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 – 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.