Teams (world ranking in brackets): Brazil (2), Switzerland (6), Costa Rica (23), Serbia (34)
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
Head Coach: Tite
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)
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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)
Goalkeepers: 1. Keylor Navas (Real Madrid), 18. Patrick Pemberton (Alajuelense), 23. Leonel Moreira (Herediano).
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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).
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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