing down Rakitic, the Sevilla midfielder began to string positive passes forward.

The match lacked many clear-cut chances apart from the goals and the managers’ attempt to alter the match via substitutions were futile. Scolari’s decision to introduce Hernanes was logical – he’s a good passer of the ball and could quickly increase the passing tempo – but the Inter Milan midfielder was ineffective. Bernard’s direct threat injected energy but he didn’t offer much going forward, while Ramires’ short cameo led to Oscar’s third goal.

Marcelo Brozovic’s presence did offer another threat upfront, as he remained higher up the pitch, and although Ante Rebic offered mobility, he failed to influence the match.

The match opened up in the final 15 minutes with Neymar receiving plenty of space between the lines to drive forward, but Brazil didn’t test Pletikosa. Scolari’s men preferred to drop into their shape to preserve the lead, but Croatia’s persistence led to Modric and Perisic’s efforts from distance – that Cesar poorly dealt with — and Cesar’s controversial collision with Olic.

 Conclusion

Croatia will feel robbed of a potential point following an effective display prior to Neymar’s second goal. However, Oscar’s well-rounded performance along with Pletikosa’s poor goalkeeping also contributed to Brazil’s success on the night.

Kovac’s men did a great job without the ball in negating Brazil’s full-backs and equally exploiting space behind the attack-minded defenders, but they didn’t create enough chances and their final ball was poor.

This wasn’t a great Brazilian performance, but to some degree this is what to expect from Scolari’s men. Brazil is a highly functional side that may not play the most attractive football in the tournament, but they possess a quality that majority of the teams in the tournament lack.

They know how to win games.

 
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Posted by on June 13, 2014 in Published Work, World Cup 2014

 

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Barcelona 3-2 Sevilla

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Barcelona remains at the top of La Liga courtesy of Alexis Sanchez’s injury time winner against a resilient Sevilla side.

Gerardo ‘Tata’ Martino made two changes to the side that defeated Valencia at the Mestalla, two weeks ago. Christian Tello started along side Lionel Messi and Neymar in the attacking three, while Xavi Hernandez joined Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets in midfield.

Unai Emery made four changes to the side that drew Malaga two weeks ago, adding Jairo Sampeiro and Vitolo to the attacking three behind Kevin Gameiro. Sebastian Cristoforo played with Stephane M’Bia in the double pivot of Emery’s 4-2-3-1, while Beto started in goal.

This match came to life in the final 15 minutes once Messi gave the Catalan side a two-goal lead – yet despite their victory, Barcelona’s issues at the back are now palpable.

Sevilla’s Shape

Emery’s men faced an onslaught of pressure in the opening 45 minutes but were only down a goal, due to their shape without the ball. Emery’s men dropped into two banks of four with Gameiro and Rakitic up top, aiming to close down Busquets and Xavi – when they dropped deeper. M’Bia was instructed to track Iniesta’s movement, while Cristoforo occasionally pressed Xavi.

However, what was most impressive was Sevilla’s ability to limit the gaps in midfield and defence. Barcelona constantly aimed to penetrate through the middle but was unable to find the final ball or gap in the final third, and that was down to their compact shape and organization. This affected Messi’s influence on the match, as he often dropped deep into midfield, attempting to drag defenders out of position and find his own gaps – but the Argentine forward had little success.

Barcelona down the left

Martino’s men did enjoy success in the first half, mainly down the left hand side. It was a constant source of attack, as Tello and Dani Alves were peripheral figures for large portions of the opening 45. Neymar received the ball countless times and was encouraged to take on Coke Andujar. The Brazilian winger constantly got the better of the Sevilla fullback – due to his marvelous skills and Jordi Alba’s ability to get forward – but his decision-making and quality in the final third was subpar.

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Alba was forced to leave the match midway through the first half, thus allowing Adriano to make an appearance. This now presented Barcelona with a balance, yet neither fullback was eager to push forward – but when Alves did, he was moving centrally. Neymar continued to trouble Coke for the duration of the match, but Barcelona’s opener was orchestrated on the left flank. Adriano finally surged forward and provided a cross to the far post, which Alves nodded past Beto. It was one of the few time Alves broke forward due to Vitolo’s admirable will to track back and protect Alberto.

Martino’s men struggled to find openings in the Sevilla defence, but their narrow shape allowed Barcelona’s left-sided players freedom to penetrate.

Jairo-Vitolo

Barcelona continued to dominate possession in the second half, as they searched for a second goal. Vitolo drifted centrally early in the second half, looking to find gaps to exploit, but the Sevilla attacker realized the service was limited. Yet, two wide men enjoyed a terrific second half, due to Adriano and Alves’ will to surge forward, thus leaving space available behind them to penetrate. Jairo and Vitolo isolated the Barcelona fullbacks, and got into dangerous positions in the final third, which led to corner kicks.

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Sevilla’s first goal stemmed from majestic work from Vitolo. The Sevilla attacker won the ball on the break and attacked space after being played in by Marko Marin. Vitolo danced past Busquets and Gerard Pique, then laid the ball off for Ivan Rakitic to fire past Victor Valdes.

Besides an improvement in the minimal pressure applied by Sevilla, their were two elements of attack that led to their comeback – Jairo and Vitolo’s threat in wide areas on the break was the first positive aspect in Sevilla’s second half resurgence.

Set-pieces

Martino has been heavily criticized for the club’s decision to ignore their defensive issues. The Catalan club is in desperate need of a top-class centreback, but continue to have faith in a Javier Mascherano – Pique partnership. Also, over the past few years, Barcelona has lost players that possess an aerial threat, such as Carles Puyol, Eric Abidal, Yaya Toure and Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

This season, Barcelona’s slow defenders have been exposed and their inability to successfully defend set pieces has also been highlighted. Helder Postiga made a near post run and freely nodded in a corner kick at the Mestalla, two weeks ago – and the same issues recurred against Emery’s men.

In the 63rd minute, Cala snuck between Alves and Busquets and nodded a corner kick at the near post, past Victor Valdes. The goal was wrongfully ruled off for a ‘ghost’ foul, which should’ve equalized the scoreline. Martino noticed his side’s disadvantage in height, so he took his players off the post to develop a numerical advantage in the box. Cala got the best of Busquets and Fabregas in the 82nd minute, but the Sevilla defender nodded his header wide of the net. But eight minutes later, Coke earned the equalizer, as the Sevilla fullback was left unmarked to hit the corner kick on the volley, past Valdes.

For all of Barcelona’s talent in attack, they still look frail in defence, and it’s an issue Martino needs to address, if the Catalan side aims on claiming trophies this season.

Fabregas

There’s no question about Cesc Fabregas being Barcelona’s most influential figure this season, and he continued to showcase that in the second half. Minutes upon his arrival, Fabregas made a simple run between the lines to free space for Messi to make a pass, and run into space to tap in Barcelona’s second goal of the night.

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Martino’s men began to find gaps of space between the lines and in the final third in the final 15 minutes of the match, and Fabregas played a key role in their success. His direct forward runs into pockets of space and behind the defence, along with his persistence to get into key areas in the final third, opened up space for Messi, Neymar and Sanchez to penetrate.

Fabregas’ movement and direct approach opened up space for Barcelona’s attackers to express themselves – prior to that they struggled to penetrate in central areas, thus highlighting the impact of his appearance.

Conclusion

Barcelona was dominant in possession for large portions of the match, but their lack of penetration and issues on the break and defending set pieces is alarming. Sevilla will feel they were robbed of points due to Cala’s goal being called off, and the timing of Sanchez’ winner, as their second half performance was promising – specifically Jairo and Vitolo’s

Martino’s men remain unbeaten in league play, as Fabregas’ arrival shifted the match offensively for the Catalan side. It seems evident that the Spaniard is now a key asset to Barcelona, and it’ll be interesting to see if he can sustain this good run of form throughout the season.

 
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Posted by on September 17, 2013 in Match Recaps, Published Work

 

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