Neymar's timely return to fitness will considerably boost Brazil's chances of a sixth World Cup win, but they first need to navigate past Switzerland, Costa Rica, and Serbia in a testing Group E
Brazil have been drawn in a testing group with Switzerland, Costa Rica, and Serbia as they chase an unprecedented sixth World Cup win in Russia.
Having been embarrassed at home in 2014—1-7 defeat by Germany in their semi-final—Brazil will be eager to bury the ghosts of their biggest-ever World Cup defeat. Their squad has been almost completely transformed since that humiliation, with a lot of players having quickly established themselves at the club and international levels.
Manchester City upstart Gabriel Jesus, who has displaced Sergio Aguero as Manchester City’s main striker, will be leading the attack with Roberto Firmino likely to be his understudy. It is testament to Brazil’s strong squad that the Liverpool frontman Firmino is not sure of a starting spot despite his 27 goals and 17 assists this season. The new Brazilian striker duo is a clear upgrade on Fred and Jo that they called upon in their Belo Horizonte defeat to Germany four years ago.
Neymar, the most expensive footballer in the world, will be the attacking fulcrum of the side, starting nominally on the left but free to move wherever he deems fit. His injury in February means that the forward will go to Russia fresh after a long break which will play to Brazil’s advantage.
In Philippe Coutinho, Fernandinho, Casemiro, Rafinha Alcanatara, Willian, and Paulinho, there is a plethora of midfield options for manager Tite to choose from. They also have options in goal with two outstanding goalkeepers in Alisson Becker and Ederson Moraes.
The backline, however, suffered a huge blow last week as right-back Dani Alves was ruled out due to a knee injury. The options in that area are not at the same level as the 35-year-old Alves and that could be an area the opposition will look to exploit. At the other defensive end, Marcelo will be the first-choice while Miranda, Marquinhos and Thiago Silva vie for the two centre-back spots.
Brazil will open their campaign against Switzerland, who have been fairly consistent at the tournament whenever they have qualified since the 1990s—usually making out of the group stage but never any further. This year too will likely be the same. They have the team to put steady displays but lack a creative spark that would inspire them to greater heights.
Yann Sommer will be in goal behind the centre-back pairing of Manuel Akanji and Fabian Schar. Ricardo Rodriguez and captain Stephan Lichtsteiner as full backs provide solidity as well as threat on the wings with surging forward runs.
Haris Seferovic will lead the attack and Xherdan Shaqiri will be a source of creativity and a considerable threat on set-pieces.
Serbia are back at a World Cup after missing out in 2014 and will be eager to make it to the round of 16 for the first time in their history. Brazil may prove too hot for them but manager Mladen Krstajic’s men will fancy their chances of finishing ahead of the Swiss and Costa Rica.
There is experience aplenty in Serbia’s defence with veterans like Aleksandar Kolarov, Branislva Ivanovic, Antonio Rukavina and Dusan Basta vying for spots in the backline while Vladimir Stojkovic will be manning the goal.
The defensive midfield pairing of Luka Milivojevic and Nemanja Matic will make it extremely hard for the opposition to have a go at the Serbian defence. Lazio’s in-demand attacking midfielder Sergej Milinkovic-Savic will be the main creative outlet along with Adem Lajic and Dusan Tadic.
The team’s leading striker, Aleksandar Mitrovic, has enjoyed a prolific campaign at Fulham after joining them in February and will be eager to carry that form to Russia.
Serbia’s opening match rivals, Costa Rica, enjoyed an improbable campaign four years ago in Brazil, reaching the quarter-finals, confounding even their most ardent supporters. No one expected them to make it out of a group that included Italy, Uruguay, and England. But they did and then some, squeezing past Greece in the round of 16.
Costa Rica’s group this year is easier, at least on paper, but they will need another heroic campaign to make it to the knockout rounds.
Their squad hasn’t changed much in four years and most of the players from Brazil will be in Russia as well. Manager Jorge Luis Pinto has since retired but the new man in charge, Oscar Ramirez, has continued the same tactics that served Pinto so well.
Real Madrid No.1 Keylor Navas will be in goal behind a five-man defence that will be protected by a further bank of four. When in possession, Costa Rica attack through their wingers—usually Christian Bolanos and Bryan Ruiz—who will look to feed first-choice striker Marcos Urena.
Brazil are clear favourites in Group E but they cannot let their guard down in any of the three games. While the five-time world champions will be hard to catch, it’s an open field for the second spot.
For analysis of the other 2018 FIFA World Cup groups, click here.