Brazil have defined World Cups like no other; from the kit to the players and the five captains who have climbed stairs to lift the iconic trophy, they remain the most exciting and intriguing international team on the planet.
Whatever group they are drawn in, Brazil will always attract considerable interest as the world gets to have a first glimpse at this latest incarnation of the famous Seleção and, here, we preview Group E, giving you the rundown on the four teams looking to reach the last 16.
It’s customary for Brazil to enter a World Cup as favourites; they are five-time champions for a reason and consistently produce world-class talent.
However, there are often concerns over team spirit, the tactical merit of the coach in charge and, crucially, if he’s capable of finding the right blend among the riches with which he has been blessed.
None of these concerns inhibit Brazil 2018, with the Seleção looking the strongest of the main contenders in the competition having qualified way back on March 29, 2017, while their record under Tite reads: played – 21, won – 17, drawn – 3, lost – 1, for 47, against – 5.
That last statistic is pertinent as it highlights the organisation and collective will Tite has fostered in his team. Brazil may produce some outstanding defenders but often individual ability hasn’t translated onto the national team.
The fact Tite’s achieved this in under two years, having picked up the wreckage from Dunga’s second term in charge after the 1994 World Cup winner tried and failed to list spirit post-2014 but Brazil were eliminated in the group stage at the 2016 Copa America.
Given the wealth of talent at his disposal, it’s easy to ignore the job Tite has done. But he inherited a disorganised and discordant dressing room still coming to terms with the aftershocks of the last World Cup and their 7-1 semi-final defeat to Brazil.
That result won’t ever leave the national consciousness but, in Russia, they can go some way to making amends.
With excellence throughout the XI (just in the goalkeeping department alone with Alisson and Ederson), youth (Gabriel Jesus) and experience (Thiago Silva and Marcelo) plus world-class attacking ability (Neymar, Roberto Firmino, Douglas Costa) and understated midfield generals (Renato Augusto, Casemiro, Paulinho), it’s difficult to identify exactly where the weaknesses lie.
Events in Belo Horizonte four years ago left a scar on Brazilian football that will never heal but it also revealed a lack of character and leadership within the national team. To help address this, Tite has rarely elected a definitive captain and on his watch, 16 different players have worn the armband.
It may seem unnecessary window-dressing but the potential of having 11 leaders on the field in a game can only enhance their chances in matches where things aren’t going according to plan.
Given the volume of goals they scored in qualifying – 41 in 18 matches – it’s perhaps not surprising to know that 14 different Brazilians found the target, with Gabriel Jesus their top-scorer on seven and Neymar and Paulinho just behind on six.
That breadth of attacking threat means the burden doesn’t fall primarily on Neymar, like in 2014, and that lack of pressure and expectation can only help his game; while if he’s not 100 per cent fit, there are plenty of other options for Tite.
Brazil were also incredibly efficient in front of goal during CONMEBOL qualifying as their 14.88 scoring attempts per game only ranked them 18th across all confederations. That’s fewer than Scotland (16.83) and only marginally more than Zambia (14.6).
While Tite’s side don’t need a lot to put the ball in the back of the net, they were also incredibly miserly at the back conceding just 11 with 10 clean sheets. However, their 9.22 scoring attempts conceded per game is a little generous for an elite side and that could give their rivals hope.
Cases can be made for anyone down the spine of the side but the return of their (still) golden boy gives Brazil that extra sprinkle of stardust that turns them from strong contenders into the best team in the world.
Neymar’s record for Brazil is ridiculous – 55 in 88 games – and while he hasn’t been scoring at quite the volume he was in 2013-14, in qualifying he led Brazil for scoring attempts per 90 (4.44), open play key passes (1.96) and successful take-ons (5.54).
Concerns over his fitness seem to have been allayed by his performance against Croatia in their 2-0 warm-up win but a relatively comfortable group gives the PSG forward time to play his way back into form and match sharpness, meaning he’ll be prime for the knockouts.
National teams can often become reflections of their country and this Swiss are well structed, nice to watch, understated but are unlikely to involve themselves in genuine global matters.
Die Nati have missed just one of the last seven major international tournaments but on each occasion have failed to get past the last 16. For a small, non-football nation that is more than admirable but there is little to suggest Vladimir Petkovic’s team will do anything else than repeat the modesty of their recent history.
A solid and largely unspectacular qualifying campaign came down to the Group B decider in Lisbon in which they lost 2-0 and then entered a two-legged play-off against Northern Ireland which was, true to form, won 1-0 over two legs.
And while Switzerland’s strengths of structure and sensible football has got them here, it may also prove a crutch if they are to advance beyond the level of basic expectation.
It’s not as if they lack penetration as their 18.5 scoring attempts per 90 ranked sixth among all European nations in qualifying but it’s potentially the individuals behind each effort as Haris Seferovic top-scored with four while the rest of their 23 goals were shared by 12 others.
That attacking altruism shouldn’t necessarily be criticised but without that primary attacking focal point, a go-to guy to get them a goal out of nothing, Petkovic’s plan breaks down.
There are some good individuals in Xherdan Shaqiri, Granit Xhaka, Breel Embolo, Ricardo Rodriguez and Denis Zakaria but nobody to take the team beyond the level of their existing capabilities. Switzerland seem a team forever stuck in one gear. As pleasant a ride as it may be.
The Swiss may have kept opposition goalkeepers busy but the quality of their chances created raises questions as the ranked 17th across Europe, below Kazakhstan, Montenegro and Slovakia, for big chances created per 90 with 1.41.
Defence is where their campaign will be built on, however, and eight clean sheets in nine matches are a testament to their preparation and ability to work as a unit. They ranked fifth for opposition passes allowed per game (316.5) and ninth for scoring attempts conceded (8.66).
They should be a tough nut to crack, for any side.
He may have been part of a team relegated from the Premier League but Xherdan Shaqiri will need to be at his best if the Swiss are to progress from Group E.
Their primary playmaker was fifth in the world for open play key passes per 90 (2.41) and 12th for set play key passes (0.83), rotating responsibility with left-back Rodriguez.
Los Ticos adventure in the World Cup has been either excellence or ignominy. Their debut appearance in the competition at Italia ’90 produced memorable victories over Sweden and Scotland (who were good back then), followed by defeat to Czechoslovakia in the knockouts.
The Central Americans didn’t qualify again until 2002 but their impact in South Korea and Japan was considerable less forceful as they bowed out in the group stage, albeit with four points. Germany 2006 was even worse as three defeats and nine goals conceded saw them finish rock bottom.
Another period of isolation followed before their return to Brazil and absence clearly made the heart grow fonder as Costa Rica were one of the revelations of the tournament. Topping the group of death featuring Uruguay, Italy and England was a remarkable feat.
They then beat Greece in the last 16 and ran the Dutch all the way in the quarter-finals only to bow out on penalties.
Which side of the coin, Costa Rica will fall on in Russia is unclear as qualification out of the CONCACAF section was achieved with relatively little drama and in a professional manner, finishing second with only two defeats – in Mexico and Panama, and the latter was with their place already booked.
However, results in the warm-up matches also give cause for concern as they were thrashed by Spain and Belgium and lost to Turkey and Tunisia, in between wins over Scotland and Northern Ireland.
There is plenty of familiarity in the squad with many of their key components survivors from 2014 but the qualities of coach Oscar Ramirez, who took over in 2015, have been brought into question, especially when he famously didn’t know the name of Eden Hazard during their 4-1 defeat.
Costa Rica are just one of those sides whose numbers don’t leap out but overall it produces a solid average. Defensively, they were the third-best team in CONCACAF qualifying for scoring attempts conceded (10.5) but sixth for passes conceded (399.64) and fifth for big chances conceded (0.92).
In the final third, the were fourth-highest for scoring attempts (11.42), fourth for passes (364.07) and fourth for big chances created (0.85). Yet, in the end were comfortably their confederation’s second-best team.
He was their hero in Brazil and Keylor Navas remains Los Ticos’ only world class player in a squad largely drawn domestically and from MLS.
Capable of true brilliance behind the sticks, his erratic handling he occasionally displays for Madrid isn’t as apparent and his safe hands will carry the hopes of a nation once again.
Serbia’s brief history as a football nation has proven eventful, with forgettable instances of fan violence often permeating through and unfortunately defining qualification campaigns, but on the field, there has been little to stir much emotion.
In two World Cups since footballing independence in 2006, has witnessed two largely listless group stage eliminations and precious few memorable moments bar a 1-0 victory over Germany in 2010, which ultimately proved fruitless.
For a country which churns out technically-proficient footballers at a steady rate, many of which have played for some of Europe’s top clubs, it’s something of a mystery as to why they’ve never even reached the status of being recognised as ‘dark horses’, let alone making a significant noise at a World Cup.
But their path to 2018 was shaping up to be a comfortable and proficient passage only to descend into slight chaos with the dismissal of coach Slavoljub Muslin last October.
A 3-2 defeat in Austria had raised nerves that Serbia wouldn’t get across the line in Group D but the real reason was reportedly his deteriorating relationship with star man Manchester United transfer target Sergej Milinković-Savić.
The Serbian FA sided with the Lazio midfielder and it was over to Mladen Krstajić to guide them to Russia where, given the quality of some of their players, they have every chance of progressing into the last 16.
Milinković-Savić was one of the leading lights in Serie A last season, while the veteran defensive unit of Branislav Ivanović, Nemanja Matić and Aleksander Kolarov shapes so much in what Krstajic’s side do. Dušan Tadić and Luka Milivojević are also well known to Premier League followers.
Brazil are the only genuine superpower in their section and although experience among the squad at this level is scant, they certainly have the talent to finally leave a lasting impression on the biggest stage.
In a numbers sense, Serbia didn’t achieve a great deal to stand out from the crowd. They weren’t big goalscorers (2.0 per game), nor huge creators of chances (12.9 scoring attempts was 23rd in Europe); while obstensibly a defensive side they still average a goal conceded a game, only kept four clean sheets and allowed 10.7 scoring attempts, 20th among UEFA nations.
They are, however, strong midfield scrappers with 28.1 possessions won in the middle third, seventh-most in Europe, and 58.5 ball recoveries, 13thoverall.
The experience of Matić and Ivanović will provide the core on which Serbia must build on but for them do to anything above just competing then Milinković-Savić will need to come to the fore.
The 23-year-old has that Zidane-esque swagger about him as he’s tall and powerfully-built but combines it with blissful technique and a real ability to glide around the pitch. He’s a potential tournament star.
- Costa Rica