Let's stop ourselves for a second. A Brazilian coronation is the most likely outcome. Those masters of the universe over at Goldman Sachs say so. And they're never wrong. But what if, for just a moment, we think skeptically about this opening match of the World Cup 2014?
Who are Brazil? Five-time champions? Sure, the country is, but not these guys. These guys are good but they are vulnerable. Brazil have the best defense in the world, of course, but it's the goals that get the glory, and none of Brazil's four starting attackers even made the team last World Cup. Few teams have to worry about civil unrest outside the walls of their stadium if they ship an early goal. Brazil surely do. Brazil may not carry the weight of a nation but they might want to consider telling the team doctor to start writing some 200 million-odd prescriptions for Xanax if things go south.
First in Brazil's way, a Croatian team that might actually have a better midfield three than the Seleção. Anyone who watched Real Madrid with more than the slightest passing interest is well aware of the powers of the elven one they call Luka Modrić. Modrić, a man whom Ray Hudson regularly refers to as the "little magician," left Tottenham supporters in a funk when he fled to Spain and has made them only more lovesick with his exploits in La Liga. If there is a definitively better, more creative playmaker in Europe, that player should announce himself now. Modrić can cause any team pain in myriad ways but he can't do it alone.
That's where his deep-lying partner, Ivan Rakitić comes in. Rakitić, the heir apparent to Cesc Fabregas at Barcelona, served as talisman for his Europa League winning Sevilla FC side, picking up the Man of the Match at the final to boot. Rakitić is a legitimate offensive dynamo who can shoot lethally from range just as easily as he can create clear-cut chances for teammates. He ended last year with 15 goals and 17 assists in all competitions. No Brazilian projected to start tomorrow scored more than Rakitić in a top European league last year. Not even Neymar.
The final piece of this Croatian midfield triumvirate is Mateo Kovačić, a 20-year-old who broke onto the scene at Inter Milan last year and has been compared favorably to Robert Prosinečki—Croatia's greatest ever player. Kovačić is both a talented dribbler and playmaker and should serve nicely as a link between the deeper-lying midfield and attack.
If these three can dictate the pace and flow of the game, draw the Brazilians out, and find a key pass or two, Brazil could be in for a rude welcome. Then again, Croatia are without starting striker Mario Mandžukić so questions remain about who exactly will capitalize on this Croatian creativity. Also, it's Brazil. At home.
Croatia are unlikely winners but would be thrilled with a draw and have enough on hand to control the center of the park. No host team has ever lost the first match of a World Cup–and Brazil probably won't–but this is a trap game with massive repercussions for anything other than a resounding victory.