Group E may not be as straightforward as it looks. While Brazil are overwhelming favourites, in Switzerland, Serbia and Costa Rica, there are teams that can produce a surprise result.
Switzerland and Costa Rica have been World Cup regulars in recent times and the former enjoyed a solid qualifying campaign. Serbia make a return after eight years and are armed with a robust defence and midfield. Can the central American team repeat what they did in 2014, topping the ‘Group of death’ and reaching the quarter-finals?
It’s looking like a Brazil show all the way.
Group E: Brazil, Switzerland, Costa Rica, Serbia
There is an air of optimism surrounding Brazil going into a tournament that has earned them fans all over the world. They are five-time winners and are expected to go the distance in any tournament. If history is anything to go by, the Seleccao have always managed to lift themselves from a setback.
The ghost of the horrendous 1-7 thrashing from the hands of Germany in the 2014 World Cup still remains. On current form, though, they are penciled in as one of the favourites. Undoubtedly, a lot depends on talisman Neymar and his fitness levels during the course of the event. It would come as a massive surprise if the Brazilians don’t top their group. All their three opponents are tricky and can cause them trouble. But this is a side that is on a mission. Under Tite, Brazil have won 17 out of 21 games.
They finished ten points above second-placed Uruguay in the South American qualifiers and have shown little signs of slipping up. The absence of veteran Dani Alves at right-back is a blow but Neymar has proven his fitness in recent friendly matches, scoring in wins against Croatia and Austria. His goal in Vienna on Sunday, after his first start following a foot operation three months ago, was stunning.
Key Player: Neymar
With 55 goals from 85 games in his Brazil career, Neymar, at 26, is on his way to shatter his country’s goalscoring records. Even four years ago at home – at a time when he had little top level experience – the nimble-footed forward was heralded as the messiah of the South American nation’s hopes and dreams. Sadly, he was watching from the sidelines in horror during the semi-finals as Brazil stunningly capitulated against Germany.
World Cup record:
No team is more successful than Brazil, who have five titles to their name. As mentioned earlier, there is much talk surrounding their response to the fated events of July 9, 2014.
Their rousing form, balance, and strength in depth means that it will be a huge surprise if Brazil don’t end up as the victors of their group. Serbia, Switzerland and Costa Rica are tricky sides but the men in gold and green should at least get seven points from three games.
Switzerland do not care for reputation and recent results have once again shown their resilience to grind out and win games. Who can forget their shock win against Spain in 2010?
Vladmir Petkovic has a side that is stingy at the back and don’t just rely on one goalscorer to see them through. This is epitomised with 14 of them finding the back of the net during their qualifying campaign.
Switzerland come into the tournament on the back of a rich vein of form. Their only defeat in the qualifiers came at the hands of Portugal in their last group game, thereby missing out on a chance to automatically progress on the virtue of being leaders.
They recently earned a draw against mighty Spain in a friendly and it won’t come as a surprise if they earn a share of the spoils against Brazil. Costa Rica and Serbia, though, are quite evenly matched on paper and pipping them to progress to the knockout stages will be a hard task for Switzerland.
Key Player: Xherdan Shaqiri
When the pint-sized midfielder burst on to the big stage, he was destined for big things before a move to Bayern Munich stalled his career somewhat. Despite Stoke City getting relegated from the Premier League, Shaqiri was one of the standout players in his side. The English clubs have formed a beeline to get his signature. Can he produce a piece of magic similar to his wonder-strike against Poland in Euro 2016?
World Cup record:
Switzerland have had three quarter-final finishes but each of those finishes came more than 70 years ago. However, they have been consistent through the last decade, qualifying for the last four World Cups.
Prediction: Switzerland is our pick to follow Brazil to the knockout stages. However, they might be stopped in their tracks in a possible round of 16 showdown against Germany.
Serbia secured automatic qualification after edging out Republic of Ireland and Wales in a tough qualifying group. As an independent entity, this is only Serbia’s second tournament but many of their players are household names who ply their trade with the best clubs in the world.
The Serbians can outmuscle any side but they will have their task cut out against three tough opponents. Like Switzerland, they can emerge as a surprise package as well. Who can forget their thrilling win against Germany in the group stages of the 2010 World Cup? Another key factor in their ranks is the experience a number of players possess.
Key player: Sergej Milinkovic-Savic:
Blessed with a towering physique and good vision, the Lazio youngster has all the makings of being a top player. It is no surprise that rich clubs across Europe are after his signature with Manchester United reportedly leading the race.
He could be a key member in the middle of the park despite his inexperience at the international stage. It will be interesting to see how he combines with Nemanja Matic, Dusan Tadic and Adem Ljajic.
World Cup record: This is only Serbia’s second World Cup (excluding Yugoslavia and Serbia and Montenegro). In 2010, they failed to progress past the group stage.
Prediction: Serbia will find it tough to get past the group stages as Switzerland and Costa Rica have a slightly better pedigree in World Cups. But don’t rule them out. The squad has considerable experience to deal with a World Cup.
It is widely believed that the current squad is their best generation in their history. Costa Rica had a memorable run in 2014, reaching the quarter-final beating all odds. Despite finishing second in the group, Los Ticos were sluggish during their qualifying campaign. They failed to dislodge Mexico’s dominance in the region, were held to a draw against Honduras, and lost to Panama.
Being a consistent feature during World Cups is something that the country has steadily improved on in this millennium. It will be difficult for Costa Rica to replicate their efforts from the last edition. Even in 2014, they had tough opponents in their group. However, they stunned the world by topping their group after beating two former world champions in Italy and Uruguay. They were recently hammered by an inspired Belgian side, and their backline was in disarray while trying to contain Romelu Lukaku and Eden Hazard.
Key player: Keylor Navas
The Real Madrid keeper is now in a unique list, having been a part of three consecutive Champions League winning campaigns on the bounce. The 31-year-old can be error prone or pull off wonder saves: a lot depends on the form he is in.
Navas’ form was vital for Costa Rica to reach the quarters last time around. Yet again, so much depends on his performance between the sticks.
World Cup record:
After 1998, Costa Rica have managed to qualify for four of the five tournaments that followed. Their first tournament was in 1990. The aforementioned quarter-final finish in 2014 was their best finish.
Scratchy recent form suggests that they might finish at the bottom of the group.