Croatia-Brazil Preview

Brazil has the most and best of seemingly everything when it comes to soccer - the most World Cup titles, a number of the best players in the world and some of the most passionate fans any national team could imagine. Of the two things the Selecao lack - one being an Olympic gold medal - the other can be rectified as the quest to lift the Jules Rimet trophy on home soil begins Thursday versus Croatia in a Group A match at Arena Corinthians in Sao Paulo. This is the second time Brazil will host soccer's biggest event, though memories of the 1950 edition are still tinged with bitterness over the "Maracanazo." The Selecao - needing only a draw to win the title - lost to continental rival Uruguay 2-1 in the final in front of nearly 200,000 people at the famed Maracana in Rio de Janeiro, the site of next month's final. The build-up of both Brazil since being awarded this World Cup in 2007 and Luiz Felipe Scolari's team have sometimes traversed parallel tracks - there have been missteps and setbacks building stadiums and infrastructure amid a skeptical public, while some players were on the 2012 Olympic team that lost to Mexico in the gold medal game. But Scolari's squad recovered nicely while hosting last summer's Confederations Cup, thrashing reigning World Cup champion Spain 3-0 in the final to establish the Selecao on the short list of contenders as they seek a record sixth championship. Much of the burden of meeting the host nation's sky-high expectations will fall upon Neymar, who at 22 has already drawn comparisons to Brazil's legendary No. 10 Pele for his attacking prowess while scoring 31 goals in 49 international appearances. Wearing the No. 10 last summer, Neymar won the Golden Boot as the best player in the Confederations Cup and then had nine goals in 26 matches during his first season with Barcelona. Brazil specifically prepped for Croatia in its final friendly, a 1-0 victory over Serbia on Friday as striker Fred - the Silver Shoe winner in the Confederations Cup with five goals - scored in the second half. The Selecao had trouble dealing with Serbia's physical play and professional fouling, something Croatia will likely duplicate to slow Brazil's up-tempo pace. ''It was tough to create play, there wasn't a lot of space,'' Neymar said. ''But we have to get used to that, we have to find ways to deal with that. I think for the opener we will be OK.'' While Neymar, Fred and fellow forwards Jo and Hulk will be counted on for goals, Brazil's defense is still a cause for concern. Though it has star David Luiz - whose $67 million transfer from Chelsea to French side Paris Saint-Germain will be a record for defenders when finalized - in front of goalkeeper Julio Cesar and Dani Alves on the flank, it is far from a finished work. ''We know that if we don't concede goals, our chances to win matches increase, because we know the kind of talent we have in attack,'' said Scolari, who led Brazil to the 2002 title. ''It's important we are well prepared on defense so we are not caught by surprise.'' Croatia reached the World Cup by defeating Iceland in a two-legged playoff that also began coach Niko Kovac's tenure. Kovac's team, though, will be severely short-handed for this match - midfielder Niko Kranjcar did not make the final roster due to a calf injury, defender Josip Simunic was suspended for the World Cup for leading fans in a pro-Nazi salute following the win over Iceland and forward Mario Mandzukic is banned for this match after being sent off in the second playoff leg. Kovac, however, does have talent at his disposal. Midfielder Luka Modric will be relied on to create counterattacks and scoring chances for Ivica Olic, Nikica Jelavic and Brazilian-born Eduardo da Silva, who became a Croatian citizen in 2002. ''We won't just be there as tourists,'' Kovac insisted. ''You only get a shot at the World Cup every four years, so we want to leave behind a lasting impression.'' Already without Simunic, the Vatreni absorbed another blow to their back line in a 1-0 win over Australia on Friday when Danijel Pranjic suffered an ankle injury that may rule him out of this match. That leaves Dejan Lovren and Darijo Srna to steady the back four.