Sweden calmly remove Switzerland with Forsberg’s fortunate strike

There was less than a minute remaining in the round of 16 clash between Sweden and Switzerland when Isaac Kiese Thelin received the ball in the centre of the field. Sweden led courtesy of Emil Forsberg’s slightly fortunate opener, and they had found an opening as the Swiss desperately committed men forward to their last ditch attack. Kiese Thelin played the ball into space, where Martin Olsson was running onto the ball at speed. There seemed to be no way to deny the onrushing Swedish left-back. Then Michael Lang entered the scene. The Swiss right-back, deputising for suspended captain Stephan Lichtsteiner, was quicker than Olsson, and he was breathing down his neck as the Swede reached the edge of the box. Lang gave him a push. It was subtle, but it was enough to send Olsson toppling to the ground, and enough to convince Damir Skomina to award a penalty and expel Lang for the foul. Lang left without complaint, and he was already off the field when the video assistant referee decided that the foul had actually been committed outside the box. Yann Sommer saved the resultant free-kick, but it was little consolation for the Swiss.

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Martin Olsson (right) is brought down on the edge of the box by Michael Lang. Lang was sent off for the challenge, but his expulsion had no impact on the outcome of the match.

The opening exchanges weren’t exactly filled to the brim with goalmouth action. Sweden had some early chances, mostly coming as a result of Swiss turnovers coming out of defence, but none of them really tested Sommer. When Switzerland settled, they began to control the ball and Sweden began to sit back and watch as their opponents played the ball around harmlessly. Occasionally Xherdan Shaqiri or Lang would slip in a dangerous ball, and occasionally Blerim Džemaili would squander a brilliant chance, but otherwise the Swiss posed little threat. The Swedish, despite conceding the lion’s share of possession, had the better chances in a generally slow first half. Albin Ekdal missed a couple of shots, most notably a close-range volley which should have been put away. Marcus Berg made his presence felt in attack, but he couldn’t quite combine his excellent positioning with the finishing touch required. Through all of it, Sommer’s nice diving save to turn away Berg’s dangerous volley was the only real save either goalkeeper had to make in the first 45 minutes.

The second 45 started similarly to the first, and it seemed like more of the same was imminent. Switzerland continued to look in control, even taking four corner kicks in a row early in the half, but they still couldn’t find a way through Sweden’s very well drilled defensive unit. They tried crosses, but most of them didn’t even reach the middle, let alone their intended target. Sweden’s direct, counter-attacking style looked more effective than Switzerland’s attempts at slow build-up play with their best finishers isolated in non-dangerous positions, but it wasn’t like Sweden’s counter-attacks were really worrying their opposition. Then they went ahead.

Forsberg, Sweden’s previously underperforming star, was the man who finally broke a deadlock which had lasted for over an hour and was threatening to carry on past the standard 90 minutes. The Swedish attacked the Swiss with a bit of urgency, and they managed to reach the edge of the area with the defence slightly out of position. That was enough for Forsberg. He received the ball from Ola Toivonen just outside the box, and he proceeded to take a touch before firing a shot at the Swiss goal. Between the posts, Sommer sunk into a low crouch, ready to make the save that seemed to be coming. The ball was headed straight to the ever-alert Swiss goalkeeper. It never reached him. Instead, it flew into the top corner, courtesy of Manuel Akanji’s incautiously outstretched leg. The ball hit the defender’s foot and took off, leaving Sommer with no time to react and no hope of making the save.

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Emil Forsberg (right) gets in the way of Breel Embolo’s header as Robin Olsen watches on. The slightly threatening corner was one of Switzerland’s only real chances as they looked to equalise.

Switzerland put some dangerous balls in. They tested Robin Olsen from range on a couple of occasions. They had corners, lots of corners. Nothing came of them, save for one threatening clearance which was cleared by Forsberg and Andreas Granqvist. Breel Embolo made an impact, but he could do no more than threaten to threaten. Ricardo Rodríguez put in plenty of crosses, both from set pieces and in open play, but none of them really tested the Swedish defence, and none of them provided Olsen with anything to do. Shaqiri’s crosses were even less dangerous. Attackers were thrown into the box, but Switzerland’s lack of a good finisher rather undermined their attempts to breach the Swedish defence through their numbers in the box. One of Rodríguez’s crosses finally found its mark shortly before the last act of Switzerland’s tournament ended in Lang’s expulsion. Haris Seferović actually got the header on target, but Olsen made the save and it came to nothing. Ultimately, Switzerland were just too short on talent in the final third, and they paid a heavy price.

Saint Petersburg – Krestovsky Stadium
Sweden 1 (Forsberg 66)
Switzerland 0
Referee: Damir Skomina (Svn)
Sweden (4-4-2): Olsen – Lustig (Krafth 82), Lindelöf, Granqvist, Augustinsson; Claesson, Svensson, Ekdal, Forsberg (Olsson 82); Toivonen, Berg (Kiese Thelin 90).
Switzerland (4-2-3-1): Sommer – Lang, Djourou, Akanji, Rodríguez; Behrami, Xhaka; Shaqiri, Džemaili (Seferović 73), Zuber (Embolo 73); Drmić.
Sent-off: Lang 90+4

Top 5
1. Emil Forsberg (Sweden)
Forsberg finally found some of his best form just when Sweden needed it, and his goal, while lucky, was a fitting reward for a strong performance. He looked threatening when he received the ball in the attacking third, and he made good things happen. It bodes well for Sweden’s quarter-final clash.
2. Ricardo Rodríguez (Switzerland)
Rodríguez was involved in most of Switzerland’s attacking play, and there was little wrong with his deliveries into the box. He put in plenty of crosses overlapping from the left side of defence, but he was never found wanting despite his aggressive forward play. With some quality players in the middle he could have easily picked up a few assists.
3. Andreas Granqvist (Sweden)
Granqvist has been a dominant force in Sweden’s penalty area throughout this tournament, and he saw them through to the quarter-finals with another big effort in the heart of the defence. He is seemingly never beaten in the air, and he just continues to hold the fort for his side.
4. Marcus Berg (Sweden)
Berg worked into plenty of good spots, but once again he left goalless after a series of saves and misses conspired to thwart him for the fourth match in succession. He has specialised in making a nuisance of himself at this tournament, and he was always heavily involved in Sweden’s attack.
5. Manuel Akanji (Switzerland)
Akanji is so composed that it’s hard to believe he has just 11 international caps to his name. He has slotted into the Swiss defence effortlessly at this tournament, and he didn’t miss a beat here despite losing his group stage partner, Fabian Schär, to suspension. He is a massive talent, and seems to have a big future ahead of him.

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Costa Rica snatch late draw from unconvincing Swiss

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Underwhelming Brazilians held by dogged Switzerland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2018 FIFA World Cup Preview – Final Prediction

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

The Contenders

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

The Dark Horses

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

The Wildcards

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

The Knockout Hopefuls

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

The Early Exiters

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

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

Predictions

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

2018 FIFA World Cup Preview – Group E

Group E

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

Brazil

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

Squad

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

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

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

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

Star Player: Neymar

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

Key Player: Casemiro

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

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

One to watch: Gabriel Jesus

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

Verdict

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

Switzerland

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

Squad

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

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

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

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

Star Player: Xherdan Shaqiri

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

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

Key Player: Haris Seferović

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

One to watch: Manuel Akanji

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

Verdict

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

Costa Rica

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

Squad

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

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

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

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

Star Player: Keylor Navas

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

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

Key Player: Celso Borges

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

One to watch: Bryan Oviedo

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

Verdict

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

Serbia

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

Squad

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

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

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

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

Star Player: Nemanja Matić

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

Key Player: Branislav Ivanović

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

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

One to watch: Sergej Milinković-Savić

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

Verdict

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

Prediction

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

Poland hold nerve in shootout after Shaqiri stunner

A masterful performance from Xherdan Shaqiri was not enough for Switzerland as they dropped out of Euro 2016 after losing to Poland on penalties in Saint-Etienne. The Polish looked headed for a certain victory, but Shaqiri scored the best goal of the tournament so far to grab a late equaliser. Extra time was inevitable, and after 30 added minutes the game was decided by penalties. Granit Xhaka’s horrendous miss proved costly as Poland held their nerve to win 5-4 on penalties, with Grzegorz Krychowiak netting the winner.

The game started poorly for the Swiss, and Arkadiusz Milik should have scored in the first minute when Johan Djourou’s weak back pass was nearly intercepted by Robert Lewandowski. Yann Sommer slid in to clear the ball, but he found Milik who missed with no goalkeeper to beat. Milik had another chance with a header moments later, but his attempt was saved by Sommer. After a nervy start the Swiss managed to find their way into the game thanks to Shaqiri, who had been given positional freedom and was roaming around wherever he thought he could create the most trouble for Poland. The game was an arm wrestle, with both teams playing well and neither side looking like breaking the deadlock despite the openness of the game. Great chances went begging for the Polish, with Krychowiak, Kamil Grosicki and Milik all missing the target after finding themselves in quality scoring positions. Fabian Schar had a chance with a header for the Swiss, but it was aimed straight at Lukasz Fabianski and was comfortably gathered.

Then came the goal. It came on the break after Fabianski had to make an excellent save to deny Blerim Dzemaili, whose shot took a deflection from Michal Pazdan on the way through. The resultant corner saw Djourou get an opportunity with a header from the back post, but Fabianski was able to take it. Then Poland broke. Fabianski threw the ball a long way to find Grosicki, who did not have many markers to deal with but did not have support either. Grosicki had played a great game, and Valon Behrami was paralysed as the Polish winger ran towards him. Grosicki drove him into the box, and then kicked it at his feet. The ball bounced off Behrami, and Grosicki drew two more defenders when he collected it again. Milik was lined up against Ricardo Rodriguez, and he let Grosicki’s cross fly over the back to Jakub Blaszczykowski, who had no marker. Sommer was in position, but the ball went through his legs and into the back of the net.

The first half ended rather uneventfully, but the Swiss sprang to life after the break. Shaqiri found space behind Poland’s defence less than a minute after the interval, but his pass back inside couldn’t find a teammate. Shaqiri had an attempt from range, but Fabianski was there. Switzerland were on top, but Poland could still find chances on the counter-attack. Sommer had to make an excellent save to deny Blaszczykowski, and Poland still looked a threat when they spread forward quickly. The Swiss could get the ball into plenty of dangerous positions, but Fabianski and his defence were up to the test. Rodriguez came close when he curled his free kick into the top corner, but Fabianski was able to react quickly to tap the ball away. Djourou had his shot blocked, and Haris Seferovic should have scored when the follow up came to him. He hit the bar.

Then came Shaqiri’s goal. Stephan Lichtsteiner had the ball on the left, and he put in a cross towards Seferovic. The striker flicked it back for Eren Derdiyok, who chested it out towards the edge of the penalty area. Shaqiri ran after it, and put a perfect bicycle kick into the bottom corner. Fabianski didn’t have a chance as the ball hit the post and bounced in. It was an incredible goal, and it was well-deserved after a supreme performance. Even still, the job wasn’t done yet. Switzerland had the momentum, and they kept pushing. They worked hard until the end of normal time, but they couldn’t win it. Shaqiri created some great chances in extra time, but they couldn’t win it. It was down to spot kicks.

Lichtsteiner scored, and so did Lewandowski. Then Granit Xhaka stepped up. The new Arsenal recruit stepped back, and with his left foot he blasted it wide. Fabianski was in the other corner, and would not have had a chance had Xhaka hit the target. He didn’t, and Poland slotted penalty after penalty past Sommer to win it, Krychowiak putting the winner into the top corner.

Saint-Etienne – Stade Geoffroy-Guichard
Switzerland 1 (Shaqiri 82)
Poland 1 (Blaszczykowski 39) (a.e.t., Poland won 5-4 on penalties)
Referee: Mark Clattenburg (Eng)

Switzerland (4-2-3-1): Sommer – Lichtsteiner, Schar, Djourou, Rodriguez; Behrami (Fernandes 77), Xhaka; Shaqiri, Dzemaili (Embolo 58), Mehmedi (Derdiyok 70); Seferovic.
Poland (4-4-2): Fabianski – Piszczek, Glik, Pazdan, Jedrzejczyk; Blaszczykowski, Krychowiak, Maczynski (Jodlowiec 101), Grosicki (Peszko 104); Milik, Lewandowski.

Top 5
1. Xherdan Shaqiri (Switzerland)
Shaqiri was at the top of his game, playing with plenty of freedom and causing huge issues for the Polish defence. His goal was the best this tournament has seen so far, and it was a fitting reward for what was a masterful performance. He showed all of his skill and class, and he was the main reason Switzerland were able to take the game to penalties.
2. Kamil Grosicki (Poland)
Grosicki was the best player on the field in the first half, and he was able to create plenty of chances for the Polish strikers. He set up Blaszczykowski for Poland’s only goal, and his ability to put in precise crosses from the left wing created big issues for the Swiss centre backs. He didn’t have as much of the ball in the second half, but he had a good game and is in good touch.
3. Ricardo Rodriguez (Switzerland)
Rodriguez was fairly solid at left back, and while it was his man who scored for Poland the goal was as a result of an undermanned defence rather than any mistakes. His work in the second half with the game on the line was brilliant, and he should have scored with a well-placed free kick which would have found the top corner but for a brilliant save.
4. Lukasz Fabianski (Poland)
Fabianski had a great game in goal, making some excellent saves and coming off his line well to claim the ball on multiple occasions. He did concede to an incredible goal from Shaqiri, but he was solid and mostly withstood the Swiss barrage in the second half. He had a good game and he was one of the key reasons for Poland’s success.
5. Michal Pazdan (Poland)
Pazdan was solid as ever at the heart of the Polish defence, and he constantly denied the Swiss as they looked to level in the second half. He was able to intercept plenty of Swiss crosses before they found the target, and his tackling was excellent in spite of a booking picked up in extra time. He played well and should continue to be a rock in the Polish defence for the rest of the tournament.