By Andrew Downie
SAO PAULO (Reuters) - Brazil midfielder Oscar swiftly silenced his doubters with a commanding performance in the opening win over Croatia which established him as a key player in his team's bid to win the World Cup for a record sixth time.
Neymar took the man-of-the-match award for his two goals in the 3-1 victory but if Brazil's leading striker was the soloist, Oscar was the conductor.
His tenacity in midfield won the ball for Neymar to drive on and score the first goal and it was his pass to Fred that led to the dubious penalty which brought the second.
Oscar wrapped up the win with a well-taken goal in stoppage time, capping an all-round display which had the critics purring.
"Oscar, whose presence has been questioned because of discreet showings in recent friendlies, put in a mature performance," said Alvaro Oliveira Junior, a columnist with Lance! sports newspaper.
"He marked, he set up others, he got forward, and he was rewarded at the end with the third goal. FIFA chose Neymar as the man of the match and that wasn't unfair but if Oscar had won that wouldn't have been unfair either."
The 22-year old attempted twice as many dribbles as his next-highest team mate Neymar and only Marcelo was fouled more times.
The gala performance was surprising because the 22-year-old Chelsea player had been out of form in recent months.
After starting the English Premier League season strongly, he ended the campaign a peripheral figure at Chelsea.
His subdued performances in Brazil's last two warm-up matches against Panama and Serbia caused some people to call for manager Luiz Felipe Scolari to replace him with his Chelsea team mate Willian.
Oscar could well have been this year's Rai, the Sao Paulo playmaker who started the 1994 World Cup in the pivotal number 10 shirt but was dropped after the group stage and rarely got a look in as Brazil edged their way to the final and victory over Italy on penalties.
Oscar dispelled those concerns on Thursday and he was confident enough to hit back at the doubters himself.
"I had no need to prove anything to anybody," he told reporters.
"Felipao knows my quality, the way I play. And I just have to show him. Friendlies are one thing, you're more relaxed, but the World Cup is different. I showed that to the world."
(Editing by Ed Osmond)