Brazil have long been the most glamorous name in international football and, with the likes of Neymar and Phillipe Coutinho among their ranks, are more than worthy of top billing in Group E of the 2018 World Cup. Switzerland, Costa Rica and Serbia will be hoping to do more than make up the numbers and at least one of them will; assuming Brazil top the group one of the other three teams will progress to the last-16.
Opportunity awaits. Can Brazil build the foundations for a title push? Which of the other three teams will delight their fans by claiming a rare spot in the knockout stages?
Four years on from the horror 7-1 defeat by Germany in their home World Cup the Brazilian’s will be keen to reassert themselves on a tournament they’ve dominated more than any other. Brazil have won the World Cup five times and will be many people’s favourites to make it six in Russia.
Manager Tite has brought much needed fluency and cohesion to a team that has lurched between the careless defending that cost them in 2014 and the stifling pragmatism of Dunga’s periods in charge. Their front three of Neymar, Coutinho and Man City’s Gabriel Jesus would fetch a pretty penny in the transfer market. Mobile, creative forwards who, crucially, are also team players, the trio symbolise the team they spearhead with such devastating effect.
Neymar has 53 goals in 83 appearances for the Seleção, Gabriel Jesus 7 in 13, so it seems safe to say goals shouldn’t be a problem. The supply line shouldn’t be bad either. Marcelo and Dani Alves will both be in their 30s by the time Russia comes around but are shaping up to be Brazil’s best attacking full-back pairing since Cafu and Roberto Carlos. Elsewhere, Paulinho has excelled since his unexpected transfer from Chinese football to Barcelona, causing chaos with late runs into the box from midfield.
It would be as easy to marvel at Brazil’s squad depth as that of France or Spain – Roberto Firmino? Willian? Fernandinho? Alex Sandro? – but strong squads don’t always translate into smooth, cohesive starting 11s. Brazil look to have the most stable starting XI of any of the big guns heading for Russia and should cruise to the top of a relatively weak group.
Switzerland may not be known as one of the powers of world football but their track record at World Cups is solid. They’ve qualified for the last three, reaching the knock-out stages in 2006 and 2014, and have a strong enough team to make them believe they can make it three out of four last-16 appearances.
Xherdan Shaqiri and Granit Xhaka have starred for the national team for so long they seem to have been around forever but, at 26, the tournament finds both in their prime. Xhaka dictates the tempo of the play, as he does for Arsenal, while with 20 goals in 68 appearances Stoke’s Shaqiri is his team’s biggest goal threat.
The Swiss kept six clean sheets in ten qualifying matches and many would argue that they are a solid rather than spectacular side. Valon Behrami and Gélson Fernandes are strong, reliable midfielders who’ve been around the block, while Juventus’s Stephan Lichtsteiner and Milan’s Ricardo Rodriguez are full-backs playing at the highest level in Italy.
Manager Vladimir Petkovic will be hopeful of guiding the Swiss through to the last-16 in his first World Cup as manager.
Underestimate Costa Rica at your peril. Drawn in the so-called “group of death” alongside Italy, England and Uruguay at Brazil 2014, the Costa Ricans shocked everyone by topping the group and would have made it all the way to the semi-finals but for defeat on penalties to Holland.
Head coach Jorge Luis Pinto has since been replaced by Óscar Ramírez but many of the players who proved so influential in 2014, notably Joel Campbell and captain Bryan Ruiz, are still key members of the squad.
The team performed well in the Concacaf (North, Central American and Carribean) qualifying section, sealing their place in Russia 2018 with two games to spare despite competition from the likes of Mexico and the USA. The Costa Ricans tend to set up in a 4-5-1 formation, with Bryan Ruiz asked to plough a lone furrow up front, supported by forward runs from the likes of Deportivo La Coruna’s Celso Borges (whose 21 international goals highlight his attacking threat).
At the back Real Madrid’s Kaylor Navas provides a study last line of defence. The Costa Ricans will be tough to beat but will they have enough firepower to overcome teams every bit as solid as they are?
Serbia failed to qualify for Brazil 2014 so will be highly motivated for Russia 2018 and boast a high level of technical quality throughout the team. Premier League midfield duo Nemanja Matic and Luka Milivojević are exemplars of the blend of physical prowess and skill that should make the Serbs tough to beat, while Southampton’s erratic but skilled Dusan Tadic has quality to offer going forward.
It is, however, a younger attacking midfielder, Lazio’s Sergej Milinković-Savić, who made the most headlines in the qualifying campaign – for his absence from the squad. The issue proved so divisive that manager Slavoljub Muslin left his post at the end of the qualifying campaign to be replaced, on an interim basis, by Mladen Krstajic, an admirer of Milinković-Savić’s fledgling gifts.
With uncertainty over who will lead the Serbs in Russia it’s tough to make any firm predictions about how they will fare. On paper Serbia look like a good match for Switzerland and Costa Rica so should be a contender for that second qualification spot with managerial stability.
Brazil v Switzerland (Sunday June 17th) should be an exciting beginning to the group – and could be crucial. Expect the Swiss to form a solid base and challenge the Brazilians to break them down while they look for opportunities on the break. If the Brazilians can craft a way through the sturdy Swiss defence and turn on the style they’ll be in good shape to win the group.However, if the Swiss can stifle their way to a draw or a counterpunching win Brazil could be drawn into a dogfight for qualification.
Switzerland v Costa Rica (Wednesday June 27th) doesn’t sound like the most exciting game to close the group but it could be surprisingly open.If both teams are in contention for a last-16 place – or need to better Serbia’s result against Brazil to make it through – they may be forced to go for the jugular. The game could be a straight fight to stay in the tournament.
Brazil have the class and cohesion to come through the group but the other three teams appear as evenly matched as the 2nd to 4th seeds in any of the World Cup groups. The second qualifying spot will likely be decided by small margins: a moment of brilliance or a mistake. Pundits will favour the Swiss on the basis of their performances at recent tournaments, but Serbia and Costa Rica look every bit as capable of earning a last-16 place.