Croatia (0-0-0) vs. Brazil (0-0-0), 4 p.m. (ET)
06/11/2014 3:14 PM
06/11/2014 3:17 PM
Sao Paulo, Brazil (SportsNetwork.com) - The World Cup kicks off in style on Thursday as host nation Brazil battles Croatia in the opening match of Group A play at the Arena de Sao Paulo.
As the host country, the pressure is squarely on the shoulders of the Brazilian squad to make good on their status as pre-tournament favorites and win their sixth World Cup title.
The key for Brazil will be how manager Luiz Felipe Scolari does with keeping his young team on an even keel in front of their home crowd.
Leading the star-studded Brazilian team is 22-year-old Neymar, who figures to be one of the faces of the tournament.
The Barcelona man is viewed as the future of the Brazilian national team, and he made quite an introduction for himself at last summer's Confederations Cup, scoring four goals in the tournament and helping Brazil to a 3-0 win over Spain in the final, which earned him recognition as the best player in the competition.
Experienced players such as Ronaldinho, Kaka and Robinho were left off the Confederations Cup roster, and were replaced by youngsters Fred and Hulk, who will help Neymar with the scoring onus.
Scolari has a plethora of options in midfield with creative players like Chelsea trio Ramires, Oscar and Willian, while Inter Milan's Hernanes is another offensive option.
Defensively, experienced goalkeeper Julio Cesar will anchor a group that includes David Luiz, Thiago Silva and Dante as options in the middle, while full backs Dani Alves and Marcelo give the team plenty going forward in two- way roles.
Croatia, meanwhile, returns to the world's biggest footballing stage after missing the 2010 event in South Africa.
Croatian head coach Niko Kovac is armed with a talented roster that certainly has a fighting chance to reach the knockout stage, despite a difficult draw.
Kovac's club is led by a strong midfield which contains Real Madrid's Luka Modric and Sevilla's Ivan Rakitic.
The former Tottenham man, Modric, will be responsible for generating offense from his midfield position and feeding the ball forward to players like Mario Mandzukic and Ivica Olic.
The presence of Rakitic will help Modric in the middle of the field, while both Mandzukic and Olic will be responsible for putting away the chances.
Olic will have to carry the offensive load against Brazil, however, as Mandzukic will be unavailable after he was sent off in the club's qualifying victory over Iceland.
Croatia will have one big miss in midfield as Niko Kranjcar will not feature in the tournament due to a hamstring injury. Kranjcar has totaled 16 goals in 81 international appearances, and his experience will be missed in a midfield short on depth.
Captain Darijo Srna anchors the back line with considerable international experience, having been capped 110 times for his country. He'll need to keep his defenders organized and clam on the ball against the likes of Brazil and Mexico if the side is to reach the knockout round for the first time since 1998.
Brazil hosted the World Cup once before, in 1950, and that team was also expected to hoist the trophy, but were upset by Uruguay in the final.
That defeat is still talked about in Brazil today, so the current team will aim to make sure they get off to a winning start.
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