World Cup Group A: Croatia exposed as Brazil and Mexico eye progression
Brazil and Mexico are a game away from the next round of the World Cup, Bradley King writes, as Cameroon contend with injuries and Croatia are distracted by prying eyes.
On 17 June 1970, Brazil booked their place in the World Cup final after a 3-1 win over fellow South Americans Uruguay in the last four. 44 years on, the Selecao can take another step - albeit smaller than the one they took in Guadalajara that day - towards adding another engraving of their name to football's most famous trophy.
Though the opening win over Croatia was fraught with controversy, few could deny that Luiz Felipe Scolari's men deserved the three points. The 3-1 scoreline was harsh on the Croats, though, who had Brazil rocking until Oscar's injury time toe-prod ensured victory.
The upshot of the result is that Brazil could be in the last 16 of the competition as soon as tomorrow evening. Should they come out on top in their second fixture against the Mexicans, and Croatia versus Cameroon ends in stalemate on Wednesday, progression will be ensured.
Mexico also have that carrot dangling in front of them, though, after a hard-fought but laboured downing of the Cameroonians. Brazil are fully aware of the dangers presented to them by the Central Americans, who stunned them in the gold medal match at the London 2012 Olympics.
And while Miguel Herrera can select an unchanged starting XI, Scolari is sweating over the fitness of Hulk, who limped out of preparations this week with a muscular problem. Chelsea midfielder Ramires took his place on the flank in training but Brazil are confident that the Zenit forward will recover in time.
But when it comes to vital players recouping quickly, Cameroon are less fortunate. The Indomitable Lions appear almost certain to be without talismanic frontman Samuel Eto'o for the crunch game with Croatia on Wednesday, with his troublesome knee problems succumbing to the rigours of a long campaign.
Volke Finke's side did little to worry the Mexico defence in their opening match and, without their star man, a more penetrative performance seems unlikely against the Europeans. Cameroon could well be the first nation to head home after a bitterly disappointing campaign.
But their opponents are hardly entering the fixture in the greatest of spirits either. The Croats are still irritated by what they insist was a seriously biased performance by referee Yuichi Nishimura against Brazil, in which he awarded the hosts a soft penalty kick for a foul on striker Fred by Dejan Lovren.
And the drama has continued to follow Niko Kovac and his beleaguered squad after the media published photographs of the Croatia side sunbathing naked at the team hotel. Furious at the blatant breach of privacy, the players have opted to boycott the media. “How would you feel if someone took naked pictures of you? They are adamant that they won't speak to you lot anymore and I don't know whether the silence will end tomorrow or last until the end of our World Cup campaign,” Kovac told reporters.
Their World Cup campaign could effectively end on Wednesday, should Cameroon exploit the tumult. The Croatians could be caught with their pants down again.
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