Alisson, Thiago Silva, Miranda, Pedro Geromel, Casemiro, Filipe Luis, Douglas Costa, Renato Augusto, Gabriel Jesus, Neymar (c), Coutinho, Marcelo, Marquinhos, Danilo, Paulinho, Cassio, Fernandinho, Fred, Willian, Firmino, Taison, Fagner, Ederson (Manager: Tite)
PLAYER TO WATCH
The most expensive player in world football and one of the game’s true superstars, Neymar will be looking for revenge after a disappointing tournament four years ago left him with a fractured vertebrae and his nation with an embarrassing semifinal collapse on home soil. Neymar has since developed into a true leader and remains the great hope of his proud footballing nation. Playing as part of a front three, usually deployed wide left, Neymar is probably the second best dribbler of a football in the world right now behind former Barcelona teammate Lionel Messi, and will cause opposition fullbacks absolute terror. Returning from injury in time to take his place in the squad, Neymar has the (un)enviable task of bringing Brazil back into glory, and after a successful debut season in Paris with PSG, where he scored 28 goals in 30 appearances in all competitions despite sustaining a broken foot in February, he certainly has the capabilities to deliver on the hype.
UNDER THE RADAR
Perhaps he isn’t truly under the radar considering the season he’s just had, but AS Roma goalkeeper Alisson is definitely an integral part to Brazil’s success. Playing with a stout defence in front of him for both club and country, Alisson had an exceptional debut season in Serie A with Roma, establishing himself as a first choice keeper, keeping 17 clean sheets in 37 league appearances, a feat which put him equal second for the most in the league, tied with Inter’s Samir Handanovic and one behind Napoli’s Pepe Reina. Having already attracted the attention of Europe’s elite, Alisson is comfortable playing out of defence and commands his area well, and has built a reputation as an elite stopper from close range.
KEY MAN OUT
Had he not suffered a knee injury in the Coupe de France final with PSG, Dani Alves would be a certain selection in the squad, having played a key part in the qualification process. As it is, however, Brazil will not have the elite running ability, crossing or goal scoring nous that the right back possesses. Quick and skillful on the ball, Alves has redefined the position of the modern attacking wing-back over his 17-year career. Despite a few discipline issues, Brazil will certainly miss the ageless, marauding Alves.
After the disappointment of 2014 and the 7-1 semifinal defeat at the Estadio Mineirao in Belo Horizonte — the “Mineiraço” — Brazil enter this World Cup with a refreshed, hungry squad looking to make amends. Brazil have bags of talent all over the park and will be able to take advantage of even the most minor of mistakes from lesser opposition. Brazil’s attack are all rounding into good form before the tournament, with Neymar in full flown following his recent injury, Roberto Firmino coming off a Champions League final, Philippe Coutinho recently winning La Liga, Willian’s triumph in the FA Cup and Gabriel Jesus’ scintillating debut season for Manchester City. If Brazil can defend strongly, which they should with a central pairing of Thiago Silva and Miranda, then they can very easily make a deep run into the tournament and win it all.
Filipe Luis - 2014-2015: 26 appearances, 1 goal
Willian - 2013-current: 236 appearances, 44 goals
Brazil walked through CONMEBOL qualifying, topping the region by 10 points and losing only one game in the entire process, a 2-0 defeat away in Chile. Winning 8 of their 9 home games, they only dropped points in a 2-2 draw to Uruguay. Their away form was a little less glamourous, but they took care of business, with the aforementioned Chile trip their only loss, while handing Uruguay a 4-1 smacking in Montevideo. Gabriel Jesus was the star in qualifying, scoring 7 goals, while Neymar and Paulinho added 6 apiece. Possessing the best attack and defence in the region, Brazil had absolutely no trouble in breezing through the games and booking a ticket to Russia. In fact, they were the first team outside of the hosts to secure a place in the tournament.
Played: 18. Won: 12. Drawn: 5. Lost: 1. Goals For: 41. Goals Conceded: 11. Points: 41.
Navas, Acosta, Gonzalez, Smith, Borges, Duarte, Bolanos, Oviedo, Colindres, Ruiz (c), Venegas, Campbell, Wallace, Azofeifa, Calvo, Gamboa, Tejeda, Pemberton, Waston, Guzman, Urena, Matarrita, Moreira (Manager: Oscar Ramirez)
PLAYER TO WATCH
Joel Campbell is definitely the biggest name in the Costa Rican squad, having made his name as a youth product of Arsenal. Possessing blistering pace, Campbell didn’t quite make the grade in North London but has still carved out a respectable career in Spain and Greece, notably with Real Betis, with whom he has made 42 appearances across two stints. The issue with Campbell is his end product: only scoring 4 goals during his Betis career is less than impressive. His best season came with Olympiacos in Greece in 2013-14, scoring 11 goals in 43 appearances. Still on Arsenal’s books, Campbell is a mainstay in the national side, with 76 caps at the young age of 25. With a better conversion rate at international level, Campbell is the main weapon for a Costa Rica squad, with his pace up front allowing him to get behind defences and attacking goal.
UNDER THE RADAR
The wonderfully named Yeltsin Tejeda is a pivotal part of the Costa Rican midfield, and has 50 caps to prove it despite being only 26 years old. Tasked with protecting the back four, the defensive midfielder who plays in Switzerland for Lausanne is known for his good positioning that allows him to successfully break up play and intercept opposition attacks. Somewhat on the smaller side for a true enforcer in midfield, Tejeda plays more of a roving role, in the mould of someone like Ramires or Kante, albeit obviously not to the same level. While he is good at reading play, he isn’t known as much of a tackler and due to his stature is prone to losing out in aerial duels.
KEY MAN OUT
Costa Rica have a largely experienced international squad, with 14 of the 23 players selected having appeared in over 40 matches for the country, and only 3 players with less than 20 games of experience for the nation, but they have still left some experience at home, including Roy Miller. The 33-year-old defender has enjoyed a successful career in the USA with New York Red Bulls and currently Portland Timbers, establishing himself as a leader at both MLS sides. The left back is strong in the tackle and reads the play well, and makes good use of his 1.88m height. Miller has World Cup experience, too, as part of the neutrals-favorite 2014 side, but was left at home in favour of Sunderland left back Bryan Oviedo.
Costa Rica have plenty of flair going forward both centrally and out wide. Campbell and former Fulham man Bryan Ruiz are the two main men going forward, while they also have very capable wingbacks in Oviedo and Celtic wide man Cristian Gamboa Luna, both of whom possess speed and wicked crossing ability. It is an experienced squad that Costa Rica bring to Russia, in terms of international exposure, but the key men for the squad haven’t been in red hot form lately. We’ve already looked at Campbell’s struggles in front of goal at club level, but Bryan Ruiz has also been in spotty form lately. He made 20 appearances in the league for Sporting this season, but only 11 of those were from the start, and he only managed 2 goals and 1 assist. The Ticos will need Ruiz to fire and support Campbell and Marco Urena up front, or chances will be hard to come by.
In the fifth round of CONCACAF qualifying, Costa Rica ended up finishing second in the group, granting them automatic passage to Russia. Costa Rica supplemented their campaign with strong results against a highly disappointing USA team, beating them 4-0 at home and 2-0 in the States. Costa Rica didn’t drop a game at home, but managed only two wins out of the five games, which meant that they very much needed those strong results against America to advance. In fact, their 4 wins all came against the US (who finished 5th) and Trinidad and Tobago (who finished last), though they managed to hold strong opponents like Mexico and Panama to draws. Marco Urena led the Costa Rican charge with 3 goals as they advanced on the back of a strong defensive mentality and the ability to grind out positive results.
Played: 10. Won: 4. Drawn: 4. Lost: 2. Goals For: 14. Goals Against: 8. Points: 16.
Stojković, Rukavina, Tosic, Milivojevic, Spajic, Ivanovic, Zivkovic, Prijović, Mitrovic, Tadic, Kolarov (c), Rajkovic, Veljkovic, Rodic, Milenkovic, Grujic, Kostic, Radonjic, Jovic, Milinković-Savić, Matic, Ljalic, Dmitrović (Manager: Mladen Krstajić)
PLAYER TO WATCH
While not the biggest name in the team, Southampton’s Dusan Tadic is the one to watch for a Serbian side with a very real chance of advancing out of this group. Despite a relatively disappointing season for a struggling Southampton side, Tadic still poses a danger to any opposition defence. With quick feet and ability to create space for a shot around the edge of the box, he has the talent to create havoc for Serbia and build a vital partnership with striker Aleksandar Mitrovic. Tadic scored 6 goals in the Premier League last term, mainly operating as a number-10, although he can play both left and right wing as well as push further forward into a supporting striker role. If Tadic can get the ball between the lines he can make good things happen for the Serbs.
UNDER THE RADAR
One of Serbia’s 2015 U20 World Cup heroes, Andrija Zivkovic is very capable of bursting onto the big scene at this World Cup. Only 21 years old, he currently plies his trade out in Portugal for Benfica, mainly as a traditional central midfielder, although he is also comfortable playing further up in an attacking role. Zivkovic possesses elite passing vision, and is very adept in tight spaces, playing short passes and working combinations with one-twos and layoffs. When forced wide he is also a capable crosser and presents as an alternative option to taking set pieces and corners. Given the depth of Serbia’s midfield with the likes of Nemanja Matic and Luka Milivojevic, Zivkovic may be forced into a substitute role, but if Serbia want a more creative option rather than two enforcers like the aforementioned duo, then Zivkovc presents a viable option.
KEY MAN OUT
By far the biggest name left off the squad list for Serbia is Partizan winger and former CSKA Moscow man Zoran Tosic. Making his name in Moscow, the 31-year-old’s form began to taper off in his last few seasons in the Russian capital, before securing a move back home to Partizan Belgrade, where he reignited with 10 goals in 22 league games. A pacy winger comfortable on either flank, Tosic is known as a goal scorer and can test the keeper from range. He’s also got the ability to dribble with speed and beat defenders to get dangerous balls into the box, a useful skill given Serbia’s first choice striker Mitrovic, is known more as a target man rather than a striker who plays with his feet.
Serbia are back at the dance after not qualifying for Brazil 2014, and will be looking to advance out of the group stage for the first time since 1998. They have plenty of experience with the likes of Nemanja Matic, Branislav Ivanovic, Aleksandar Kolarov and Vladimir Stojkovic, and have enough talent up front with the likes of Tadic and Mitrovic to be able to create consistent opportunities. The question with Serbia will be where the creative influence will come from, especially if Dusan Tadic is targeted. If Serbia are comfortable starting Zivkovic, he can counter any ineffectiveness from Tadic, and despite his size at 1.69m, he can be covered adequately by Nemanja Matic. The other issue with Serbia is that they haven’t picked an overly athletic squad, especially in defence, with an ageing core at risk of being overrun by quicker, more agile attacks, and needing to build attacks through slow possession rather than fast counters.
Branislav Ivanovic - 2008-2017: 377 appearances, 34 goals
Nemanja Matic - 2009-2011, 2014-2017: 154 appearances, 7 goals
Serbia only dropped the one game in qualifying on their way to winning UEFA’s Group D bracket, thus granting them automatic qualification ahead of the likes of the Republic of Ireland, Wales and Austria. Serbia’s only loss in qualifying came in a 3-2 away defeat at the hands of Austria, where they were felled by an 89th minute winner. Serbia struggled a little defensively, conceding 10 goals, worse than both Ireland and Wales, but their attack shone, hitting 20 goals, led by Mitrovic with 6. It must be said that Serbia’s group wasn’t particularly strong, so it will be interesting to see how they handle the step up in level; but expect this experienced group to be up for the challenge.
Played: 10. Won: 6. Drawn: 3. Lost: 1. Goals For: 20. Goals Against: 10. Points: 21.
Sommer, Lichtsteiner (c), Moubandje, Elvedi, Akanji, Lang, Embolo, Freuler, Seferovic, Xhaka, Behrami, Mvogo, Rodriguez, Zuber, Džemaili, Fernandes, Zakaria, Gavranovic, Drmic, Djourou, Burki, Schar, Shaqiri (Manager: Vladimir Petkovic)
PLAYER TO WATCH
Look for Xherdan Shaqiri to exert his influence, as the Stoke City man has a history of showing up in big tournaments. Shaqiri’s 2014 World Cup was a perfect example, when he earned Man of the Match honours in two group games before Switzerland lost in the quarterfinals to Argentina. A nuggety winger possessing a fierce left foot and pace to beat his man, Shaqiri was one of the few bright lights of a dismal Stoke season, scoring 8 goals and 7 assists in the Premier League despite relegation. However, controversy has followed his otherwise burgeoning career, with him calling his Stoke teammates poor earlier this season (he wasn’t wrong) and saying that even Ronaldinho wouldn’t improve the team. He also got into a feud with national team manger Vladimir Perkovic at Euro 2016, which ended up with him stripped of the armband after threatening to switch allegiance to his nation of birth, Kosovo.
UNDER THE RADAR
Breel Embolo is a star in the making. Already with 25 international caps at the tender age of 21, Embolo, like most Swiss youth, came through the ranks at FC Basel before moving to Schalke in 2016. Operating mainly as an attacking midfielder or a forward, Embolo only scored 3 Bundesliga goals last term from 21 appearances, although 12 of those were as a substitute. Quick and tricky, Embolo is known for his dribbling ability, with a penchant to draw fouls, as well as his forward pressure, although he has displayed an alarming knack for being caught offside on numerous occasions. Still, as part of a forward group that includes Haris Seferovic and Josip Drmic, Embolo adds pace and power to an already mobile group.
KEY MAN OUT
A dual feature here on two Swiss strikers who won’t be in Russia, Eren Derdiyok and Admir Mehmedi. The latter played a crucial role at Brazil in 2014, where he came on as a substitute to head in an equaliser versus Ecuador. Both strikers are vastly experienced on the international stage, but both hit a poor run of form at the critical time, with neither of them having a particularly prosperous 2017-18 season. Mehmedi only appeared 12 times in the league for Leverkusen, scoring twice, while Derdiyok hit 3 goals in 16 appearances for Galatasaray in the SuperLig. This isn’t a new problem: both strikers are capable of linking up play well and holding the ball up, but do not have great scoring records. With established, younger options in Seferovic and Embolo available, Petkovic made the call that these two were surplus to requirements.
Switzerland have an array of impressive talent going forward, but we haven’t even had the room to discuss their talented midfield yet, with names such as Granit Xhaka, Blerim Dzemaili and Valon Behrami, all established first team players in club football. Xhaka especially will be critical to Swiss hopes with his metronomic style of play as a deep lying playmaker; his range of passing will be critical to unleashing the likes of Shaqiri and Embolo to be able to attack opposing defences. The Swiss defence also has key contributors on the flanks, especially Ricardo Rodriguez and Stephan Lichtsteiner. Both are very much capable of pushing forward and supplementing the attack. Switzerland will look to flood the opposition box and outnumber their defenders, and should advance as the second place team in this tough group.
Despite winning 9 out of their 10 games in Group B qualifying in UEFA, Switzerland still had to go through a playoff as a result of Portugal equalling their record of 9 wins but possessing a better goal difference, +28 to +16. Switzerland’s only loss came in the form of a 2-0 defeat in Portugal. Haris Seferovic led the Swiss onslaught with 4 goals while captain Lichtsteiner had 3 from defence. In a balanced attack, Mehmedi, Rodriguez and Xhaka all had 2 goals apiece. In the playoff, Switzerland hung on for a 1-0 win in Northern Ireland before holding them to a scoreless draw back home, with a Ricardo Rodriguez penalty enough to send the country into their fourth consecutive World Cup.
Played: 10. Won: 9. Drawn: 0. Lost: 1. Goals For: 23. Goals Conceded: 7. Points: 27.
* All times listed in Moscow Standard Time (UTC + 3)
17/6/18 - 3pm - Costa Rica vs. Serbia - Samara
17/6/18 - 9pm - Brazil vs. Switzerland - Rostov-on-Don
22/6/18 - 3pm - Brazil vs. Costa Rica - Saint Petersburg
22/6/18 - 9pm - Serbia vs. Switzerland - Kaliningrad
27/6/18 - 9pm - Serbia vs. Brazil - Moscow
27/6/18 - 9pm - Switzerland vs. Costa Rica - Nizhny Novgorod
Brazil are the obvious favourites in the group, and they should advance with relative ease, but there will be lingering demons after their exit from their home tournament back in 2014. Still, they have too much quality all over the park and possess the one true gamebreaker in the group in Neymar to be able to turn a game on its head. For Costa Rica to advance, they can’t get tied up in an arm wrestle, and need to use their pace up front and out wide with the likes of Joel Campbell and their fullbacks to be able to keep the game up-tempo. They don’t need to be a high possession team but they need to move quickly once they do win the ball. For Serbia to advance, it will be about how well they can counter their lack of athleticism with their experience. They should be able to rely on cool heads, and a strong midfield of Matic, Zivkovic and Milivojevic can certainly in that regard. For Switzerland to advance, they need to get the likes of Shaqiri and Embolo involved and engaged. Seferovic can operate as a lone striker but will need support from the wide men, and the myriad of central midfielders at the Swiss’ disposal will be key in controlling possession in order to provide quality supply to their playmakers.