Costa Rica snatch late draw from unconvincing Swiss

Switzerland just needed a draw to progress to the last 16, and they could probably make it through even if they lost to a winless, goalless Costa Rican side. In two games, Óscar Ramírez’s team hadn’t looked like challenging either Serbia or Brazil, while the Swiss had commendably drawn the highly-rated Brazilians and beaten the Serbs in dramatic circumstances. With their consistent-looking team, it didn’t seem like the Swiss would face too many issues. Then they went onto the pitch. They avoided defeat in the end, but their draw against the Costa Ricans was far from the convincing springboard into the knockout stages they were hoping for.

The warning signs were there early. Switzerland came out of the blocks very sluggishly, and they nearly paid a heavy price. Some lazy turnovers allowed Costa Rica to move forward effectively, and they were soon posing a significant threat. In the opening stages, Swiss goalkeeper Yann Sommer was required to make three diving saves in the space of a minute, starting with a turnover in midfield. Joel Campbell, into the team for his first start of the tournament and already looking better than Marco Ureña, picked off the poor pass and fired towards the bottom corner. Sommer was still recovering from the first effort when Celso Borges headed the ball towards the same corner, and the Swiss keeper only just managed to deflect it into the post and out. Switzerland cleared, but Cristian Gamboa found some space and forced Sommer into a save that was more straightforward but still slightly tough. It seemed like the Swiss had weathered the storm until they turned the ball over again a few minutes later, allowing Daniel Colindres to fire a shot past Sommer, into the bar and out.

The Swiss soon settled into the game, and Costa Rica’s threat diminished as the Swiss midfielders stopped unnecessarily turning the ball over. There were few chances for either side, as neither team really looked capable of breaking down the other’s defensive structure. Then, just after the half hour, the Swiss did. Stephan Lichtsteiner put in the cross, and Breel Embolo rose above the rest to put the ball back into the path of Blerim Džemaili. Džemaili was in plenty of space, and he really couldn’t miss from close range, directly in front. Keylor Navas had been drawn towards the post by Lichtsteiner’s delivery from the right, and he was unable to intervene as the ball was drilled into the back of the net. The Swiss had started slowly, but they had found their way into the game and it seemed like they would be alright as they went into half time ahead.

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Costa Rica celebrate after Kendall Waston’s goal early in the second half. The goal put Colombia level, and placed Switzerland under a bit of pressure.

Costa Rica started the second half well, with Campbell missing an opportunity to capitalise on Borges’ dangerous cross into the centre. They kept putting pressure on the Swiss, however, and when Kendall Waston received a golden opportunity a few minutes later he didn’t make any mistake. The centre-back outworked Manuel Akanji to get his head on Campbell’s corner, and Sommer had no chance as he diverted the ball into the back of the net with force. Waston was pumped, the teams were back on level terms and things were beginning to get interesting. It wasn’t exactly what Switzerland wanted.

The Costa Ricans didn’t really press for a winner after achieving parity, and the game settled into something of a lull with few chances for either side and the Swiss continuing to make little headway against the well-set Costa Ricans. There was a brief flurry of action as Swiss substitute Josip Drmić very nearly scored, heading a ball straight into the bar, and Campbell followed it up by beating a few defenders and creating a chance out of nowhere. After that frantic minute, play settled down once more, returning to its familiar rhythm. Then the Swiss scored again.

Drmić scored the goal, latching onto a good cross from Denis Zakaria. The defensive midfielder pushed upfield and delivered the ball from the right, where it seemed to have rolled straight past Embolo into relative safety. If the Costa Ricans thought this, however, Drmić soon disabused them of the idea that the chance had gone. The striker ran onto the loose ball in the box, and without bothering to take a touch he drilled it straight into the bottom corner, leaving Navas with no chance and making Costa Rica’s hopes of getting a result look pretty slim.

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Yann Sommer dives in an attempt to save Bryan Ruiz’s late penalty. The penalty didn’t go in initially, hitting the frame of the goal, but it then bounced off Sommer’s back and into the goals.

Then there was chaos. Costa Rica went forward almost immediately after the goal, and Bryan Ruiz was cut down inside the box by Michael Lang and Ricardo Rodríguez. A penalty was awarded to Costa Rica, although not before Waston had been booked after campaigning for the penalty. Then it turned out that Ruiz was offside, and no penalty was given after all. Not at all discouraged by the close shave, Switzerland then gave away another spot kick. This time Campbell was the recipient, slipping past Zakaria and getting knocked down by a clumsy challenge from the Swiss midfield enforcer. Ruiz was the man charged with taking the penalty, and it didn’t quite go to plan. Costa Rica scored in the end, but it came through one the unluckiest own goals conceded in this tournament. Ruiz slammed his penalty into the bar, and it bounced out. Unfortunately for the Swiss, there was no reprieve, as the ball ricocheted straight into the back of the diving Sommer and went into the back of the net anyway.

Sommer’s very unfortunate own goal was a dissatisfying end to a dissatisfying Swiss performance, which saw Costa Rica come away from their World Cup campaign with a deserved draw and raised a number of doubts about Switzerland’s hopes in this tournament. Against an in-form Sweden, and with Lichtsteiner and Fabian Schär collecting suspensions for accumulated yellow cards that will leave the defence two men short, there will be plenty of concerns for the Swiss going forward. Can they sort out the issues that Costa Rica so effectively highlighted? It’s hard to say.

Nizhny Novgorod – Nizhny Novgorod Stadium
Switzerland 1 (Džemaili 31, Drmić 88)
Costa Rica 1 (Waston 56, Sommer 90+3 og)
Referee: Clément Turpin (Fra)
Switzerland (4-2-3-1): Sommer – Lichtsteiner, Schär, Akanji, Rodríguez; Behrami (Zakaria 60), Xhaka; Shaqiri (Lang 81), Džemaili, Embolo; Gavranović (Drmić 69).
Costa Rica (5-4-1): Navas – Gamboa (Smith 90+3), Acosta, González, Waston, Oviedo; Ruiz, Borges, Guzmán (Azofeifa 90+1), Colindres (Wallace 81); Campbell.

Top 5
1. Yann Sommer (Switzerland)
A lesser goalkeeper than Sommer may have easily conceded four or five against the very dangerous Costa Rican attack, and the Swiss number one showed his quality with some top-drawer saves. He was very unlucky to concede a late own goal in extraordinary circumstances, but it shouldn’t detract from his excellent effort.
2. Joel Campbell (Costa Rica)
Campbell added pace to the Costa Rican attack, showing how sorely they have missed having a quick, strong striker like him to lead the line in their first two games of this World Cup. He caused the Swiss defence plenty of problems, and was a key reason for Costa Rica’s success.
3. Daniel Colindres (Costa Rica)
Colindres was dangerous on the left wing, cutting inside to create problems and working well with Campbell to create opportunities for Costa Rica in the final third. He was another player left out of the first two games who came in and had a huge impact.
4. Josip Drmić (Switzerland)
Drmić looked dangerous after coming on late in the piece, and had a couple of great chances culminating in a well-finished goal. With Mario Gavranović failing to convince after replacing Haris Seferović in the starting line-up, the door could be open for Drmić to win a start in the knockouts thanks to his efforts.
5. Breel Embolo (Switzerland)
Embolo came into the team with Steven Zuber unavailable, and he showed plenty on the left wing with his pace and strength. He assisted the opening goal with some good aerial work in the box, and he is another one who could use his performance as a springboard into the starting line-up for the rest of the tournament.

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.

Kolarov the difference as Serbia grind out victory

Serbian captain Aleksandar Kolarov stood over the free-kick with a stern look on his face. His side had dominated possession and territory for most of their game against Costa Rica, but they hadn’t turned that advantage into goals. Now, thanks to David Guzmán’s crude challenge on the edge of the area, Serbia’s dead-ball specialist had a chance to change that. From the moment it left his foot the free-kick was destined for the top corner. It was driven with enough height to beat the wall and enough dip to ensure it was on target, and it curved devilishly to evade the desperate dive of Real Madrid goalkeeper Keylor Navas. It slipped just inside the right goalpost, ensuring the perfect result came from a perfect strike. When the final whistle sounded, Kolarov’s stunning free-kick was all that separated the sides.

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Aleksandar Kolarov’s free kick flies past Keylor Navas into the Costa Rican goal. Kolarov’s goal was the difference between the sides at the end of the match.

Both sides had nervous moments early on in the match, but the game soon settled into a clear pattern of Serbian control. Less than 30 seconds had elapsed when Serbia won their first corner, with a speculative long ball from Branislav Ivanović very sloppily handled by the Costa Rican defence. At the other end, Vladimir Stojković was called into action early, first to intercept a dangerous run from Marco Ureña and then to save a Giancarlo González header which could have, had it not been directed straight at the turtle-neck sporting Serbian keeper, been much worse. Another chance came when Guzmán’s cross found González in an even better position, but Serbia escaped as the experienced centre-back put the second chance over the bar. Then the Serbians began to find their feet, and Costa Rica’s threat on the break began to fall away.

For the rest of the first half Serbia were content to retain possession while Los Ticos happily sat back and allowed their solid five-man defence to absorb the pressure. There were chances, most involving young star Sergej Milinković-Savić. He showed the skill and strength on the ball that led Serbia to sack Slavoljub Muslin when he wasn’t getting a game with the national team, and a bicycle kick (alas from an offside position) showed his athleticism. Neither side had troubled the scorers by the end of the first half, as Serbia’s attack was too slow and Costa Rica’s defence too comfortable sitting back for anything to happen.

There was a noticeable change in tempo as the second half commenced. Aleksandar Mitrović, after a quiet first half, had a one-on-one chance against Keylor Navas within a couple of minutes of resumption. The Serbians were probing more aggressively, and for the first time they looked capable of penetrating Costa Rica’s defensive wall. The goal came shortly afterwards, and Serbia seemed to be in complete control. Nothing Costa Rica did from that point on suggested their lead was ever under threat. Navas was called upon to make some more excellent saves, with a slight touch on a dangerous ball across the six-yard box preventing Filip Kostić from bundling it home from close range. Serbia still looked the more likely team to score, even as Costa Rica sought to defend higher up the ground.

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Officials attempt to break up a melee sparked by Nemanja Matić’s rough treatment of a Costa Rican assistant. The melee was one of a few late incidents sparked by odd Serbian actions.

Then, with 20 minutes to go, the Serbians stopped pushing, sitting back in defence and copying Los Ticos’ earlier strategy. It worked as Costa Rica didn’t have enough urgency, let alone quality, to break through the determined defensive wall. Their ball movement was comatose, and despite the need to push for an equaliser Óscar Ramírez didn’t sacrifice one of his defenders in pursuit of a goal. By the end of the 90 minutes, Costa Rica were playing as if they were drawing a meaningless late-season game. Serbia, on the other hand, were all business. Nemanja Matić got into a fight with the Costa Rican technical staff in his attempts to delay Costa Rica’s attacking play, and substitute Aleksandar Prijović nearly got himself sent off when he hit Johnny Acosta in the face chasing after an uncontested ball. Then, after a seemingly interminable second half, it was over. It wasn’t pretty, but it was what Serbia needed to kick off their campaign. For Costa Rica, their surrender in the latter moments doesn’t bode well for tougher assignments to come against Brazil and Switzerland, and their inability to score could put an early stopper on their hopes of progression.

Samara – Cosmos Arena
Costa Rica 0
Serbia 1 (Kolarov 56)
Referee: Malang Diedhiou (Sen)
Costa Rica (5-4-1): Navas – Gamboa, Acosta, González, Duarte, Calvo; Ruiz, Borges, Guzmán (Colindres 73), Venegas (Bolaños 60); Ureña (Campbell 66).
Serbia (4-2-3-1): Stojković – Ivanović, Milenković, Tošić, Kolarov; Matić, Milivojević; Tadić (Rukavina 82), Milinković-Savić, Ljajić (Kostić 70); Mitrović (Prijović 90).

Top 5
1. Sergej Milinković-Savić (Serbia)
Milinković-Savić started slightly slowly, but he improved as the game went on and created plenty of chances for himself and others. His imposing physique and excellent skills allowed him to shield the ball well and his vision allowed him to find teammates in dangerous positions, making him an all-around attacking threat. On another day, he could have easily found the back of the net.
2. Aleksandar Kolarov (Serbia)
Kolarov deserves credit for breaking the deadlock with an unstoppable free-kick, and his goal put the cherry on top of a quality performance. His defensive work at left-back was always solid, and his work on the overlap allowed him to contribute to the attack with dangerous balls drilled into the penalty box.
3. Keylor Navas (Costa Rica)
Navas made plenty of brilliant saves throughout, and was part of the reason Costa Rica hung on to a clean sheet for so long. He denied Mitrović one-on-one shortly after the break, and did well to prevent two dangerous chances for Milinković-Savić (even if both came from an offside position). His inability to save Kolarov’s stunner should not detract from his strong performance.
4. Dušan Tadić (Serbia)
Tadić was in good form on the right wing, showing his skills and putting plenty of pressure on the Costa Rican defence. He put in good crosses and made life difficult for his opponents, and his combinations with Milinković-Savić and Ivanović provided Serbia with a series of good opportunities.
5. Marco Ureña (Costa Rica)
Ureña was Costa Rica’s most dynamic attacker, and his substitution in the 66th minute deprived them of some of the spark they had early in the game. He made plenty of incisive runs and worked well with Bryan Ruiz, and his hard work both pressing and chasing up long balls kept the Serbian defenders honest.

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

Joel Campbell has pulled off a brilliant performance to lead Costa Rica to a shock win over Uruguay in Fortaleza. Campbell scored once and set up another as Costa Rica came from behind to take a 3-1 victory over the 2010 semi-finalists. The game started slowly, neither side getting any real opportunities, but Uruguay began to trouble Los Ticos with their set pieces. Diego Godin had a goal disallowed, and Edinson Cavani had a brilliant chance to put his side in front a minute later, both chances originating from free kicks. It didn’t take much longer for Uruguay to claim a lead, with a penalty awarded after Junior Diaz pulled down Diego Lugano in the box. Cavani successfully beat Keylor Navas to score, and Uruguay had the lead. Costa Rica kept attacking, Campbell missing by inches with a long-range strike and generally being a nuisance to the South Americans. Uruguay had the chance to double their lead just before the break, when Navas made a remarkable save to push Diego Forlan’s strike, which had taken a deflection off Oscar Duarte, over the bar.

Costa Rica started the second half well, Duarte forcing a save from Fernando Muslera with a nice header. Four minutes later Campbell had scored the equaliser, with a Cristian Gamboa cross evading Celso Borges but finding an unmanned Campbell in the area. Campbell then proceeded to fire past a helpless Muslera, who could only watch the ball pass him as it flew into the back of the net. The Costa Ricans took only 3 more minutes to draw ahead through Duarte, who beat Christian Stuani to a Christian Bolanos free kick and headed past Muslera. Cavani was able to catch Navas out of his goal, but Diaz headed it away. Uruguay kept possession but were unable to threaten, not looking close to scoring, before substitute Marcos Urena sealed the deal for Costa Rica. Campbell threaded in a perfect through ball, and the sub was quickest to get there. Muslera, who had attempted to beat Urena, was out of position, and Urena rolled it into the back of the net to send the Costa Ricans 2 goals up with 6 minutes of regular time left. To add insult to injury, Maxi Pereira was sent off in stoppage time to not only leave Uruguay beaten but also without their best right-back for the match against England, after one of the biggest upsets at this year’s World Cup.

Fortaleza – Estadio Castelao
Uruguay 1 (Cavani 24 pen)
Costa Rica 3 (Campbell 54, Duarte 57, Urena 84)
Referee: Felix Brych (Ger)

Uruguay: Muslera – Caceres, Godin, Lugano, M Pereira, Rodriguez (Hernandez 76), Gargano (Gonzalez 60), Arevalo, Stuani, Cavani, Forlan (Lodeiro 60).
Expulsions: M Pereira 90+5.

Costa Rica: Navas – Diaz, Umana, Gonzalez, Duarte, Gamboa, Bolanos (Barrantes 88), Tejeda (Cubero 75), Borges, Ruiz (Urena 83), Campbell.

World Cup Preview – Group D

Group D

Teams (world ranking in brackets): Uruguay (6), Costa Rica (31), England (13), Italy (7)
Fixtures:
Uruguay vs Costa Rica, Fortaleza
England vs Italy, Manaus
Uruguay vs England, Sao Paulo
Italy vs Costa Rica, Recife
Italy vs Uruguay, Natal
Costa Rica vs England, Belo Horizonte

Uruguay

Coach: Oscar Tabarez
Captain: Diego Lugano
World Cup Appearances: 11 (1930, 1950, 1954, 1962, 1966, 1970, 1974, 1986, 1990, 2002, 2010)
Best Result: Champions (1930, 1950)
Qualified: 5th in CONMEBOL qualifying, went on to defeat Jordan in play-off
Qualification Top Scorer: Luis Suarez (11)

Form Guide

Uruguay were unable to qualify automatically for the tournament despite a 3-2 win over Argentina in the final matchday of qualifying. This subjected the Uruguayans to yet another intercontinental play-off (they have not qualified automatically since 1990) against Jordan. A 5-0 victory in the first leg all but sealed their qualification.

Strengths

In Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez the Uruguayans possess two of the best forwards in the world currently. While Diego Forlan is past his prime, he had a brilliant tournament four years ago, culminating in him receiving the award for player of the tournament. The current squad is also one with a lot of international experience, with 12 members of their most recent side having played over 50 international games. The fact that they made the semi-finals in 2010 and won the Copa America a year later suggests that this Uruguayan team have the ability to go far.

Weaknesses

Uruguay struggled a bit during qualifying, and some key members of the side have moved from the European leagues. While Suarez and Cavani can hold up the attack, there may be some issues in defence. Captain Diego Lugano has made a total of 7 appearances since joining West Bromwich Albion, which doesn’t help his cause, and while right back Martin Caceres has fared a little better at Juventus (12 games out of a possible 30 with 7 in UEFA competitions) it is not an ideal situation. The side has also been on decline since their Copa victory, and will hope to return to form here.

Costa Rica

Coach: Jorge Luis Pinto
Captain: Bryan Ruiz
World Cup Appearances: 3 (1990, 2002, 2006)
Best Result: Round of 16 (1990)
Qualified: 2nd in CONCACAF qualifying
Qualification Top Scorer: Alvaro Saborio (8)

Form Guide

The Costa Ricans qualified for the tournament with two games to spare with a 1-1 draw with Jamaica. They had previously passed through a third round group with Mexico, El Salvador and Guyana (they defeated the latter 7-0 to ensure qualification). Their fourth round campaign started poorly with a draw and a loss, but a 6 game win streak (with a 3-1 win over the USA in San Jose), put them through to the world cup.

Strengths

The Costa Ricans scored plenty of goals during qualifying (nearly 2 per game) and they have a very strong attacking line-up. Bryan Ruiz is an experienced campaigner and will provide the chances for Alvaro Saborio, Randall Brenes and others. Celso Borges, Christian Bolanos and Joel Campbell will help Ruiz in midfield, and with a solid defence which only let in 0.75 goals per game in qualifying, Los Ticos may be able to give some of the heavy-weights a run for their money.

Weaknesses

In a group consisting of Uruguay, England and Italy, all of whom have won this tournament before, Costa Rica are a definite underdog. Costa Rica’s main problem will be the fact that only a handful of their players actually play for big clubs, whereas England and Italy will be likely to source most or even all of their squad from their respective leagues, which are strong and attract many big players during the transfer season. Uruguay will also be likely to draw most of their squad from big leagues, and this will likely lead to a gulf in class that Los Ticos will struggle to bridge.

England

Coach: Roy Hodgson
Captain: Steven Gerrard
World Cup Appearances: 13 (1950, 1954, 1958, 1962, 1966, 1970, 1982, 1986, 1990, 1998, 2002, 2006, 2010)
Best Result: Champions (1966)
Qualified: 1st Group H
Qualification Top Scorer: Wayne Rooney (7)

Form Guide

England were drawn into a tough group including Poland, Ukraine and Montenegro. Despite this, however, they qualified without too much bother, and sealed it with a 2-0 victory in their last game against the Polish. Their qualification campaign also included an 8-0 away victory against San Marino.

Strengths

Manager Roy Hodgson combined experience and youth very well during qualifying and the English appear to be drawing from a strong pool of talent. With opportunities given to him at Liverpool Daniel Sturridge has proven himself a very capable goalscorer, and his partnership with Wayne Rooney should be very effective. The competition for spots on the wings is also very fierce, as is the competition for the left-back position with both Leighton Baines and Ashley Cole as well as young Southampton prospect Luke Shaw competing for a spot.

Weaknesses

The English are very confident going into tournaments such as these, although in recent times they have come unstuck in the early knockout rounds of the tournament. The side has changed a lot since their most recent world cup, with stalwarts such as Rio Ferdinand and John Terry retiring, taking away with them valuable experience. This has also affected the defence. Some older players in the team such as Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard are also past their prime and an injury to Theo Walcott will weaken their attack.

Italy

Coach: Cesare Prandelli
Captain: Gianluigi Buffon
World Cup Appearances: 18 (1934, 1938, 1950, 1954, 1962, 1966, 1970, 1974, 1978, 1982, 1986, 1990, 1994, 1998, 2002, 2006, 2010)
Best Result: Champions (1934, 1938, 1982, 2006)
Qualified: 1st Group B
Qualification Top Scorer: Mario Balotelli (5)

Form Guide

The Italians were able to qualify comfortably with games in hand, although they were in a relatively easy group containing Denmark, Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Armenia and Malta. The Italians have done very well in recent times, finishing second (albeit after a 4-0 loss at the hands of Spain) in the Euros and third in the Confederations Cup.

Strengths

Cesare Prandelli managed to incorporate a lot of new players into the team during qualification while keeping the base of the side steady, and in doing so giving the team a lot of depth. This will no doubt lead to a very strong selection which should have the right blend of experience and youth. The side is very strong all over the park and the evidence suggests that they have improved over the past year. This is based on two games against Spain, the first of which was lost 4-0, with the other, the Confederations Cup semi-final, being dragged into penalties.

Weaknesses

Italy haven’t got an awful lot of weaknesses, although there could be some issues up front. First-choice striker Mario Balotelli can be unpredictable and inconsistent, while Giuseppe Rossi is on the rebound from an injury that has kept him out of the game for some time, and is in a battle to be fully fit. Stephan El Shaarawy has also been injured and has only made 7 appearances in total this season, three of which were as a substitute. The Italians will still have Torino pair Ciro Immobile and Alessio Cerci although both are quite inexperienced at international level.

My Predictions

This group will be very interesting to watch. This could well go down as the group of death for this tournament as Costa Rica will struggle to match up against three of the best teams in the world. Expect a lot of competition between Uruguay, England and Italy for the first three places, and while Costa Rica might struggle they might steal some points here and there.
1. Italy, 2. England, 3. Uruguay, 4. Costa Rica
Next: I look at Group E, which should involve some very competitive games between all teams.