2018 FIFA World Cup: Group E
The Teams: Brazil, Switzerland, Serbia, Costa Rica
Whilst Brazil, the most decorated country in the history of the World Cup, should fancy themselves to win this group comfortably, there remains a lingering element of intrigue as to whether it will be Switzerland, Serbia or Costa Rica who joins them. Brazil have now seemingly recovered from their utterly humiliating 7-1 defeat to Germany in the Semi-Finals 4 years ago, and became the first nation to qualify for this year’s World Cup following some impressive performances throughout their qualifying campaign.
Elsewhere, after a qualifying campaign consisting of 9 straight wins and finishing level on points with reigning European Champions Portugal, the Swiss find themselves ranked at the dizzy heights of 8th in the world, with the core of their team having won the Under-17 World Cup back in 2009.
Dark horse Costa Rica stunned the world back in 2014 after winning a group in which many people believed they would struggle to win a single point, before eventually getting knocked out in the quarterfinals. Meanwhile Serbia, a squad brimming with experience, find themselves in their 12th World Cup tournament and will be keen to cause an upset. Although Brazil are clear favourites to win this group, and perhaps the entire competition, the remaining three teams are very much evenly matched. The fate of Group E thus remains delicately poised and certainly promises to provide some entertaining football.
Pre-tournament odds: 9/2
Method of qualification: CONMEBOL Round Robin Winners
After appointing Adenor Bacchi (more commonly known as ‘Tite’) as head coach in September 2016, Brazil have been rejuvenated and appear to have long forgotten the misery and gloom of 4 years ago. Back in 2014, Brazil were far too reliant on Neymar’s individual brilliance and defensive physicality. Now we see a revived team under Tite, one with far more organisation and attacking flair, but perhaps most importantly, far less dependence on a single player, however talented. Players like Gabriel Jesus, Phillipe Coutinho and Roberto Firminho have spread the burden of pressure away from star player, Neymar. That being said, Neymar is now 26 years old and is beginning to enter the peak of his powers. Perhaps this is his best chance to overthrow Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi and truly establish himself as one of the world’s greatest players, particularly with this World Cup surely being Messi and Ronaldo’s final tournament.
Head coach Tite tends to use a 4-1-4-1 formation, which evidently oozed success throughout the qualifying campaign as Brazil went 17 matches undefeated and boasted an impressive 3-0 victory over bitter rivals Argentina. Casimero sits in front of the backline, whilst Neymar plays in his favoured left wing position, with Coutinho and Paulinho playing centrally behind the young Gabriel Jesus. Tite has also managed to squeeze the best out of aging yet world class full backs Dani Alves and Marcelo, whilst Renato Augusto seems to also be thriving in this current system – much to the detriment of Chelsea winger, Willian.
Brazil will have been delighted with the group they have been allocated for this year’s tournament, as they should top the group comfortably. Indeed, eye brows will be raised if Brazil even drop a point throughout the group stage, but Switzerland, Serbia and Costa Rica cannot be underestimated as they are more than capable of pulling off an upset on their day.
Pre-tournament odds: 150/1
Method of qualification: UEFA Second Round Winners
Switzerland have now established themselves as World Cup regulars, but have yet to really leave a significant mark on the illustrious competition. The Swiss are expected to at least reach the round of 16, despite not winning a World Cup knockout round fixture since 1954. And yet, they do possess a very balanced team with an apparent “excellent team spirit and tremendous will to succeed”, according to manager, Vladimir Petkovic. Some may argue that Switzerland had a rather straightforward qualifying group and squeezed past Northern Ireland in the play off fixture after a dubious penalty claim. But regardless of how the Swiss made it to the World Cup, there is reason for optimism for their dedicated fans.
Granit Xhaka, despite a somewhat below-par season for Arsenal, remains critical to any Swiss success. He is a leader for this team and dictates the tempo of the game from the heart of midfield. Xhaka could be partnered in the centre of midfield with Denis Zakaria, a young, exciting prospect who could well be one to keep an eye on during this tournament. Switzerland also have an abundance of creativity on both wings in Xherdan Shaqiri and Steven Zuber. Behind these two wingers are two solid and experienced full backs; Stephan Lichsteiner at right back and Ricardo Rodriquez at left back. Between these two full backs are Fabian Schär and the young Michael Akanji – two very talented centre backs who Switzerland can depend on. The centre forward position for the Swiss remains a slight weakness with Haris Seferović usually occupying this role. That being said, we could see the young and pacey Breel Embolo burst onto the scene this tournament, as the young forward is certainly capable of producing moments of magic.
If Switzerland’s main men can muster up the consistent performances they are capable of, qualification into the knockout stages behind Brazil could well come to fruition.
Pre-tournament odds: 750/1
Method of qualification: CONCACAF Fifth Round Runners-Up
Costa Rica were well and truly the surprise story of the 2014 World Cup. Having topped a group they weren’t even expected to gain a point in, the central Americans reached the quarter finals, where they were knocked out on penalties by the Netherlands – no mean feat for a country with a mere 5 million residents. The Costa Rican head coach back in 2014, Jorge Luis Pinto, has been replaced by Óscar Ramírez, and his team qualified comfortably with two games to spare.
The Costa Ricans tend to stick to the 5-4-1 formation, which proved so successful four years ago. Bryan Ruiz is still regarded as the main focal point for their attack, whilst Marco Ureña, who plays as an attacker for San Jose Earthquakes, could well be another player to keep an eye on. Of course, Costa Rica have a very dependable goalkeeper in Keylor Navas to rely on, which could prove especially useful in a penalty shootout scenario, should the central Americans enter the knockout round. Celso Borges is also crucial to any potential Costa Rican success in this competition, as he brings balance and experience to the centre of midfield. There are some creeping doubts that this Costa Rica squad is a squad that is ageing, with only one player under the age of 25. That player is Ronald Mattarita, who was named New York City’s defender of the season at the age of 21. If he brings this form to the international stage, Mattarita could indeed raise a few eyebrows and fuel rumours of an impending move to Europe.
Yet, friendly matches in the past 12 months will hardly have filled the Central Americans with confidence, losing to Spain 5-0 and losing to both Hungary and Tunisia 1-0. Costa Rica are certainly capable of pulling off an upset this tournament, but is it too much to ask to get past the group stage twice in as many tournaments? We shall wait and see…
Pre-tournament odds: 150/1
Method of qualification: UEFA Group D Winners
Serbia are back in the World Cup finals after 8 years and for just the second time in their history as an independent nation, having cruised through their qualifying group. Serbia comprehensively topped a group containing Euro 2016 semi-finalists Wales, the Republic of Ireland and Austria. The Serbs scored the most goals in this group with 20, with striker Mitrovic claiming 6 of them. Despite this successful qualifying campaign, head coach Slavoljub Muslin was unable to keep his job due to disagreements with the President of the Serbian FA over playing style and squad selection.
Serbia have a team brimming with experienced players and winners. Premier League fans will all be familiar with Manchester United defensive midfielder Nemanja Matic, ex- Chelsea right back Branislav Ivanovic and Roma left back Aleksandar Kolarov. With 29 trophies won between these three experienced players, the defensive core of this squad exudes a winning mentality. Young Benfica winger Andrija Zivkovic, is another top prospect who could set the football world alight this tournament if he grabs his opportunity. Football Manager fans will be aware of Zivkovic’s frightening potential, and indeed he played a key role in Serbia’s Under 20’s World Cup winning team. He has already attracted significant interest around Europe and this year’s World Cup could really be his time to shine.
Another youngster who could play a crucial role in this otherwise ageing squad is Lazio midfielder Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, who has performed outstandingly in some of Serbia’s recent friendly matches. Despite a confident qualifying campaign, there is very little to separate Serbia from Costa Rica, and Switzerland. If Serbia aim to qualify from this group, the will need all their big guns firing on all cylinders and they simply cannot afford to drop points against Costa Rica and Switzerland.
It would be astounding if anyone but Brazil was to win this group. Taking their impressive qualifying into account and bearing in mind they have lost one match in their last 20, the only position that makes sense is top spot. As mentioned, between the remaining three teams, any of these side on their day could beat each other. Yet, for me Switzerland just edge out Serbia with Costa Rica struggling to emulate their 2014 World Cup success. Although the Serbs did win their group in UEFA qualification and the Swiss relied on a second round passage, I think on their day Switzerland have a more experienced squad and this experience will prove them well come the tournament.