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′

VIDEO: Schweinsteiger asked if Chicago Fire can win World Cup

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Big press conferences bring unusual media members out of the woodwork, and this can be pretty embarrassing when it comes to sports.

I remember a few years ago in Buffalo, when the NHL’s Sabres had not resigned Chris Drury and Daniel Briere. A TV newsman, not known for his sports coverage, asked the general manager what they would say to fans who bought Drury and Briere jerseys.

The awkward reply: “Sorry?”

[ MORE: Lamela out for rest of season ]

There was no exception when the Chicago Fire unveiled Bastian Schweinsteiger on Wednesday. The World Cup winning midfielder faced the press and was asked if his arrival would help Chicago win the World Cup.

You read that right. Here’s the video, even as the communications man jumped in to try and save the reporter by suggesting he meant the FIFA Club World Cup.

Woof. The media overseas are having a field day with this one, but it doesn’t have anything to do with American soccer fans, perhaps even sports media. I’d be stunned if the reporter spent a ton of time around the game.

But man, oh man.

Celtic’s dominance under Rodgers reaching new levels

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They’re unbeaten in 29 games, winning 27 of them. They hold a 25-point lead. They’re about to clinch a sixth straight league title this weekend and it’s still not even April.

Celtic’s players have taken their supremacy of Scottish soccer to a new level this season, putting the storied club from Glasgow in the conversation when discussing the most dominant sides in Europe’s domestic leagues in the 21st century.

Celtic will be the Scottish champion again as early as Friday if its closest rival, Aberdeen, loses to Dundee. If Aberdeen wins, Celtic will take an unassailable lead in the Scottish Premiership by beating Hearts on Sunday.

[ MORE: Lamela out for rest of season ]

There’s been a sense of inevitability about the whole thing since the turn of the year, by which time Celtic had jumped into a 19-point lead. It’s long stopped being called a “title race” in Scotland, more a procession.

Meanwhile, the team coached by former Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers won the Scottish League Cup in late November and is also through to the semifinals of the Scottish Cup.

With Celtic’s unbeaten run across three domestic competitions currently at 36 games, this might be the most dominant season by any club in the history of Scotland’s top flight.

A glance around Europe shows a few other examples of title monopolies.

Dinamo Zagreb (Croatia) and BATE Borisov (Belarus) are currently on a streak of 11 domestic leagues titles in a row since 2006. Olympiakos is on course for a seventh straight Greek league title, which would be its 12th in the last 13 years, and Sheriff Tiraspol has won the Moldovan league every year except one since 2000. Basel leads the Swiss league by 17 points and is about to seal a ninth title in 10 years.

[ MORE: Zlatan to stay at United?

In these lesser-profile leagues, teams can dominate because of the cash they receive from participating in UEFA competitions, which often allow them to outspend their domestic rivals.

Last week, UEFA President Aleksander Ceferin, attending a conference in Lisbon, spoke of the threats to European soccer in the coming years, including the “decrease in competitive balance within European club competitions and secondary effects affecting domestic competitions.”

There are examples of lopsided championships in Europe’s big leagues, too: Juventus is closing on an unprecedented sixth straight Serie A title in Italy and on course for a third straight Serie A-Coppa Italia double; Bayern Munich is on course for a fifth straight Bundesliga title in Germany, which included winning one championship after 27 matches of a 34-round league; Lyon won the French league title seven times in succession from 2002; and Ajax won four straight titles in the Netherlands from 2011-14.

Scotland is widely regarded as a backwater in European soccer these days, mainly because of the uncompetitive nature of its league and an increasing lack of exposure and coverage outside Britain.

What didn’t help was Rangers – Celtic’s fierce crosstown rival and winner of a record 54 league titles – getting demoted to the fourth tier of the Scottish game in 2012 because of financial irregularities.

This is Rangers’ first season back in the Premiership, but it hasn’t been able to challenge Celtic and currently sits 33 points behind in third place. There used to be constant talk of the two “Old Firm” clubs crossing the border to join the English league but that has cooled.

“I want to win (the league) by 50 points,” Rodgers, who is in his first season at Celtic, said last month.

[ MORE: RSL hires Petke ]

In any other league, that would be a preposterous comment, but perhaps no longer in Scotland.

The season started so embarrassingly for Celtic and Rodgers, a 1-0 loss to Gibraltarian part-timer Lincoln Red Imps in a Champions League qualifier in July described by some pundits as the club’s worst defeat in its 130-year history.

Now, they are about to lift the league title with eight matches to spare and potentially in the month of March for the second time in four years.

“We want to continue winning, continue the run that we’re on,” Celtic goalkeeper Craig Gordon said, “and make sure we do that for as long as we can.”

AP Sports Writers Graham Dunbar in Geneva and James Ellingworth in Moscow, and Associated Press writers Ciaran Fahey in Berlin, Daniella Matar in Milan, Dusan Stojanovic in Belgrade, Mike Corder in The Hague, Netherlands, and Raf Casert in Brussels, Belgium, contributed to this report.

Steve Douglas is at http://www.twitter.com/sdouglas80

Mourinho: Midseason international friendlies don’t make sense

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Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United has a big challenge thanks to injuries and a club with far more international participants than the weekend’s Premier League rival.

It has the manager asking, frankly, why the friendlies?

While Phil Jones and Chris Smalling were injured in England training, not the friendly against Germany nor the World Cup qualifier versus Lithuania, Mourinho wonders why the national teams need to play relatively meaningless matches in the middle of club season.

[ MORE: Lamela out for rest of season ]

Mourinho says he is being careful not to be too vocal about his disappointment given that he’ll probably one day need those friendlies as an international boss. From Sky Sports:

“A couple of weeks before the Euros or a couple of weeks before the World Cup makes sense. But mid-season friendly matches mixed with qualification matches, I don’t think that makes sense.

“On top of that the matches are not really big matches so I am not a big fan. But I think one day I will be there so I cannot be very critical.”

Mourinho will be without Jones, Smalling, and Paul Pogba this weekend. He also has several internationals who won’t arrive back at Old Trafford until Thursday. United hosts West Brom on Saturday.

Lamela needs hip surgery, out for rest of Spurs season

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Tottenham Hotspur won’t be getting an Erik Lamela boost any time soon.

The 25-year-old winger will undergo surgery on his ailing hip this Saturday, costing him availability for Spurs’ stretch run and Argentina duty.

[ MORE: RSL hires Petke ]

Lamela has been missing since Oct. 29, and left Spurs lineup with the team unbeaten in the Premier League (5W-4D).

He registered a goal and an assist in PL play, adding a goal and four helpers in the side’s first two rounds of the EFL Cup and two assists in three Champions League matches.