The World Cup hasn’t truly started until Brazil come to the party and they face a stubborn if unimaginative Switzerland first up in Russia.
Neymar, fully fit after his injury worry, leads a scary looking line-up but the Swiss have a habit of making things tricky – having conceded just seven goals in 10 qualification games.
Below, we outline some of the key talking points set to play out in the Rostov Arena on Sunday.
They sealed qualification with four games to spare. Haven’t lost a game since Peru at the 2016 Copa America. Not conceded in six – if we’re putting their attacking prowess to one side – and beaten 2014 antagonists Germany in a friendly along the way.
The raw statistics, at least, say that this Brazilian team are best-placed to banish all seven of those Belo Horizonte demons that Die Mannschaft inflicted on them four years ago.
Well, fail in Russia and they possibly wouldn’t even be the best Brazil team to flop on the grandest stage. In 1982, when Socrates, Zico et al looked imperious before Paolo Rossi turfed them out of Spain in a famous 3-2 win for Italy.
What may work in their favour 36 years later is that Tite does not neglect his defence. Roberto Carlos, who was not the biggest fan of defending from left-back, recently rued that Brazil ‘have lost the essence of Brazilian football, which is offensive football’.
Either way it’s hard to accuse this side of championing boredom. Whether the current incumbents of the jersey share Carlos’ sentiments should worry Tite, however. Brazilians have never minded going rogue.
THE SWISS SQUEEZE
Going on recent history, the Swiss just love to stifle the so-called favourites and make us all wonder whether we should switch the channel over.
At Euro 2016 they throttled the life out of France in a 0-0 draw group-stage draw, and then dragged Poland to penalties in the last-16 before being knocked out.
Further back they actually deigned to entertain us for a brief spell at the World Cup before returning to the drudgery in the round of 32, Argentina compelled to sleep-walk through the game before Angel Di Maria surprised us all and scored … in the 28th minute of extra-time.
As a nation known for its clockwork and mandatory military service, it’s no surprise that efficiency and structure goes hand-in-hand with their football. Vladimir Petkovic is the perfect drill-sergeant.
It’s why it’s an intriguing, if not necessarily an exciting, first test for Brazil. Scoring against often sub-par South American defences, or playing in friendlies that lack intensity, is not a true yardstick for Brazil. If they can tear the Swiss apart it’ll really time to prick up your ears.
STANDING FIRM OVER JESUS
Want a measure of Brazil’s strength? In 2014 they were starting Fred (of Lyon ‘fame’, not Manchester United). This time Tite has the luxury of parking Roberto Firmino on the bench, perhaps the most uniquely effective forward in world football.
Given Tite’s advocacy of very un-Brazilian defending, Firmino would seem a perfect fit – he was the only Premier League player last season to make more than 60 tackles and create more than 50 chances.
That’s not to undersell Gabriel Jesus. Though his club campaign was much spottier, no thanks to a knee injury, Manchester City coach Pep Guardiola is besotted with the 21-year-old and more often than not prefers him to Sergio Aguero up top.
It could be argued that Jesus is the more out-and-out striker and predator in and around the box. The immediate counter would be that Firmino has taken a gargantuan step in his finishing this year with 27 goals in all competitions for Liverpool, dwarfing his previous-best 12.
Either way, it’d pay for Jesus to hit the ground running in Russia as Roberto’s only a smidgen behind.
Iran left it very late but they managed to win their first World Cup match in 20 years when they defeated Morocco 1-0 on Friday night.
Substitute Aziz Bouhaddouz scored an own goal in stoppage time to give Iran only their second triumph in World Cup history.
After the full-time whistle in Russia, Iranian fans took to the streets in Tehran to celebrate the victory.
Watch how they celebrated in the video below:
Heavily-fancied France left it late to secure a 2-1 victory over Australia in their Group C opener at Kazan Area in Tatarstan on Saturday.
Didier Deschamps’ men were frustrated for large parts of the contest in a match which will ultimately be remembered for the first VAR decision in the history of World Cup football.
Antoine Griezmann put France 1-0 up from the penalty spot on 58 minutes after VAR had been used following a tackle from Josh Risdon on the Atletico Madrid star.
The striker dispatched the opportunity before the Baggy Green levelled things up with a penalty of their own, three minutes and seven seconds later, through Mile Jedinak. Samuel Umtiti and his flailing right-arm was the guilty part there.
Australia full-back Aziz Behich then inadvertently deflected Paul Pogba’s effort into his own net with just a few minutes remaining.
Here, we look at the key talking points from the fixture.
VAR does its job as football history is made
The first use of the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) system in the World Cup went ahead without a hitch.
It would have been music to the ears of FIFA hierarchy to see technology do its job and not create any unwelcome headlines.
Some may argue Uruguayan referee Andres Cunha’s decision to halt play and review Antoine Griezmann’s surge into the penalty box, where he was brought down by defender Josh Ridson, was harsh. But, ultimately, there was contact – however slight – and the referee rightly felt that reviewing the decision with the help of VAR was the right call having not initially given the spot-kick.
He had every right to consult the officials, watch a pitchside video review and bring back the play after receiving assurances from VAR.
The law of VAR technology as a whole was introduced with differing opinions but the principle reasoning for its inclusion into the “Beautiful Game” was to correct “game-changing” decisions. Indeed, the type of calls where World Cup games are won and lost.
This was clearly one of those moments and Griezmann showed tremendous poise to keep his composure and stick away the resulting penalty.
The fact such a high-profile incident like this has happened so early on will have settled a few nerves in the officials’ video booth in Moscow.
Does it though spoil the fun, the drama, the human side of the game? Yes, to an extent, but when VAR works in your team’s favour, you’re not complaining.
Australia deserve praise for fighting spirit
The Australians can count themselves unfortunate to have been on the receiving end of a match-defining VAR decision.
In the end, there is every reason to believe it was the right decision but still, they will feel hard done by by the manner of the incident.
Managed by Dutch coach Bert van Marwijk for the first time in a competitive match, initially, the men from Down Under found the going tough but eased into the game with some crunching challenges and roughed France up, committing 19 fouls.
Although their forward play was limited, Australia’s performance was dogged enough with 23 tackles being proof of that.
When you are limited as a side in terms of creativity, pace and ingenuity on a football pitch, play to the strengths you do have. Australia did that with their set-piece situations.
Aaron Mooy, the one man in a yellow shirt who looked capable of making something happen, executed a free-kick opportunity from the right with aplomb, forcing Umtiti into a desperate handball.
Veteran Jedinak showed all his composure to prove his worth in the side from 12 yards.
Losing the game so late was a real sickener but a sign of a lack of inexperience and lack of awareness to not sit deep and get men behind the ball when France were attacking.
The World Cup is a harsh place for lessons to be learned.
With Denmark to come next Thursday and then a final day fixture against Peru, they shouldn’t be ruled out just yet.
Bright signs for the French, but plenty of work to do
You have to admire Deschamps’ bravery. The French boss pretty much ripped up Les Bleus’ entire plans before the opener, ditching his favoured 4-4-2 formation for a 4-3-1-2.
Designed to make the most out of Paul Pogba and fit Mbappe-Griezmann-Dembele into one line-up, France used full-backs Lucas Hernandez and Benjamin Pavard early on, but the rigidness of N’Golo Kante and Corentin Tolisso undid the attacking instincts he was looking for.
Griezmann, who was deployed in a deeper No.10 role, didn’t look totally comfortable and seemed a bit out-of-sync not being the main focal point of the side. Indeed, he was far from his usual self when bursting through the middle to win the resulting penalty.
Fresh legs were needed when Nabil Fekir and Olivier Giroud were introduced for Ousmane Dembele and Griezmann with twenty minutes to go. The Atleti hitman was unlucky to be hooked in a series of managerial calls in which left those watching bemused.
Between now and Peru next Thursday, Deschamps has plenty of work to do with his side on the training ground.