Kaka screamer kickstarts title defence

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Michael Walker

BERLIN: Those expecting to watch some sort of carnival were given a football match instead. Pretty good it was, too, with World Cup holder and favourite Brazil edging past a durable Croatia.

This was no statement of intent from Brazil, though, and countries of the pedigree of Argentina will have observed how the Croatians carved out four good chances in the second half. The world will also have observed how ineffective Ronaldo was, hence his 69th-minute substitution.

An equaliser before or after that flashbulb moment would not have flattered Croatia. The team had Brazilian goalkeeper Dida to blame for that and its own shooting. On each occasion that a Croatian was given a glimpse of goal, the shot went straight at Dida.

Sadly for Croatia, Kaka was more discerning with his 44th-minute drive. It flew into the top right-hand corner of Stipe Pletikosa's net and ultimately decided the game. The win was Brazil's eighth win in a row in the finals, a record.

Kaka was the pick of the famed attacking quartet, with Ronaldinho lively early on and then late. In between, he was reined in by the experienced and inexhaustible Dario Simic. Of Adriano, there were only fleeting moments of pace and power and his enduring memory of the evening will be of the 73rd-minute eight-yard sitter he steered wide. The opportunity came from a cross-shot from Robinho, who replaced Ronaldo.

One-shot wonder

The man who scored twice in the last World Cup final is known increasingly for his waistline. What part it played in his display here will be known to the Brazil inner circle but there are inescapable facts regardless of his recent diet: he had one shot, off target, in the 56th minute.

Otherwise he was a minor link player. It is not enough from such a striker and he will wish to rectify it against Australia on Sunday. Ronaldo can argue that he cannot be that every time he pulls on a pair of boots; Brazil can argue that it is not the definition of football beauty every time the whistle blows.

There is an expectation to the contrary of course and on a pink, sunlit night in an atmospheric stadium you could understand it. But Brazil began the last World Cup with a somewhat scruffy victory over Turkey and there was never any sense here that Croatia would fulfil some patsy role.

Television pictures of Ronaldinho singing on the team bus while another player shook a tambourine stoked the anticipation and there were a couple of cotton-wool touches from Ronaldinho not long after kick-off. He then almost opened the scoring with a 16th-minute low curler that Juan dummied but Pletikosa saved expertly.

But Croatia showed some stubborn traits and, led by captain Niko Kovac, it also revealed some progressive ambitions. In the 39th minute a Dario Srna free-kick skidded just wide of Dida's post.

Kovac goes off

But then Kovac had to go off before half-time with injured ribs and to add to the pain, this was when Kaka struck. Collecting a short inside pass from the tireless Cafu, Kaka was given freedom of movement and edged towards the Croatian area. Defenders backed off while the man charged with marking him, Niko Kranjcar, got back too late. Kaka swept the ball in from 22 yards.

Kranjcar's irresponsibility may be costly. The coach's son is a controversial figure although had he been more accurate with a 90th-minute looping header he would now be a hero.

Srna was relentless down the left and if Croatia looked blunt in the first half, Dado Prso's endeavour upfront changed that after the interval. Prso, Ivan Klasnic and Marko Babic each fashioned chances; there were signs of vulnerability in Lucio and Juan.

Ahead of them, defensive midfielders Emerson and Ze Roberto were Brazil's best players. Emerson in particular made numerous interceptions and physical rescues.

As Brazil get into its rhythm, that situation will surely change as the tournament goes on, but as of Tuesday night it was slow, slow, 1-0 win. The carnival can wait.

Guardian Newspapers Limited 2006

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