Two Neymar goals, moment of controversy see Brazil start with 3-1 win over Croatia

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Two goals from Brazil’s biggest star got the World Cup off to a successful start for the hosts, but controversy overshadowed Neymar’s brace as Brazil 2014 kicked off in Sao Paolo. After a 71st minute penalty drawn by Brazilian striker Fred left Croatia pleading its case to referee Yuishi Nishimura, the tournament favorites had their first lead, with stoppage time insurance alloying the favorites to claim a 3-1 result.

The underdogs were up after 11 minutes when a ball rolled into the penalty area by Ivica Olic was turned into Brazil’s net by Selecao left back Marcelo – the team’s first own goal in World Cup history. Eighteen minutes later, Neymar converted his first of the day, rolling a ball from the top of the arc inside Stipe Pletikosa’s left post.

After Brazil gained momentum before halftime, Croatia assumed more control of the game in the second. That control was rebuked when Nishimura pointed to the spot in the 69th minute, issuing Croatian defender Dejan Lovren a yellow card after a disputed foul on Fred. Neymar’s finish from the spot delivered full points for the hosts.

One minute into stoppage time, a counterattack against the pursuing Croatians produced a chance from Oscar from just beyond the arc. Poking the ball inside Pletikosa’s right post, the Chelsea midfielder gave Brazil its insurance, producing a flattering two-goal result.

Play in Group A continues tomorrow when Mexico faces Cameroon in Natal. Brazil returns to the field Tuesday against Mexico in Fortaleza, while Croatia will face Cameroon on Wednesday in Manaus.

[ MORE: Nerves, Nishimura, Pletikosa: Talking points after Brazil’s victory over Croatia ]
[ MORE: Dive, poor officiating get 2014 World Cup off to a bad start ]

A slow start from Brazil gave Croatia two chances to strike first, the second of which put Niko Kovac’s team in front. In the seventh minute, a cross from the left by Ivan Perisic found Olic at the far post, but the Wolfsburg attacker’s snap header went just side of Julio César’s upright. Four minutes later, however, play built down Croatia’s left allowed Olic to roll a ball toward the edge of the six. A touch from Nikica Jelavic in the middle of the box caught Marcelo off guard, leading to an own goal.

source: Getty Images
Croatia Dejan Lovren (left) is called for a foul on Brazil’s Fred (right). Neymar converted the ensuing penalty kick to give Brazil a 2-1 lead. (Photo: Getty Images)

By the middle of the half, Brazil had shaken off their nerves, with chances from Paulinho and Oscar just after the 20-minute mark proving the favorites’ first threats on Pletikosa’s goal. In the 29th minute, a more benign chance finally produced the Selecao’s equalizer, with a scuffed shot by Neymar from 24 yards out nestling inside Pletikosa’s lower left hand corner.

Brazil built on that mid-half momentum but were unable to take the lead before half time. When the teams returned to the field, a more settled Croatia saw kept of the ball, with the team content to play around the edges of the Brazilian defense. The edge in possession that saw Brazil hold over 70 percent of the ball in the first half started to even out.

As the underdogs sent in reinforcements and Luiz Felipe Scolari looked for solutions, Croatia continued to bleed time off the clock, dominating the ball amid almost no pressure from the hosts’ midfield. Playing through Luka Modric in the middle, the underdogs spent most of the half’s first 20 minutes probing down the flanks before pulling the ball back toward the center circle. All the danger the favorites posed in the moments before halftime was gone.

In the 69th minute, Nishimura bailed the hosts out. On a ball played into the penalty area from the right by Oscar, Fred went to ground in front of defender Dejan Lovren, drawing a whistle. Pletikosa guessed correctly on Neymar’s try from the spot, but his hands weren’t strong enough to keep out a ball sent high into the left side of goal.

Over the game’s final 23 minutes, César was called on to make three big saves, with chasing Croatia controlling play over the match’s final chapter. In the 91st minute, however, Oscar brought their story to an end, with a ball poked from near 24 yards out getting past Pletikosa at the left post. Where César had stepped up to preserve his team’s points, Pletikosa had let in a second soft goal.

The 3-1 scoreline is what Selecao would have wanted at minute zero, but the form between the whistles left little difference in quality between the tournament favorites and a team hoping to escape Group A. The hosts took full points, but they needed some helped from Nishimura to do so.

[ MORE: Soccerly cover the World Cup ]

Lineups

Brazil: César, Alves, Silva, Luiz, Marcelo; Paulinho (Hernanes 63′), Gustavo; Hulk (Bernard 68′), Oscar, Neymar (Ramires 88′); Fred

Goals: Neymar 29′, (p.k.) 71′, Oscar 90+1′

Croatia: Pletikosa; Srna, Corluka, Lovren, Vrsaijko; Kovacic (Brozovic 61′), Modric, Rakitic; Perisic Olic, Jelavic (Rebic 78′)

Goals: Marcelo (o.g.) 11′

Report: Arsenal interested in Leicester keeper Kasper Schmeichel

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According to a report by The Sun, Arsenal is monitoring the progress of Leicester City goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel.

The rumor does make sense. With Petr Cech at 34 years old and having a poor season in front of net and backup David Ospina failing to challenge him for the starting job, the Gunners are looking elsewhere to bring in a potential future starter.

Schmeichel has been one of the best goalkeepers in the Premier League the past two seasons. Last season he led the Foxes to the Premier League title, organizing a stunningly good defensive line of patchwork players. This season, the defense has largely regressed and let Schmeichel down, but he has still performed well and has the metrics to remain one of the league’s top shot-stoppers.

The Danish keeper is 30 years old himself, but that puts him in his prime for a goalkeeper. He has been with Leicester City since 2011, and he will tick 250 appearances for the club with his next match. Schmeichel was rumored to be a member of the secret player delegation that worked hard to see Claudio Ranieri pushed out of the club, a sentiment which he and the other players have strongly denied.

Still, with an improbable Premier League title in hand and an appearance in the Champions League quarterfinals now on the cards, there probably isn’t much else for him at Leicester City. It’s possible Schmeichel could look to bank on his past performances and secure a move to a bigger club this summer.

Should Arsene Wenger stay with Arsenal past this season, a possibility that looks more and more likely, he could look to move on from Cech despite signing the former Chelsea goalkeeper just two summers ago.

Diego Costa injured, but will stay with Spain squad for friendly

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Chelsea striker Diego Costa pulled up in Spain training on Sunday, and with the Blues in first in the Premier League and Costa in great form, there were obvious concerns.

With Costa struggling with leg and ankle injuries, the RFEF informed Chelsea that there was an issue, and Costa was pulled from training and sent for tests. X-Rays at the local hospital in Madrid were negative, and he’s rejoined the squad.

According to the RFEF, doctors will continue to monitor the 28-year-old and he will continue with the national team for the rest of the international break. With a World Cup qualification win over Israel already in the books and just a friendly against France to go on Tuesday, it’s odd that Spain would risk Costa moving forward, but they will continue to keep him around.

Costa has scored 18 goals this season to lead the Blues, and he scored in the win over Israel. Spain takes on France in Saint-Denis on Tuesday, with both teams leading their World Cup qualification groups. Spain has a goal-differential lead on Italy with both teams miles above the rest of the Group G, and France is ahead of Sweden by three points in Group A, with the Netherlands back in fourth.

Foul or flop? Player “headbutts” referee, is sent off

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Well, there must be something in the water down in Brasilia, because things got a little weird this evening.

Flamengo drew with Vasco da Gama 2-2, but that was just the start.

In the 54th minute, with Vasco da Gama leading 1-0 at Estadio Nacional Mané Garrincha, 36-year-old Luis Fabiano was sent off for “headbutting” the referee. Headbutting is in quotes because looking at the video, it certainly appears there was little to no contact, and the referee flops.

Yes, the referee flopped. Take a look:

To be fair, Fabiano was already on a yellow, so getting in the referee’s face even without the headbutt/pelvic thrust would likely still have seen him sent to an early shower.

So the former Porto and Sevilla man was sent off, and Vasco da Gama was down to 10 men. Immediately after the red card, Flamengo took advantage, powering in a pair of goals via Willian Arao and Orlando Berrio to take the lead 2-1. But Vasco wouldn’t quit, and they earned a penalty five minutes into stoppage time, which Nene buried for the 2-2 draw.

To top things off, a player named Yago Pikachu scored the opener for Vasco da Gama, which was followed by a delay in the game seven minutes later after a power surge in the stadium. Go figure.

Lletget diagnosed with foot sprain, escaping further damage

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Word has arrived from the LA Galaxy camp that will see USMNT fans feel relieved as Sebastian Lletget has escaped the news many feared.

The young attacker was impressive in the first 18 minutes of the United States’ 6-0 win over Honduras, but was injured minutes after scoring the opening goal and could not continue. Replays showed that Lletget got his foot caught underneath a defender in the process of a hard challenge on the right wing.

There was concern that Lletget would be out for a significant amount of time, but the Galaxy announced that after testing over the weekend, Lletget did not suffer any structural damage and was diagnosed with a left foot sprain.

[ MORE: USMNT adds Paul Arreola to roster, drops Lletget, Brooks, Morris ]

Lletget will visit a specialist on Monday to determine a plan for recovery, and it’s possible that he will still have to miss some time in the near future. The Galaxy visit Vancouver on Saturday, and his status for that match has to be considered up in the air. They then host Montreal on April 7.

While Lletget obviously misses out on the next USMNT game at Panama on Tuesday having already been dumped from the roster, he will most definitely be available for the June games against Trinidad & Tobago and Mexico, and will likely be an option for Bruce Arena given the manager’s history with Lletget at Los Angeles.

The United States have been struck with a collection of injuries that all occurred just before the international break, hampering the squad significantly. Bobby Wood, Jordan Morris, and Fabian Johnson all went down in the days before reporting for international duty, and the team lost Lletget and John Brooks in the Honduras win. Lletget’s departure could see Alejandro Bedoya into the starting lineup on Tuesday, with the Union midfielder having replaced Lletget in the Honduras match. Also in contention is Jermaine Jones, who could come in after his suspension and push Darlington Nagbe onto the wing.