Belgium’s golden generation come through to knock Brazil out

This was Belgium’s last chance. With their golden generation hitting their peak, a World Cup quarter-finals appearance wasn’t going to be good enough for a talented group of stars. To fulfil their immense potential as a team, they simply needed to win. Unfortunately, they were up against Brazil. A draw in their last group stage game would have taken them on a softer path, one which didn’t include the Brazilians (or the French, the team that would play the winner of the highly-anticipated clash). Instead, they won the last group stage match, and here they were. It’s hard to know how many people gave them a chance against Brazil. Belgium were good, but Brazil…were Brazil. They win things, and this team looked capable of winning things. Then Belgium delivered an inspired 90 minute performance which ended Brazil’s tournament and, once again, threw the race for the 2018 World Cup wide open.

The game started very openly. There was chaos in the Belgian penalty area when Neymar’s corner was flicked on by Miranda for Thiago Silva, who hit the post from very close range. Belgium survived and counter-attacked, with Romelu Lukaku, Kevin de Bruyne and Eden Hazard combining dangerously against the stretched Brazilian defence. Paulinho had a pair of chances minutes later, firstly running onto the ball as it bounced around in Belgium’s box and then miscuing another flicked on Brazilian corner. Less than 10 minutes had been played, and every single second had been played at breakneck pace. Someone was going to score. It was inevitable.

Somewhat surprisingly, it was Belgium who took the lead. De Bruyne was in sparkling touch, and his incisive ball found Marouane Fellaini on the edge of the box. His shot was deflected out for a corner, which was swung in to the near post. Brazil didn’t defend Hazard’s corner particularly well, and Vincent Kompany was able to get his head on the ball to flick it on for a teammate. It never reached one of his teammates. Instead, it bounced off Fernandinho’s arm as the Brazilian midfielder attempted to block it, and it rebounded into the back of the net. Brazil were behind.

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Kevin de Bruyne scores Belgium’s second goal from just outside the box. De Bruyne was back to his best, and his first half performance gave Belgium an ultimately unassailable lead.

Now in an unfamiliar and uncomfortable position, Brazil kept pushing. They drove the Belgian defence back, but Gabriel Jesus couldn’t quite force the ball in from inside the six-yard box. Belgium’s desperate defence cleared – just. Philippe Coutinho had a chance to unleash his lethal right foot when he found space outside the box, but he drilled his shot straight at Belgian goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois. Meanwhile, Belgium continued to pose an attacking threat of their own. Hazard somehow worked his way out of a congested area to burst into space, and Thomas Meunier’s subsequent cross nearly connected with Lukaku in the centre. De Bruyne did connect with Lukaku in the box when he found space on the break, but the big striker wasn’t quite able to get his shot off. Brazil kept pushing, and Marcelo forced Courtois into a save. Then Belgium went forward, Hazard and de Bruyne combined, and Brazil once again scrambled to clear. It was fast, end-to-end action, and both sides looked capable of breaking each other down at any given moment.

One team looked certain to score before the half was up. It was Belgium, not Brazil. Ever since they took the lead, they had threatened to turn one of their counter-attacks into a potent opportunity. When a cleared Brazilian corner found Lukaku, their break delivered. Lukaku simultaneously held off those behind him and took on those in front as he made a barnstorming run to the middle of the field, and he managed to squirt out a pass to the influential de Bruyne just before his momentum finally dissipated. The unmanned de Bruyne took a shot and didn’t miss, leaving Alisson with no chance as he drilled his unstoppable strike into the bottom corner. It was bad enough being behind. Now it was panic stations.

Naturally, Brazil kept pushing harder. Courtois was forced into a pair of tough saves in a matter of seconds, first keeping Marcelo’s deflected cross out with his outstretched hand and then flinging himself to his left to punch Coutinho’s well-placed shot away. Then, in keeping with the rhythm of the game, Belgium countered, and Hazard, Lukaku and de Bruyne threatened again. Shortly afterwards, Alisson tipped de Bruyne’s free-kick over the bar, and was tested again from the resultant corner when Kompany’s back-heeled flick was on target. Neymar hadn’t been too much of a factor, and the Brazilian star was thwarted thrice as the half came to a close. Firstly, he was set upon by Belgium’s afroed central midfield duo of Fellaini and Axel Witsel, and then he was stopped by club teammate Meunier. At the end of the half, he slipped in behind – and he was stopped by the offside flag.

The second half picked up where the first had left off. Kompany dispossessed Neymar and kick-started a counter-attack which saw de Bruyne play Lukaku through. Miranda, Brazil’s captain of the week, managed to stop him. Marcelo played in a few dangerous crosses, but they couldn’t find a target in the middle. Neymar went down in the box and appealed for a penalty, which wasn’t awarded. Paulinho nearly broke through minutes later, but Courtois saved his shot and Brazil couldn’t get onto his follow-up ball across goal. Another penalty appeal came when Kompany brought Gabriel Jesus down. The video assistant referee deliberated for what seemed like an age before deciding no error had been made. Play on. Then, after a protracted period of desperate defending, Belgium broke, and very nearly scored. De Bruyne (again) teed up Hazard (again), and the Belgian captain’s shot fizzed across the face of goal.

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Belgium’s players celebrate after the historic victory. They were pushed right to the end, but they held on well to progress to the semi-finals.

It soon seemed like Brazil’s attacks were beginning to falter. They still had chances, like when Courtois turned a cross into Paulinho’s leg, but Brazil weren’t coming quite as hard or as dangerously. Then Renato Augusto scored. He hadn’t been on the pitch for a long time, coming on as Tite’s last throw of the dice. Then things opened up for him with Coutinho’s perfect chip into the box, and he headed it into the bottom corner where Courtois couldn’t reach it. Brazil had hope, and they had Belgium on the back foot.

For the last 15 minutes, Brazil were a reinvigorated team. Neymar teed up Roberto Firmino in the centre, but the ball was blasted over the bar. Coutinho found Augusto on the edge of the box, and Augusto’s shot just missed. Neymar found Coutinho, for what should have been a simple chance for the star midfielder. He couldn’t have hit a worse shot if he tried, with the ball flying sideways instead of at the target. In the dying moments, Neymar had a shot after combining well with Douglas Costa. It looked perfect. It was dipping, bending and arcing dangerously towards the top corner. It was set to loop perfectly under the bar. It was set to become Neymar’s heroic moment. Then a black glove appeared and tapped the ball out for a corner. Courtois was too good for it.

As the final whistle sounded, it confirmed a win that had looked likely for some time. That didn’t mute the Belgian celebrations, however. De Bruyne was masterful, Hazard was dangerous, Courtois nearly unbeatable and the defence rock-solid. The contrast with Brazil was striking. Neymar occasionally threatened, but was nowhere near his best. Philippe Coutinho was similarly off his game. Fernandinho, in the side for regular defensive midfielder Casemiro, had a catastrophic 90 minutes, and right-back Fagner was tormented by Hazard. Brazil weren’t good enough, and Belgium most certainly were. In the end, the golden generation took their last chance. After the biggest win in their footballing history, they are a huge chance of lifting the World Cup.

Kazan – Kazan Arena
Brazil 1 (Renato Augusto 76)
Belgium 2 (Fernandinho 13 og, de Bruyne 31)
Referee: Milorad Mažić
Brazil (4-2-3-1): Alisson – Fagner, Thiago Silva, Miranda, Marcelo; Paulinho (Renato Augusto 73), Fernandinho; Willian (Roberto Firmino 46), Philippe Coutinho, Neymar; Gabriel Jesus (Douglas Costa 58).
Belgium (3-4-3): Courtois – Alderweireld, Kompany, Vertonghen; Meunier, Fellaini, Witsel, Chadli (Vermaelen 83); de Bruyne, Lukaku (Tielemans 87), E Hazard.

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Thibaut Courtois dives full length to stop Philippe Coutinho’s long range effort. The save was one of many remarkable stops made by Courtois in his brilliant performance.

Top 5
1. Thibaut Courtois (Belgium)
It took an immense effort, a perfect cross and an even more perfect header to eventually beat Courtois, and even Renato Augusto’s perfectly-placed effort wasn’t too far away from the Belgian goalkeeper’s desperate clutches. When Belgium needed him to stand up, he delivered, and he was the match-winner with his heroic goalkeeping.
2. Kevin de Bruyne (Belgium)
Before this game, de Bruyne hadn’t been at his best. He was playing in a deeper midfield role, and he wasn’t getting on the ball in dangerous areas. Then he was moved into a more advanced position. From the start, de Bruyne was pulling the strings, floating into space and seemingly making something happen with every touch. His impact waned after half time, but his first half was enough.
3. Eden Hazard (Belgium)
When Hazard and de Bruyne combined, Brazil were put under immense pressure. Hazard was free to roam, and he made Fagner look completely out of his depth with some exceptional displays of skill. His balance, poise and ability caught the Brazilians out, and his counter-attacking runs were invaluable in the dying minutes for the time they chewed up.
4. Douglas Costa (Brazil)
Costa came off the bench, and he looked more likely to have an impact than many of his teammates. He made incisive runs cutting in from the right wing, he played some dangerous crosses and he connected well with the rest of the Brazilian attack. It wasn’t his best tournament, but a lively performance was a good way to finish it.
5. Vincent Kompany (Belgium)
Kompany wasn’t able to start in the group stage due to injury, but Belgium took the risk of picking their former captain despite his troubles. In their biggest ever win, he justified that selection. His defensive work was outstanding, and he was a huge factor in Belgium’s ability to keep the Brazilians out. To cap it off, it was his header that was deflected in for the crucial opening goal.

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Mexico’s fight not enough against clinical Brazilians

Fernandinho picked out Neymar in acres of space. It was a rare treat for Neymar, who had seemingly been hacked, stamped on and brutalised every time he received the ball. With Mexico’s defence caught out, Brazil’s talismanic winger surged forward, revelling in the chance to show his markers a clean pair of heels. Unlike Mexico’s attackers, whose play was riddled with unnecessary touches in the final third, Neymar just ran straight at the Mexican goal, making no beelines and clearly outstripping the futile attempts to pursue him. Eventually, he found himself one-on-one with Guillermo Ochoa, and with a brilliant chance to score his second goal and seal Brazil’s place in the quarter-finals. Ochoa, not for the first time, denied Brazil with an excellent save, getting his foot to Neymar’s shot to keep it from finding the back of the net. Not for the first time, his defence let him down. Roberto Firmino, introduced from the bench a few minutes earlier, won the race to the ball, and scored with a straightforward tap in. Brazil were through, and Mexico’s World Cup campaign was over.

Brazil looked distinctly off colour in the opening exchanges as Mexico started confidently. The Mexicans never really threatened Alisson in the Brazilian goal, with many of their attempts being blocked and most of their attacks lacking a clinical touch in the final third, but the warning signs were there. More worryingly for Brazil, their attacks looked disjointed and unthreatening, and they didn’t lay a glove on the Mexican defence for much of the first half hour. At one point, Brazil won a throw-in, and Fagner managed to throw it to none of his teammates. Mexico went up the field dangerously, but Hirving Lozano couldn’t complete a cross in the final third. That one piece of play was an almost perfect representation of Brazil’s fragility and Mexico’s poor conversion of opportunities.

Then Neymar made something happen. He danced past Edson Álvarez and Hugo Ayala, and forced Guillermo Ochoa into a save with a shot from a ridiculously tight angle. He never had a realistic chance of scoring, but the ball began to ping around the Mexican defence, causing chaos at every turn. When Philippe Coutinho blasted a shot over the bar Mexico could breathe after a minute or two of goalmouth action, but the warning was clear. Mexico hadn’t forced Alisson into a difficult save despite all of their dangerous-looking attacks, while one run from Neymar had nearly broken their defence open.

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Roberto Firmino scores Brazil’s second goal from point-blank range. Firmino’s goal snuffed out any hopes Mexico had of causing an upset and progressing to the quarter-finals.

There were more signs of Brazil’s danger in the minutes that followed. Neymar found space on the left, and only an excellent slide tackle from Álvarez kept him from breaking through. More bedlam in the box ensued when Gabriel Jesus ran into space and fired a left-footed shot at Ochoa, who parried it away. Even that wasn’t enough, as Brazil got another shot away and it had to be cleared off the line. Neymar won a free-kick, and Álvarez found himself in the book, when the young right-back kicked at the ball and instead upended the Brazilian superstar rather emphatically. Neymar’s free-kick whizzed past the bar. Brazil had found their mojo, and it wasn’t looking too good for Mexico when the half time whistle blew.

Brazil kept pushing after the break, and they were soon ahead. They started well as Coutinho ran straight through the Mexican defence and Ochoa needed all of his reflexes to bat the ball away. They scored a few minutes later. Neymar started it, darting in from the left and playing a brilliant back-heel for Willian as the Brazilian wingers crossed over. Willian took a fraction of a second to weigh up his options before taking a heavy touch and bursting past the Mexican defence to find space in the box. His dangerous ball across goal beat Ochoa’s dive, and no Mexican defender was there to clear the ball away. Instead, Jesus and Neymar were sliding in, hoping to capitalise. Jesus just missed it, but Neymar connected and steered the ball into the back of the net.

Mexico kept playing with verve and ambition, but they couldn’t break down the Brazilian defence. Alisson finally needed to make a save when Vela unleashed a dangerous looking shot on the break, and he casually tipped the ball over the bar. His manner suggested he could have saved the shot with his eyes closed. Mostly, however, they took one touch too many, or missed passes, or did both. In the end, Brazil’s centre-backs had a busy but not too difficult time getting in the way of Mexico’s attempts on goal, and the Mexicans didn’t really look like scoring. It was a different story at the other end, where Ochoa was still making all of the tough saves. He needed to act quickly to deny Paulinho and Willian after good attacking moves, and Brazil’s attacks seemed to become more and more threatening as Mexico pushed harder and space began to open up.

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Neymar reacts after receiving a stamp on the foot from Miguel Layún. Layún wasn’t punished for the incident, but it showed the heated nature of the contest.

In the middle of it all, there were the fouls. Neymar, and to a lesser extent his teammates, were treated very physically by the Mexican defenders, culminating in a touchline incident which left Neymar writhing on the ground in seeming agony and Miguel Layún fiercely protesting his innocence. More fouls were committed as the game drew on, most of them emanating from overly rough Mexican defence, but Brazil kept their heads and kept marching on. The second goal, starting with some good play in the middle and displaying the clinical touch Mexico lacked, was a fitting way to end a slightly nervous but ultimately comfortable win. They’re in the quarter-finals, and they are sure to be a tough opponent.

Samara – Cosmos Arena
Brazil 2 (Neymar 51, Roberto Firmino 88)
Mexico 0
Referee: Gianluca Rocchi (Ita)
Brazil (4-2-3-1): Alisson – Fagner, Thiago Silva, Miranda, Filipe Luís; Paulinho (Fernandinho 80), Casemiro; Willian (Marquinhos 90+1), Philippe Coutinho (Roberto Firmino 86), Neymar; Gabriel Jesus.
Mexico (4-3-3): Ochoa – Álvarez (J dos Santos 55), Ayala, Salcedo, Gallardo; Herrera, Márquez (Layún 46), Guardado; Lozano, Hernández (Jiménez 60), Vela.

Top 5
1. Willian (Brazil)
Willian was patchy in the group stages, but he found his best form against Mexico with a dynamic performance on the right wing. He created Neymar’s first goal, and plenty of good things came when he ran at the Mexican defence with purpose and composure. Above all, he looked confident, something that bodes well for the road ahead.
2. Neymar (Brazil)
Neymar knows how to make things happen. He won countless free-kicks thanks to Mexico’s overly physical treatment of him, but he continued to get up and he was rewarded with a goal and an assist. When he had space to run with the ball he put the Mexicans under pressure.
3. Guillermo Ochoa (Mexico)
Ochoa completed a brilliant tournament with another stunning performance in the Mexican goal, parrying a number of dangerous looking shots to safety and repelling attack after attack with his reflexes and excellent positioning. It’s hard to know what more he could have done.
4. Philippe Coutinho (Brazil)
Coutinho’s excellent form continued with another strong effort in attacking midfield, and his combinations with almost all of his teammates had good results. He worked into little pockets of space perfectly, and he found plenty of room to take on his dangerous shots from outside the box. He looks like the creative force Brazil need to go a long way.
5. Andrés Guardado (Mexico)
With Rafael Márquez drafted into the starting line-up Guardado was freed to push further up the field early on, and he challenged the Brazilians with some good runs and some dangerous crosses. In the second half, with Márquez removed, he played well in a more defensive role, showing his versatility and his determination to give his all.

Brazil cruise past outclassed Serbians

On a day where Germany’s World Cup title defence came to an end in shocking circumstances, and in a World Cup where other major footballing powers have struggled, you could have forgiven Brazil for being a little nervous heading into their final group game against Serbia. They were widely expected to win, but they entered the field in the full knowledge that a loss would almost certainly eliminate them and cause a national crisis in Brazil. It’s fair to say they were under a fair bit of pressure. They delivered, putting in a commanding performance and never really giving the Serbians a chance.

The game started fairly slowly, with few chances for either side in the opening minutes as Brazil occasionally threatened but couldn’t quite finish off their most dangerous attacks. Serbia settled in well, aided by star Brazilian left-back Marcelo’s bizarre ailment and his substitution in the first 10 minutes of the match. Brazil seemed to be in control of the game, but they didn’t really look like breaking through against a well-set Serbian defence. Then, just after the first half hour, they went ahead.

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Paulinho (right) scores Brazil’s first goal past Serbian goalkeeper Vladimir Stojković. Paulinho’s dangerous forward runs from midfield broke the game open for Brazil by splitting the Serbian defence.

The goal came out of nowhere, and was completely unsurprising at the same time. It was inevitable that there would be a goal, and that the goal would probably come from Brazil, but Brazil’s play in the preceding minutes didn’t really suggest that the breakthrough was imminent. The goal itself was spectacular. Paulinho made an incisive, defence-splitting run from the centre of midfield, and Philippe Coutinho’s lofted through ball picked him out perfectly. Vladimir Stojković rushed forward, but he couldn’t beat Paulinho to the ball and he didn’t stand a chance as it was lifted over his head with one touch. The Serbian defence began an on-the-spot inquiry into what had gone wrong, but it didn’t change the fact that they were in deep trouble.

Brazil had some more chances to double their lead before and after the break, with Neymar sending a shot fizzing just wide of the target and having another attempt denied by Stojković, but they didn’t add to their lead. Then, around the hour mark, Serbia began to hit some form. Aleksandar Mitrović had started the game quietly, but for a few minutes he came to life and nearly scored. Mitrović had his best chance when Brazilian goalkeeper Alisson knocked a cross straight to the big striker. Somehow, he headed it straight into an otherwise helpless Thiago Silva, and the ball bounced mercifully back to a very grateful Alisson. The ball began to go into dangerous positions, and Mitrović had another chance to score when Fagner found himself horribly outmatched by the towering Serbian frontman. Once again, his header wasn’t good enough, and this time the shot flew straight at Alisson. Then, just as Serbia seemed primed to push for a leveller, Brazil pulled further ahead.

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Thiago Silva (left) heads home Brazil’s second goal from Neymar’s well-delivered corner. Silva’s goal killed off any hope Serbia had of snatching an improbable victory.

Neymar started it, swinging a flat corner into the front post. Miranda and Thiago Silva, Brazil’s centre backs, were waiting amongst a mass of bodies. Miranda and Mitrović collided and both fell to the turf, leaving everyone in disarray and allowing Silva to take advantage of the confusion. Nikola Milenković was there, but he couldn’t stop Silva’s header from burying itself in the top corner. If Serbia had harboured hopes of reaching the knockout stages, Silva’s goal ended them in an emphatic manner.

Brazil kept pushing for a third in the closing moments, with Neymar putting a shot over the bar and Stojković making a number of strong saves to keep the Serbians from getting blown out. It didn’t get any worse, but that was scant consolation as they exited the tournament to a Brazilian team who were not spectacular, but more than good enough on the day. They never really looked like losing, and their consistency is sure to make them a dangerous opponent going forward.

Moscow – Otkritie Arena
Serbia 0
Brazil 2 (Paulinho 36, Thiago Silva 68)
Referee: Alireza Faghani (Irn)
Serbia (4-2-3-1): Stojković – Rukavina, Milenković, Veljković, Kolarov; Matić, Milinković-Savić; Tadić, Ljajić (Živković 75), Kostić (Radonjić 82); Mitrović.
Brazil (4-2-3-1): Alisson – Fagner, Thiago Silva, Miranda, Marcelo (Filipe Luís 10); Paulinho (Fernandinho 66), Casemiro; Willian, Philippe Coutinho (Renato Augusto 80), Neymar; Gabriel Jesus.

Top 5
1. Neymar (Brazil)
Neymar has grown into the tournament with every game, and he put in a strong performance to seal Brazil’s passage to the knockout stages. He was unlucky not to score his second goal of the tournament as he found himself denied on a number of occasions, but he picked up an assist and had a big impact.
2. Philippe Coutinho (Brazil)
Coutinho picked up an assist with a perfectly weighted pass for Paulinho, and he continued to create chances with his ability to find space and use the ball well. He has been in stunning form, and another quality performance means he will be a real worry for anyone facing the Brazilians.
3. Vladimir Stojković (Serbia)
Some of Stojković’s saves were excellent, especially a one-on-one stop to deny Neymar. He kept Brazil’s lead to just two with his smart positioning and excellent reading of the play, and was the only thing keeping them in the game by the end of it.
4. Paulinho (Brazil)
Paulinho made some great forward runs from midfield, and he got himself a goal by splitting the defence and pushing forward well. His run to break through the solid Serbian defence was excellent, and he broke the game open with his hard work and ability to time his attacking runs to perfection.
5. Filipe Luís (Brazil)
For many teams, losing a full-back of Marcelo’s quality in the first 10 minutes would trigger panic. For Brazil, it just triggered the release of Atlético Madrid left-back Luís – one of the world’s best – into the fray. Luís slotted in seamlessly, and his quality will give Marcelo the chance to recover fully. His excellent performance shows just how deep this Brazilian team is.

Brazil’s dominance pays off in last-gasp victory

Neymar wept. As Björn Kuipers blew the final whistle, Brazil’s star player sank to his knees in the middle of the pitch and let his emotions show after a 98 minute rollercoaster ride. Neymar had shown flashes of ridiculous skill and flashes of petulance, drawn a penalty and then had it revoked, and, at the end of it all, scored Brazil’s second goal with the last kick of the game. His performance was ambiguous: there were so many highs and lows that it wasn’t necessarily clear whether he was dominating or disappointing. The same could be said of his team, who controlled every aspect of the match but came very close to being left frustrated. It was a tough day for the Brazilians, but was it a good one? It’s complicated.

Brazil started the game with overwhelming control over possession and territory, but they couldn’t find the spark to break down a very well organised Costa Rican defence. Instead, it was Costa Rica who had the best chance of the first 15 minutes, against the run of play. It came from Cristian Gamboa, who ran past Marcelo and found space to pull the ball into the centre. The cut-back found an open Celso Borges as he pushed forward from midfield, but the shot was wide and didn’t test Alisson in the Brazilian goal. Neymar excited the fans when he flicked the ball over Gamboa and charged forward into space, but he found himself faced with a wall of Costa Rican defenders and he was eventually fouled from behind by Johan Venegas. He took the resultant free-kick, but put it too close to Costa Rica’s goal and Keylor Navas claimed it easily.

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Philippe Coutinho takes a shot from outside the box. Coutinho was one of Brazil’s best players, but his long shots didn’t quite have the desired effect against brilliant Costa Rican keeper Keylor Navas.

Then, after a slow start, things started to open up. It started with a disallowed goal. Brazil found a bit of space on the break, and Marcelo found space to put a mishit shot into the box. It found Gabriel Jesus, but the young striker’s thunderous close-range shot into the top corner didn’t count due to his clearly offside position. It was a better move from Brazil, and it kick-started five minutes of breathtaking play. Neymar began to make lethal runs over the back, and his combination with Marcelo and Philippe Coutinho created space for both men to target the Costa Rican goal from range. Unfortunately for Brazil, their opponents held firm. At one point, Paulinho found his way into space on the break, but he didn’t get the delivery right and allowed Costa Rica time to get back.

The second half didn’t begin well for Costa Rica. An early mistake by Bryan Oviedo, whose back pass caught Navas by surprise, resulted in a turnover on the edge of the box and a chance for Neymar from the resulting cross. In the first half, such an opportunity tended to be followed by something of a lull. This time, Brazil didn’t let up, and with their next attack Fagner found Jesus in the middle. Jesus hit the bar, but Paulinho ensured Brazil weren’t done yet. He won the ball from the rebound and teed up Coutinho, who was only denied by Gamboa’s sharp block. Paulinho was soon pushing higher up the pitch, and he started creating more opportunities. He found Neymar in the middle, but Navas superbly tapped the shot over the bar. Soon after, he teed up Coutinho on the break, but the shot was hit straight at Navas and the goalkeeper gathered it comfortably. As the heat started to go out of the game once again, Costa Rica continued to hold on to the deadlock. Neymar had a brilliant opportunity when he found himself in acres of space on the edge of the box, with the ball at his feet. He missed, and it just didn’t seem like Brazil’s day.

Then they won a penalty. Douglas Costa drove a wedge through the Costa Rican defence, and found Gabriel Jesus in a good position. He found Neymar, who drew contact from Giancarlo González as he looked to work his way into a shooting position. It was minimal, but the Brazilian star fell backwards theatrically, and Kuipers pointed to the spot. There was relief for Brazil, until the video assistant referee got involved. Upon review, Neymar’s attempt to win a penalty from little contact was exposed, the protests of Costa Rica’s indignant players were upheld and the game remained scoreless. It seemed to be too much for Brazil to take.

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Neymar (front) and Philippe Coutinho celebrate after Neymar’s late goal. It was an up-and-down game for Neymar, but the goal allowed him to finish on a high.

After the overruled penalty things began to get frustrating. Neymar was booked, not for exaggerating González’s contact but for slamming the ball to the ground in frustration when Johnny Acosta lay on the ground taking an injury break. Then, for good measure, Coutinho was booked a few seconds later. Acosta was booked for his delay in taking a throw, and then both he and Óscar Duarte spent lengthy periods on the ground – at the same time. When Navas collided with Roberto Firmino in the box and spent a long time getting up, the Brazilians weren’t hiding their indignation. As the clock passed 90 minutes with scores still level, it seemed like Costa Rica would, against all odds, deny the Brazilians.

Then the goal came. This time there was no heartbreak for the Brazilians, and no VAR concerns. There was just a simple ball into the box, a good header and a thunderous finish. Marcelo provided the ball, crossing it in high towards Firmino. He launched himself at the ball, won it down and found Jesus, who was waiting in the middle and was more than capable of tapping the ball into the space to his left. It would have been in keeping with Brazil’s luck on the day if no player had been there to capitalise on the dangerous touch. Now, after over 90 minutes, the ball finally broke for them. Coutinho was there, storming into the box, and he slammed it home through Navas’ legs to give Brazil the lead. On the sidelines, coach Tite was so excited that he charged onto the pitch, lost his balance and crashed to the turf. He didn’t care. With Costa Rica’s resistance finally broken, Neymar managed to bag a goal with a 97th minute tap-in, a happy end to a stressful day at the office. Brazil won, and maybe that’s all that matters.

Saint Petersburg – Krestovsky Stadium
Brazil 2 (Philippe Coutinho 90+1, Neymar 90+7)
Costa Rica 0
Referee: Björn Kuipers (Ned)
Brazil (4-2-3-1): Alisson – Fagner, Thiago Silva, Miranda, Marcelo; Casemiro, Paulinho (Roberto Firmino 68); Willian (Douglas Costa 46), Philippe Coutinho, Neymar; Gabriel Jesus (Fernandinho 90+3).
Costa Rica (5-4-1): Navas – Gamboa (Calvo 75), Acosta, González, Duarte, Oviedo; Venegas, Borges, Guzmán (Tejeda 83), Ruiz; Ureña (Bolaños 54).

Top 5
1. Philippe Coutinho (Brazil)
Coutinho was everywhere for the Brazilians, mostly operating alongside Neymar on the left but also drifting all over the pitch to good effect. He scored the breakthrough goal with a perfectly timed run into the box, and he was always on hand to play a dangerous pass or unleash a shot from distance.
2. Keylor Navas (Costa Rica)
Navas managed to keep a dominant Brazil at bay for over 90 minutes, yet managed to never really look challenged by some high-class attacking players. Somehow, he always seemed to be in the perfect position, and his efforts very nearly allowed Costa Rica to pull off a huge upset.
3. Neymar (Brazil)
Neymar’s game was far from flawless, but at the end of an up-and-down game he came out on top. He was involved in almost everything, and he made things happen every time he got the ball. Some of his moments of skill, like a ridiculous rainbow flick over Yeltsin Tejeda in the dying moments, had to be seen to be believed.
4. Gabriel Jesus (Brazil)
Jesus was very active all game, and created plenty of chances with his hard work getting into dangerous spots. He provided the assist for the opening goal and the last pass before Neymar’s near penalty, and he made a lot of handy little contributions to Brazil’s attacking moves.
5. Paulinho (Brazil)
Paulinho started the game in the centre of midfield, but he gradually pushed forward and began to create some brilliant chances. His combination with Coutinho was excellent, and he was among the most influential players on the pitch in the few minutes before a slightly premature substitution.

Underwhelming Brazilians held by dogged Switzerland

Neymar surged into the box, looking as threatening as ever as he challenged the determined Swiss defence. Brazil’s star had started the game slightly quietly, with Switzerland closing him down aggressively every time he got the ball. Now, with options aplenty available to him, he decided to pass the ball out wide, where Marcelo was waiting after one of his customary attacking runs from left-back. Marcelo’s cross left a little to be desired, and Steven Zuber easily headed it away. Unfortunately for Zuber and Switzerland, it was Philippe Coutinho who controlled the ball outside the box, took a shot, and watched as it rebounded off the post and went in. It was a stunning goal, leaving Yann Sommer with no chance as it swerved devilishly into the back of the net. After 20 minutes, the goal gave Brazil the lead, and it seemed like the first goal of many to come.

Brazil had controlled the early part of the match. Switzerland started the game solidly, but they were merely keeping their more skilful opponents at bay and posed little attacking threat to a much improved Brazilian defence. Meanwhile, Brazil’s lethal front four of Neymar, Coutinho, Gabriel Jesus and Willian probed the Swiss defence, working on finding a way through. As solid as Switzerland looked, it was only a matter of time. When Coutinho and Neymar combined delightfully to give Paulinho a shot from just a couple of metres away, Switzerland were very lucky not to concede. Soon Brazil were in full flight, combining brilliantly and giving their opponents plenty of trouble. When they took the lead, they didn’t seem ready to stop. They looked like pushing on and announcing their intentions with an emphatic victory.

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Neymar (left) attempts to get past Valon Behrami. Behrami and Neymar had a key battle throughout the night, and the experienced Swiss midfielder generally came out on top.

Then, just like that, Brazil stopped pushing. Tite formed his team up into a solid defensive structure, and happily allowed the Swiss to control the ball and get themselves back in the game. For the rest of the half, there were no slick passing moves, just a well-organised defensive wall which was prepared to hold the lead. For their part, Switzerland had little chance of breaking through. They too were happy to settle, and their ball movement was too slow to seriously challenge a disciplined back four. With no real outlet for their control of possession and territory, the Swiss never threatened, but Brazil’s cautious approach meant they never looked like going further behind either. Brazil seemed comfortable enough.

Then disaster struck. Less than five minutes after half time, Brazil’s previously organised defence faltered. Xherdan Shaqiri’s corner was swung into the six-yard box, where Zuber was apparently unmarked and in a perfect position to head home from point blank range. The Swiss were back level, and Brazil’s strategy of sitting deep and continuing to repel their opponents’ rather feeble attacks had failed. Now they had to get themselves back on the front foot, but regaining the lead was easier said than done.

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Xherdan Shaqiri looks to move forward with the ball. Shaqiri provided the assist for Switzerland’s goal, and was always dangerous on the break.

Fernandinho took a couple of very ambitious long shots, one of which flew deep into the stands behind the Brazilian goal. Coutinho got space to take another shot in a difficult position, but it was blocked and his follow-up shot was emphatically denied as well. Another chance went begging when Coutinho attempted a shot from fairly close range, and it swerved dramatically – in the wrong direction. Jesus went down in the box, but referee César Ramos was unmoved by Brazil’s appeals for a penalty. In the meantime, the Swiss defence was rock solid, and the dangerous Shaqiri was beginning to find some space on the break.

The chances kept on coming. Roberto Firmino arrived off the bench and challenged Sommer with two very good headers. The Swiss keeper was up to the task. Neymar could have bundled in a cross, but he could only volley it straight at Sommer, who saved it comfortably. As time expired, Brazil could have scored from a Neymar free-kick, a Willian corner and Miranda’s well-hit volley which rolled just wide of the post. The Swiss played their roles to perfection, and when the final whistle blew they thoroughly deserved to take their share of the points. In the dying moments, a massive red balloon managed to find it’s way into Brazil’s penalty area, with Brazilian keeper Alisson popping it with an emphatic stamp. It was an indictment on Brazil that Alisson’s efficient removal of the balloon was one of the most clinical things any Brazilian did all day.

Rostov-on-Don – Rostov Arena
Brazil 1 (Philippe Coutinho 20)
Switzerland 1 (Zuber 50)
Referee: César Ramos (Mex)
Brazil (4-2-3-1): Alisson – Danilo, Thiago Silva, Miranda, Marcelo; Casemiro (Fernandinho 60), Paulinho (Renato Augusto 67); Willian, Philippe Coutinho, Neymar; Gabriel Jesus (Roberto Firmino 79).
Switzerland (4-2-3-1): Sommer – Lichtsteiner (Lang 87), Schär, Akanji, Rodríguez; Behrami (Zakaria 71), Xhaka; Shaqiri, Džemaili, Zuber; Seferović (Embolo 80).

Top 5
1. Manuel Akanji (Switzerland)
Akanji was remarkably composed for a 22-year-old in just his eighth international, and he provided plenty of solidity in central defence. He won the ball when he needed to and was more than capable of handling the threats of Brazil’s dynamic and skilled attackers. He was Switzerland’s most solid defender, and he will take massive confidence from his brilliant performance.
2. Philippe Coutinho (Brazil)
Coutinho was Brazil’s most dangerous attacking player, operating in between attack and central midfield and working his way into dangerous spaces. His strike to put Brazil into the lead was one of the best goals of the tournament thus far, and the bend he was able to put on the ball was, at times, scarcely believable. If he keeps his form up he will be nearly impossible to contain.
3. Valon Behrami (Switzerland)
Behrami managed to win a place in the starting line-up over young gun Denis Zakaria, and he relied on his experience to ensure that he did not disappoint. He did a particularly good job in containing the influence of Neymar with good closing speed and an excellent physical presence, and made a big difference while he was on the pitch. To cap it off, he also became the first Swiss player to play in four World Cups.
4. Xherdan Shaqiri (Switzerland)
Shaqiri worked hard in both attack and defence, and was particularly dangerous in the second half as Brazil pushed determinedly and space opened up for him on the counter. He caused Brazil’s defenders plenty of problems with his skill on the ball and surprising strength for his diminutive stature, and it was his cross that allowed Switzerland to equalise.
5. Marcelo (Brazil)
Marcelo has been known to create a weak point in the Brazilian defensive line with his desire to get forward and join the attack, but against the Swiss he managed to find a perfect balance between defensive diligence and attacking flair. He still contributed to the attack, but he showed a defensive steel that he doesn’t often display and suggested he could be in for a good tournament.

2018 FIFA World Cup Preview – Final Prediction

Who will win the World Cup? As ever, it’s a complicated question, and much of the fascination of the tournament is watching the drama play out. When assessing the 32 teams’ respective chances to take home the ultimate prize, it becomes clear that these sides can be grouped based on their levels of ambition. At the top, the main contenders are set to be the ones battling it out at the end. They are the teams who historically win the tournament, and will set victory as their goal coming in. Then there’s the second-tier, or the dark horses who have a legitimate chance of winning if things fall their way. They are more consistent performers, with quality to match anyone. The wildcards are the teams that could make it as far as the semi-finals and are capable of pulling off a big upset, while the knockout hopefuls are the largely unspectacular sides setting their sights on the round of 16. The early exiters round out the competition, being the teams with no realistic chance of winning and slim hopes of progressing past the second round. This preview will touch on all of these groups, before eventually predicting the winner of the 2018 FIFA World Cup.

The Contenders

Argentina, Brazil, France, Germany, Spain
Thanks to the non-qualification of Italy, and a number of other factors, the usual suspects may be a bit thin on the ground in Russia. Germany will always be there at the end, as will Brazil, and both sides should be considered the top favourites going into the tournament. France are the third of the contenders with a very good chance of taking home the trophy, and their quality is undeniable. Then there’s Argentina and Spain, both of whom may struggle at the tournament after distracted preparations. Argentina’s decision to cancel a pre-tournament friendly against Israel not only left them underdone but also created a diplomatic incident. Meanwhile, Spain’s decision to sack their coach two days out from the tournament is certain to impact their results, and they will now do well to escape from a tough group.

The Dark Horses

Belgium, Poland, Portugal, Uruguay
With so few of the main contenders still primed for a deep run, the door may be open for one of these sides to sneak in and buck the trend. Belgium and Poland are strong, but their runs may be hindered by the draw. If one doesn’t win their group, they may find themselves facing off in the second round. Even if Belgium, as expected, win Group G and the Poles take out Group H, quarter-final dates with Brazil (for Belgium) and Germany (for Poland) would probably finish them off. Uruguay and Portugal are probably best placed to take advantage of Spain’s woes, and both are consistent teams who are capable of going a long way.

The Wildcards

Colombia, Croatia, Egypt, England, Iceland, Morocco, Nigeria, Senegal
Three of these wildcards are in Group D, where a vulnerable Argentina means that Croatia, Iceland and Nigeria are not a bad chance of taking them out. Of the three, the Croatians are probably the most damaging. They are as good, if not better than, the Argentinians, and could easily pry them out of top spot. Of course, everything could fall in a heap as well, especially with their off-field concerns, but a semi-final run is not out of the question. Nigeria and Senegal are both in tough groups where they will either thrive or crash out, while Egypt could also make a splash if they can overcome Mohamed Salah’s injury issues. The turmoil surrounding Spain leaves Morocco with a chance of edging them out, and they may be a tough opponent in the knockouts. The same can be said for Iceland, and the English are unpredictable – and dangerous.

The Knockout Hopefuls

Denmark, Mexico, Peru, Serbia, Sweden, Switzerland
These teams come from just three groups, and are in competition with each other. As a general rule, they shouldn’t make too much of a splash. The Swiss are the best of the teams in terms of ranking and consistency, but they may face stiff competition if Serbia are on their game. In Group C, Denmark and Peru will be an intriguing early match-up, while Mexico and Sweden are likely to fight it out for second place in Group F. None of these teams have much of a chance of winning it all, but they should be looking at the round of 16 as a realistic goal.

The Early Exiters

Australia, Costa Rica, Iran, Japan, Panama, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Tunisia
To put it bluntly, these teams have no hope of winning the World Cup, and they will probably be out by the round of 16. Iran are the most talented of them, but their position in a tough group with Spain, Portugal and Morocco means progress is unlikely. Of course, Spain’s issues may leave the door open, but Morocco seem better suited to take the opportunity. The Russians are hosting the event, and of these teams they are most likely to go through. They just aren’t a very good team, however, and they’d do well to get to the second round. Australia and South Korea may just slip past their opposition and take a berth in the knockout stages, while Saudi Arabia could give their campaign a big boost with an opening game win over Russia. Costa Rica will struggle to repeat their quarter-final run of 2014, especially after declining in quality, and Tunisia’s placement alongside Belgium and England is likely to cut short their participation. Japan have plenty of off-field issues, and they will struggle in a tough group. Bringing up the rear is Panama, who are clearly the least-talented team at this tournament and will do well to bring home a point.

Looking through the draw based on my predicted outcomes for each group (with Group B changed to reflect the likelihood of Portugal finishing above Spain), the second round will consist of matches between Uruguay and Spain, Portugal and Egypt, France and Argentina, Croatia and Denmark, Brazil and Mexico, Germany and Switzerland, Belgium and Colombia and Poland and England. With these clashes in mind, Portugal, Croatia, Brazil and Germany should win fairly comfortably. Poland are too good for England, and Belgium should beat Colombia (although a match between the two would be great to watch). France are too good for Argentina, and Uruguay should be too good for Spain, if La Furia Roja even make it that far. According to these results, the quarter-finals will see Uruguay play France, Portugal take on Croatia, Brazil go up against Belgium and Germany face Poland. Once again, Brazil and Germany should be too strong, as should the French. The last match-up is an intriguing one. Croatia are probably more talented than the Portuguese, and would start as favourites, but it would be a close-run affair. In the semis, the Germans would be likely to defeat the Croatians fairly comfortably, although a mouth-watering match-up between France and Brazil shapes as one of the games of the tournament. In the end, I think France’s talent will win out in the end, and I think that Les Bleus will take out the World Cup over the Germans. One thing’s for sure: with the World Cup, you just never know. Right now, with the fun beginning in a little over 12 hours, the whole tournament is a complete mystery. Let’s hope it stays pretty mysterious right to the end.

Predictions

Champions: France
Runners-up: Germany
Third Place: Brazil
Fourth Place: Croatia
Quarter-finals: Belgium, Poland, Portugal, Uruguay
Round of 16: Argentina, Colombia, Denmark, Egypt, England, Mexico, Spain, Switzerland
Top scorer: Antoine Griezmann (France)
Golden Ball: Neymar (Brazil)

2018 FIFA World Cup Preview – Group E

Group E

Teams (world ranking in brackets): Brazil (2), Switzerland (6), Costa Rica (23), Serbia (34)
Fixtures:
Costa Rica vs Serbia, Cosmos Arena, Samara
Brazil vs Switzerland, Rostov Arena, Rostov-on-Don
Brazil vs Costa Rica, Krestovsky Stadium, Saint Petersburg
Serbia vs Switzerland, Kaliningrad Stadium, Kaliningrad
Serbia vs Brazil, Otkritie Arena, Moscow
Switzerland vs Costa Rica, Nizhny Novgorod Stadium, Nizhny Novgorod

Brazil

Head Coach: Tite
Captain: Neymar
Previous Appearances: 20 (1930, 1934, 1938, 1950, 1954, 1958, 1962, 1966, 1970, 1974, 1978, 1982, 1986, 1990, 1994, 1998, 2002, 2006, 2010, 2014)
Best Finish: Champions (1958, 1962, 1970, 1994, 2002)
Qualified: CONMEBOL, 1st
Qualification Top Scorer: Gabriel Jesus (7)

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Alisson (Roma), 16. Cássio (Corinthians), 23. Ederson (Manchester City).
Defenders: 2. Thiago Silva (Paris Saint-Germain), 3. Miranda (Internazionale), 4. Pedro Geromel (Grêmio), 6. Filipe Luís (Atlético Madrid), 12. Marcelo (Real Madrid), 13. Marquinhos (Paris Saint-Germain), 14. Danilo (Manchester City), 22. Fagner (Corinthians).
Midfielders: 5. Casemiro (Real Madrid), 8. Renato Augusto (Beijing Sinobo Guoan), 11. Philippe Coutinho (Barcelona), 15. Paulinho (Barcelona), 17. Fernandinho (Manchester City), 18. Fred (Shakhtar Donetsk), 19. Willian (Chelsea).
Forwards: 7. Douglas Costa (Juventus), 9. Gabriel Jesus (Manchester City), 10. Neymar (Paris Saint-Germain), 20. Roberto Firmino (Liverpool), 21. Taison (Shakhtar Donetsk).

Tite replaced Dunga as Brazil’s coach with the side at a pretty low ebb. They had just been bundled out of the Copa América in the group stage, and were sitting sixth in South American qualifying, at risk of missing out on the World Cup for the first time in their history. Then they won their next nine qualifiers to finish on top of CONMEBOL qualifying by 10 points and become the first team to seal their place in Russia. Their qualifying blitz was based around solid depth all over the park. Neymar has returned from a foot injury in time for the World Cup, and his presence leaves Tite with a very tough choice between world-class strikers Roberto Firmino and Gabriel Jesus. Philippe Coutinho, Douglas Costa and Willian are all versatile creative options, while a midfield of Casemiro, Fernandinho, Paulinho, Renato Augusto and Fred is as good as any at this tournament. Marcelo is a brilliant left-back who is devastating in attack, and the presence of three quality centre-backs (Thiago Silva, Miranda and Marquinhos) and two great young goalkeepers (Alisson and Ederson) leaves Tite spoilt for choice all over the park.

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Marcelo attempts to control the ball during a qualifier against Ecuador. Marcelo’s attacking play from left-back creates plenty of goals, but it can also leave him out of position and vulnerable.

There is very little to criticise about this Brazilian team, but there are some issues. They are no longer as reliant on Neymar as they have been in the past, but he is still their best player and his injury concerns mean he is coming into the tournament with very little football under his belt. First-choice right-back Dani Alves will miss the World Cup with injury, and his potential replacement, Fagner, is also coming in under a cloud. Structurally, Marcelo’s propensity for dangerously foraying into opposition territory can leave him out of position, and a lack of pace from veterans Miranda and Silva in central defence could leave Brazil’s left-flank vulnerable, especially on the counter-attack. These vulnerabilities won’t be too much of an issue in the group stage, where they shouldn’t face too much opposition, but they could rear their head in the knockouts with potentially damaging consequences.

Star Player: Neymar

Neymar is the most expensive player in the world, with his 198 million pound transfer to Paris Saint-Germain the largest ever by some distance. Before his injury, Brazil’s captain did not disappoint, finishing the season as the third highest scorer in Ligue 1 despite only playing 20 of the 38 games. He is a brilliant player, and if he comes back fit and firing his impact off the left wing could be devastating.

Key Player: Casemiro

Casemiro isn’t the kind of player who takes much of the spotlight. In a star-studded Brazilian team his influence is easy to miss, but his performances in Russia may go a long way to deciding Brazil’s fate. e HHe is a holding midfielder who is solid in possession, and Tite will be relying on him to cover holes created by the attacking play of the full-backs. He flies under the radar, but Casemiro has a massive role to play.

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Philippe Coutinho (left), Neymar (centre) and Gabriel Jesus celebrate a goal during qualifying against Argentina. The trio are likely to start as Tite’s front three in Russia, and all of them are very skilful players.

One to watch: Gabriel Jesus

21-year-old Jesus is the youngest member of the Brazilian squad by some distance, but he is a key part of it nonetheless. He was their leading scorer in qualifying and he is a versatile attacker who regularly found the back of the net in Manchester City’s Premier League-winning campaign. He should get the first chance to start in Russia, and he is good enough to make the most of it.

Verdict

Brazil come to Russia in excellent form, and their dependence on Neymar has lessened since Tite took over. The experienced coach has built a well-rounded team that can take it up to anyone, and the Brazilians could well go all the way.
Likely Team (4-3-3): Alisson; Danilo, Thiago Silva, Miranda, Marcelo; Paulinho, Casemiro, Fernandinho; Coutinho, Gabriel Jesus, Neymar.

Switzerland

Head Coach: Vladimir Petković
Captain: Stephan Lichtsteiner
Previous Appearances: 10 (1934, 1938, 1950, 1954, 1962, 1966, 1994, 2006, 2010, 2014)
Best Finish: Quarter-finals (1934, 1938, 1954)
Qualified: UEFA, 2nd Group B (beat Northern Ireland in play-offs)
Qualification Top Scorer: Haris Seferović (4)

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Yann Sommer (Borussia Mönchengladbach), 12. Yvon Mvogo (Leipzig), 21. Roman Bürki (Borussia Dortmund).
Defenders: 2. Stephan Lichtsteiner (Juventus), 3. François Moubandje (Toulouse), 4. Nico Elvedi (Borussia Mönchengladbach), 5. Manuel Akanji (Borussia Dortmund), 6. Michael Lang (Basel), 13. Ricardo Rodríguez (Milan), 20. Johan Djourou (Antalyaspor), 22. Fabian Schär (Deportivo La Coruña).
Midfielders: 8. Remo Freuler (Atalanta), 10. Granit Xhaka (Arsenal), 11. Valon Behrami (Udinese), 14. Steven Zuber (Hoffenheim), 15. Blerim Džemaili (Bologna), 16. Gelson Fernandes (Eintracht Frankfurt), 17. Denis Zakaria (Borussia Mönchengladbach), 23. Xherdan Shaqiri (Stoke City).
Forwards:
7. Breel Embolo (Schalke), 9. Haris Seferović (Benfica), 18. Mario Gavranović (Dinamo Zagreb), 19. Josip Drmić (Bayer Leverkusen).

Switzerland’s progress to the World Cup was far from straightforward, despite only losing once along the way. The timing of that one loss (the last game of the first round of qualifying) consigned the Swiss to the play-offs, where they narrowly and controversially held off Northern Ireland to make their fourth finals in a row. The Swiss did perform pretty well in qualifying, and there are strong players all over the park. Full-backs Stephan Lichtsteiner and Ricardo Rodríguez combine defensive solidity with a dangerous attacking edge, with Rodríguez’s ability to create from set pieces and hit the scoresheet himself making him one of the best left-backs in the world. Ahead of them, Xherdan Shaqiri is a brilliant attacker with a penchant for the spectacular, and he will be assisted by Steven Zuber. Granit Xhaka leads a solid midfield alongside Blerim Džemaili, Valon Behrami, Remo Freuler and Gelson Fernandes. Down back, promising centre-backs Manuel Akanji and Nico Elvedi will support Fabian Schär in shielding experienced goalkeeper Yann Sommer, making the Swiss tough to break down.

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Ricardo Rodríguez slots home the controversial penalty that sent Switzerland through to Russia. Rodríguez is a solid player in both attack and defence, and will be very important for the Swiss.

The Swiss may struggle to hit the scoresheet, however. Despite the ease with which they beat most sides in qualifying, Vladimir Petković still doesn’t have a reliable frontman at his disposal. Incumbent Haris Seferović has a poor record with the national team, but the potential replacements for the misfiring striker are thin on the ground. The talented Breel Embolo is still only 21 and has not developed as Petković would have hoped, while Josip Drmić has been effective for Switzerland but is coming off a season where he managed just four games in all competitions. Mario Gavranović is also part of the squad, but he doesn’t seem to have done enough to make a spot in the team his own. Seferović was Switzerland’s leading scorer in qualifying, but the fact that full-backs Lichtsteiner and Rodríguez were directly behind him on that list says more about the paucity of quality attacking options. If Switzerland are going to progress past the group stage they will need to find an outlet for their attacking play, and it is not clear who is going to stand up.

Star Player: Xherdan Shaqiri

It is remarkable that, despite his undeniable quality and experience with some of Europe’s biggest clubs, Shaqiri has not managed a move away from now-relegated Stoke City. The Swiss maestro is small in stature, but he can beat opponents with ease and he can find the back of the net from remarkable positions. He has stood up when Switzerland have most needed him in the past, and Petković will be hoping he can do it again.

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Xherdan Shaqiri scores his remarkable bicycle kick goal against Poland at Euro 2016. Shaqiri has scored plenty of remarkable goals in the past, and his skills are invaluable for Switzerland.

Key Player: Haris Seferović

Seferović has scored roughly a goal every five games in his previous appearances for Switzerland, but a lack of depth means that he is likely to start anyway. He has scored big goals for the Swiss in the past, especially when he netted an injury time winner against Ecuador in the last World Cup, but he is going to need to find some consistency if the Swiss are to succeed in this tournament.

One to watch: Manuel Akanji

Akanji will be a key part of Switzerland’s defence in Russia, even though he only debuted last year. The 22-year-old is versatile, strong and can match it with the world’s best, and his form for Swiss champions Basel landed him a move to Borussia Dortmund midway through the season. Having found some game time with the German giants, Akanji could be set for a big tournament in Russia.

Verdict

The Swiss have holes, especially up front, but they also have plenty of experience and some quality players around the ground. Their defence should be pretty strong, and this will give them a boost in Russia.
Likely Team (4-2-3-1): Sommer; Lichtsteiner, Schär, Akanji, Rodríguez; Freuler, Xhaka; Zuber, Džemaili, Shaqiri; Seferović.

Costa Rica

Head Coach: Óscar Ramírez
Captain: Bryan Ruiz
Previous Appearances: 4 (1990, 2002, 2006, 2014)
Best Finish: Quarter-finals (2014)
Qualified: CONCACAF, 2nd
Qualification Top Scorer: Christian Bolaños, Marco Ureña (4)

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Keylor Navas (Real Madrid), 18. Patrick Pemberton (Alajuelense), 23. Leonel Moreira (Herediano).
Defenders: 2. Johnny Acosta (Águilas Doradas), 3. Giancarlo González (Bologna), 4. Ian Smith (Norrköping), 6. Óscar Duarte (Espanyol), 8. Bryan Oviedo (Sunderland), 15. Francisco Calvo (Minnesota United), 16. Cristian Gamboa (Celtic), 19. Kendall Waston (Vancouver Whitecaps), 22. Rónald Matarrita (New York City).
Midfielders: 5. Celso Borges (Deportivo La Coruña), 7. Christian Bolaños (Deportivo Saprissa), 9. Daniel Colindres (Deportivo Saprissa), 10. Bryan Ruiz (Sporting), 13. Rodney Wallace (New York City), 14. Randall Azofeifa (Herediano), 17. Yeltsin Tejeda (Lausanne), 20. David Guzmán (Portland Timbers).
Forwards: 11. Johan Venegas (Deportivo Saprissa), 12. Joel Campbell (Real Betis), 21. Marco Ureña (Los Angeles FC).

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Bryan Ruiz (left) and Keylor Navas stand for the national anthem before Costa Rica’s qualifying clash with Trinidad and Tobago. Ruiz and Navas have plenty of experience, and both will be a key part of Los Ticos’ campaign.

Costa Rica were the surprise package of the last World Cup, beating Uruguay and Italy to finish atop the tournament’s group of death and ultimately making it to the quarter-finals. Whether they can back it up with another similarly lofty result or not, their stern defence will be tough to break down. Goalkeeper Keylor Navas was their star at the last World Cup, and he has since won three consecutive Champions League titles as Real Madrid’s starting goalkeeper. In front of him, Giancarlo González leads a staunch five-man defence which proved tough to penetrate at the last World Cup, and wing-backs Bryan Oviedo and Cristian Gamboa can provide valuable attacking support. Captain Bryan Ruiz has plenty of experience and can provide a goal threat, while Christian Bolaños and Celso Borges are solid players in midfield. Overall, this Costa Rican team is well set-up and knows their roles, and they will be very hard to break down.

Costa Rica may sport a very effective defensive unit, but it’s a different story at the other end of the field. Joel Campbell was in brilliant form at the last World Cup, but the lanky attacker’s career has not progressed much four years (and three different loan spells) on. He, along with other striking option Marco Ureña, has battled injury this season, and neither is the kind of high-class forward Los Ticos are looking for to lead the line. Their scoring troubles are not helped by a style which puts a heavy emphasis on defence, and their remarkable success in 2014 masked the fact that their ugly approach of throwing men behind the ball was effective defensively but not conducive to free-flowing matches. In the end, the quality of their opponents could prove too great a barrier to overcome if they are beaten in midfield, and it’s hard to see them making it past the round of 16.

Star Player: Keylor Navas

Navas went to the last World Cup as a reliable performer and a known quantity in the Costa Rican side. Since then, he has developed into the team’s undisputed star. He is one of the best in the world, and has started – and won – three Champions League finals with Real Madrid. He will come to Russia with plenty of experience under his belt, and can be relied upon to perform on the big stage.

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Celso Borges attempts to gain possession during a qualifier against Honduras. Borges will play an important role in the Costa Rican midfield.

Key Player: Celso Borges

Borges is a quality central midfielder, and his ability to win control of the ball and push up into attack will be crucial for Costa Rica as they look to qualify for the knockout stages. The 30-year-old has won 100 caps for his country, and he will be using all of his experience at the highest level to shield the defence and hopefully provide the springboard into attack Los Ticos need.

One to watch: Bryan Oviedo

Oviedo is 28, and after five seasons with Everton he is hardly a newcomer to this Costa Rican team. After injury deprived the first-choice left-back of the chance to play in 2014, however, he is one of only a few players in the squad who hasn’t played at a World Cup. He could add something extra to the team with his ability to push forward from defence, and it will be interesting to see what he brings in Russia.

Verdict

Costa Rica will come into this tournament with an almost identical team to the one that made the quarter-finals in 2014, but the same result seems unlikely. They will be tough to break down, but a lack of goals could get them in the end.
Likely Team (5-4-1): Navas; Gamboa, Waston, González, Acosta, Oviedo; Bolaños, Borges, Guzmán, Ruiz; Ureña.

Serbia

Head Coach: Mladen Krstajić
Captain: Aleksandar Kolarov
Previous Appearances: 3 (1998, 2006, 2010)
Best Finish: Round of 16 (1998)
Qualified: UEFA, 1st Group D
Qualification Top Scorer: Aleksandar Mitrović (6)

Squad

Goalkeepers: 1. Vladimir Stojković (Partizan), 12. Predrag Rajković (Maccabi Tel Aviv), 23. Marko Dmitrović (Eibar).
Defenders: 2. Antonio Rukavina (Villarreal), 3. Duško Tošić (Beşiktaş), 5. Uroš Spajić (Anderlecht),
6. Branislav Ivanović (Zenit), 11. Aleksandar Kolarov (Roma), 13. Miloš Veljković (Werder Bremen), 14. Milan Rodić (Red Star Belgrade), 15. Nikola Milenković (Fiorentina).
Midfielders: 4. Luka Milivojević (Crystal Palace), 7. Andrija Živković (Benfica), 10. Dušan Tadić (Southampton), 16. Marko Grujić (Cardiff City), 17. Filip Kostić (Hamburg), 18. Nemanja Radonjić (Red Star Belgrade), 20. Sergej Milinković-Savić (Lazio), 21. Nemanja Matić (Manchester United), 22. Adem Ljajić (Torino).
Forwards: 8. Aleksandar Prijović (PAOK), 9. Aleksandar Mitrović (Fulham), 19. Luka Jović (Eintracht Frankfurt).

Serbia passed through a tough qualifying group with flying colours, beating out Ireland, Wales and Austria to progress automatically, and they have a young squad that should provide a stern test for opponents. Key midfielders Nemanja Matić and Luka Milivojević are both established in the Premier League, and a creative core of Dušan Tadić, Filip Kostić and the talented Sergej Milinković-Savić should provide plenty of challenges for opposing defences. Aleksandar Mitrović has been in red-hot form for Fulham in the last few months, and he is more than capable of finding the back of the net in Russia. Their defence is experienced, with Branislav Ivanović, Aleksandar Kolarov and Antonio Rukavina all boasting years of experience at some of Europe’s biggest clubs. Serbia’s mix of youthful exuberance (five of their squad played in Serbia’s triumph at the 2015 under-20 World Cup) and an experienced core should serve them well as they look to make it through a competitive group.

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Nemanja Matić (centre) attempts to slip past two Georgian opponents during qualifying. Matić is one of Serbia’s stars, and he adds both class and steel to their midfield.

The side is not without issues, however. Coach Mladen Krstajić is still relatively new to the job, having stepped in to fill the breach following Slavoljub Muslin’s sacking. Muslin had enjoyed plenty of success with the national team and his sacking, in no small part due to his inability to accommodate the talents of Milinković-Savić, is not the first bizarre decision to come out of Serbia’s governing body, and could harm the team. On the pitch, an injury to Matija Nastasić has deprived the Eagles of one of their best defenders, and the defensive players who are likely to start in Russia are past their primes and could be exploited by quicker attacks. Throw in a first-choice goalkeeper, Vladimir Stojković, who has been plying his trade in lower-level European football over the last few seasons, and the Serbians may have defensive difficulties which could undermine their campaign. They are undoubtedly a talented side, but the off-field upheaval could have a big impact.

Star Player: Nemanja Matić

Matić is a key part of any side he plays in, and his performances for Chelsea and Manchester United over the last few seasons have forged his reputation as one of the Premier League’s best holding midfielders. He is an excellent tackler, and he allows his teammates to thrive with his defensive solidity and ability to control the ball. He can fit almost any formation well, and he is a player Serbia can rely on.

Key Player: Branislav Ivanović

Serbia’s desire to move on from the 34-year-old Ivanović was shown by Krstajić’s decision to strip him of the captaincy in March, but he will still play a key role in Russia. He spent nearly 10 seasons as a key member of Chelsea’s team, and in the absence of Nastasić the Serbians will rely on him to hold the defence together. If he struggles, there could be wider ramifications.

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Sergej Milinković-Savić (left) holds off an opponent during a friendly with South Korea. Milinković-Savić only received his debut after Slavoljub Muslin was sacked, with Milinković-Savić’s lack of opportunities a key factor in the decision.

One to watch: Sergej Milinković-Savić

Milinković-Savić has barely any international career to speak of, but the 23-year-old’s non-use in the national team still sparked the sacking of Muslin. He is undoubtedly a talent, and his performances for Lazio have been exceptional. At 1.91 metres tall he is big for an attacking midfielder, and he uses this size and his excellent vision to good effect. Krstajić is unlikely to make the mistake of not playing him in Russia, and he could have a big impact.

Verdict

Muslin brought the best out of Serbia in taking them to Russia, and his sacking may prove to be a mistake. They are a talented squad, but it remains to be seen whether they will be able to hit their best.
Likely Team (4-2-3-1): Stojković; Rukavina, Ivanović, Tošić, Kolarov; Matić, Milivojević; Tadić, Milinković-Savić, Kostić; Mitrović.

Prediction

With no real contender who comes close to matching their depth of talent, the Brazilians should cruise through to the round of 16, and should be present in the latter stages of the tournament. As for the rest of the group, all three sides are founded on solid defensive structures, and there should be some interesting games between them. Costa Rica don’t seem to have what it takes, and although they can’t be ruled out it looks as if the game between Switzerland and Serbia could be decisive. The Swiss have plenty of experience, and that experience should come to the fore in Russia. If they can find a quality goal-scorer, they may have a team that can make a surprise run to the quarter-finals and beyond.
1. Brazil, 2. Switzerland, 3. Serbia, 4. Costa Rica