Brazil cruise past outclassed Serbians

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shaqiri leads Switzerland to come-from-behind win

Branislav Ivanović played a long into the box, where Manuel Akanji headed it away safely to Granit Xhaka. Early in the match, Serbia’s crosses had presented Switzerland with plenty of trouble, and a headed goal had left them behind in the fifth minute. The centre-backs had improved, however, and Serbia hadn’t really threatened with a cross since half time. Switzerland had been chasing the game since going behind early, and though they had controlled the second half they still found themselves level with the Serbs, with less than a minute of normal time remaining. A draw seemed the likely result.

Serbia couldn’t have started the game any better. Swiss goalkeeper Yann Sommer was forced into action early, making a reflex save to deny Aleksandar Mitrović as the big striker rose to meet Luka Milivojević’s cross. Less than a minute later, the Swiss weren’t so lucky. It was Dušan Tadić who put the cross in, beating Ricardo Rodríguez with a nice touch and swinging it in on his left foot. Once again, Mitrović was there. Once again, he got his head to it, beating Fabian Schär to the ball. This time, he looped it past Sommer and left the Swiss goalkeeper with no chance. For the second match in a row, Switzerland found themselves behind early, and needed to chase the game.

On the edge of his own penalty area, Xhaka was faced with a sea of red. Serbia were perfectly organised, and the Swiss seemed to be trapped inside their own half. Xhaka had space, but he had very few options. After holding the ball for a few seconds, Serbia came at the central midfielder, and he could hold onto the ball no longer. Finding back-up striker Mario Gavranović in space, he picked him out with a straightforward pass.

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Vladimir Stojković (in yellow) makes a diving save to deny Blerim Džemaili (centre) from close range. Džemaili had a couple of great chances to equalise, but couldn’t find the back of the net.

Switzerland had started to control possession after going behind, but their lack of composure in attack cost them. Blerim Džemaili had two great chances, once missing the target when Rodríguez found him in the penalty area and then forcing Vladimir Stojković into an excellent save when he latched on to Steven Zuber’s clever pass into the box. At the other end, Mitrović’s confidence was through the roof, and he was winning aerial duels in the box and creating plenty of issues for the Swiss. At one point, the big striker even unleashed a bicycle kick from the edge of the box. Unsurprisingly, it missed. Alongside Mitrović, Tadić was creating issues with his brilliant control and excellent delivery. As the half drew to the close, he nearly teed up Duško Tošić and Nemanja Matić with one perfectly taken corner, and he thundered a volley over the bar. The Swiss were under pressure as the sides went into the break, and they needed to do something different.

Gavranović had the ball, and he faced a solid four-man Serbian defence. Switzerland’s attack had passed the midfield, but Gavranović still found himself fairly deep in his own half with little chance of breaking through. Serbia had done a good job restricting his options, and the half time replacement for the ineffective Haris Seferović could only run at the defence, unsure of what to do. Then, spotting something, he threaded a neat ball in behind the Serbian defenders.

The leveller came just after half time, and out of nowhere. It started with a counter-attack, as the Swiss looked to rebound from a Serbian corner and found themselves facing a slightly stretched defence. The ball made its way to Xherdan Shaqiri, who wheeled around on his left and attempted a shot which was solidly blocked by Aleksandar Kolarov. The ball trailed into space outside the area, seemingly harmless. Then Xhaka ran onto the loose ball. He didn’t worry about taking a touch, or setting himself. He just ran at the ball, aimed, and, without breaking stride, sent an unstoppable strike into the back of the net from a long way out. Stojković was caught flat-footed, and didn’t move as the ball rocketed past him. Minutes later, Shaqiri hit the top of the post with an incredible bending effort, regaining the ball after being tackled by Kolarov and nearly beating Stojković with a remarkable first time strike. Switzerland were starting to make things happen.

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Xherdan Shaqiri (back) scores the winning goal past a diving Vladimir Stojković (right) and a sliding Duško Tošić. Shaqiri was Switzerland’s best player, and thoroughly deserved his late goal.

Shaqiri was there to get on the end of it. All day, the diminutive star had been testing the Serbian defence, and now he found himself in on goal, with no defenders to beat. Tošić was the culprit, allowing the dangerous winger to slip in behind him and run onto the ball unimpeded. The ball had only just crossed the halfway line when Shaqiri got the ball at his feet, but the Serbian defence was already out of the equation and all Tošić could do was chase and hope for the best. As Shaqiri closed in on his target, the centre-back could have fouled him, got himself sent off and possibly prevented the goal. Instead, he chose to keep chasing, and Shaqiri kept running.

The game had soon become a more free-flowing affair. Mitrović thought he should have received a penalty when he tangled with two opponents in the box, but Felix Brych ignored his appeals and rubbed salt into the wound by paying a foul against him. It was Serbia’s best chance of the second half, as Switzerland began to pepper Stojković’s goal. For a fleeting moment, Switzerland thought Gavranović was one-on-one with the Serbian keeper after a nice pass from Shaqiri. The shot missed, and, seconds later, the offside flag was raised. Ivanović’s attempt to deny Zuber nearly ended in disaster, as the experienced right-back stabbed it past Stojković and only narrowly avoiding putting it into his own net. Soon after, Breel Embolo headed Rodríguez’s cross down for Gavranović, whose effort was poor and easily saved by Stojković. The Swiss had more chances, but Serbia continued to hold firm.

Tošić waited until the last moment to attempt his tackle, choosing to hold his challenge until Stojković rushed at Shaqiri. The diminutive Swiss dynamo would have won a penalty had he been fouled. Instead, sandwiched by two defenders, he just threaded it between them. Tošić lay on the ground after his last-gasp challenge. Stojković was on the deck after attempting in vain to make a save. Shaqiri was still on his feet as the ball rolled into the back of the net, and he wheeled away in celebration. He received a yellow card for removing his shirt during the celebration, but he didn’t care. Switzerland had won.

Kaliningrad – Kaliningrad Stadium
Serbia 1 (Mitrović 5)
Switzerland 2 (Xhaka 52, Shaqiri 90)
Referee: Felix Brych (Ger)
Serbia (4-2-3-1): Stojković – Ivanović, Milenković, Tošić, Kolarov; Matić, Milivojević (Radonjić 81); Tadić, Milinković-Savić, Kostić (Ljajić 64); Mitrović.
Switzerland (4-2-3-1): Sommer – Lichtsteiner, Schär, Akanji, Rodríguez; Behrami, Xhaka; Shaqiri, Džemaili (Embolo 73), Zuber (Drmić 90+4); Seferović (Gavranović 46).

Top 5
1. Xherdan Shaqiri (Switzerland)
Shaqiri’s dominant second half display got Switzerland over the line, and his late winner was a fair reward for a brilliant individual performance. He was quick and skilled, and he seemed to be able to find space in almost any situation. He was always a threat, especially when wheeling around to shoot with his lethal left boot.
2. Aleksandar Mitrović (Serbia)
Mitrović managed to find the back of the net in the first five minutes, and it helped his confidence for the rest of the game. He was constantly challenging the Swiss defenders in the air, and he was unlucky not to grab another goal with his excellent aerial presence and good positioning.
3. Dušan Tadić (Serbia)
Tadić was in very good touch in the first half, collecting the ball on the right wing and using his excellent skills to put Switzerland under the pump. His cross allowed Mitrović to head in Serbia’s only goal, and his delivery from both set pieces and open play created plenty of chances.
4. Granit Xhaka (Switzerland)
Xhaka turned the game in Switzerland’s favour with one brilliant first-time shot, showing both his incredible skills and his ability to change the game in the space of seconds. He had a hand in the second goal as well, and his composure in possession helped Switzerland to build their attacks.
5. Yann Sommer (Switzerland)
Sommer started the game with a tremendous reflex save, and although he conceded moments later he kept that good form up for the rest of the match. His judgement and composure when dealing with dangerous balls into the box was impeccable, as was his distribution from the back.

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