Tournament favorites Brazil are off to an impressive start. The five-time World Cup champions were first to qualify for the 2018 games and top of their group in qualifying with a 17-match unbeaten streak out of 18 matches and a whopping +30 goal difference. As always, Brazil have no shortage of talent – which includes the world’s most expensive player in their ranks. Last bit of trivia: Brazil are the only national team to have never been absent from a World Cup.
Serbia also topped their qualifying group, finishing with 21 points (6 wins, 3 draws, and 1 loss) out of a possible 30 – 2 points ahead of Republic of Ireland. Serbia have the skill and muscle to make any team wary with the likes of Branislav Ivanovic, Nemanja Matic, and team captain Aleksandar Kolarov on their side. Expect Serbia to be strong on the ball, and defensively solid. This will be the 2nd World Cup Serbia plays as an independent nation.
Tied with Portugal on points earned during the first round of qualifying matches, Switzerland placed 2nd in the group just on goal difference. Both Switzerland and Portugal won 9 of their 10 matches and lost only to each other – Switzerland drawing first blood. Neither side, however, was able to amass goals against each other as wins for both were at 2-0. Unfortunately for the Swiss, they had to go through playoffs where they beat Northern Ireland to secure their spot in Russia.
Switzerland have consistently been qualifying for the World Cup since 2006 but have not made it past the Round of 16 since 1954. They are, however, showing great promise this season as they have brought themselves up to 6th in the FIFA World Rankings from 11th since the draw in December 2017.
Costa Rica aren’t showing much promise for this group. Ranked 15th at the start of the qualifiers, they ended up 22nd at the draw, and are currently 25th in the FIFA World Rankings. It looked like a strong start for Costa Rica – Seeded 1st in CONCACAF which automatically progresses them to the 4th round of the qualifying matches, they topped the leaderboard with 5 wins and just 1 draw in 6 games against Panama Haiti and Jamaica. Come the 5th and final round, their performance was less convincing winning 4, drawing 4 and losing 2 against Mexico, Honduras, U.S.A., Trinidad and Tobago, and Panama (who they defeated on both legs of the 4th round but lost to and drew on the 5th). 5 points behind Mexico, it was enough to rank them 2nd in the final round of qualifications and get them through to the 2018 games.
Tite’s contribution to Brazil’s qualifying run has been nothing short of amazing. Brazil, then managed by Dunga, were 6th place in the Qualifying games under CONMEBOL after just winning 2 games (against Venezuela and Peru), drawing 3 (with Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay) and losing 1 (to Chile). Enter: Tite. Replacing Dunga as head coach, Tite debuted with a 3-0 win against Ecuador and continued to lead Brazil to an undefeated streak throughout the remainder of the qualifying matches. Under Tite, Brazil won 9 games straight, drew 2 afterward, then won their last game. This in effect brought Brazil to the top of the group’s leaderboard and made them the first country to qualify for the 2018 World Cup.
Voted Costa Rican Manager of the Year in 2012, Óscar Ramírez’ success with Primera División de Costa Rica club Liga Deportiva Alajuelense may very well be his claim to fame. Ramírez won five league title s with Alajuelense and is considered the most successful manager in the club’s history. Ramírez was first with Costa Rica from 2006-08 as assistant coach to Hernán Medford. He was later on assigned the assistant coach post in 2015, this time under Paulo Wanchope, who left the team one week after Ramírez’s appointment. Ramírez was then formally appointed head coach of Costa Rica.
Vladimir Petković has been Coach of Switzerland since 2014. With them, Petković has won 24, drawn 7, and lost 8 games giving Switzerland a win ratio of 61.54% under his guidance. Prior to coaching the national team, Petkovic managed Seria A team Lazio and led them to a Coppa Italia victory in 2012-13 where they won against Juventus in the Semis and Roma in the finals.
Serbia’s Mladen Krastajić has quite a predicament on his hands. Having no prior coaching experience save being the assistant coach to Slavoljub Muslin, who was sacked 3 weeks after coaching Serbia to the 2018 World Cup, Krastajic now has the enormous task of guiding Croatia through the tournament. If he could just get the team through the group stage, this can very well be a fairy tale coaching debut for the young manager and former national team player – one of Serbia’s “Famous Four” defenders in the 2006 World Cup.
Neymar has been stellar for Brazil, and for any club he’s been with for that matter. Only 26 years of age, Neymar has already been capped 84 times and scored 54 goals since he debuted for the Pentacampeão when he was 18, making him Brazil’s 4th highest goal scorer. Recently transferring to French football giants PSG from Spanish giants Barcelona (after 4 years with the club) for a fee of €222M, Neymar is currently the world’s most expensive player.
Neymar aside, you’ll also want to look for English Premier League 2017-18 winner, Manchester City’s 20-year-old Gabriel Jesus, Champions League runners-up, Liverpool’s Roberto Firmino who’s had an outstanding season with his club, Barcelona’s January signing, playmaker Philippe Coutinho, and Ligue 1 winner Marquinhos who plays with team captain Thiago Silva (and Neymar) in PSG.
Featuring for Switzerland are: former Bayern Munich winger Xherdan Shaqiri who was part of Munich’s treble-winning team in 2013 and was the DFB-Pokal’s top scorer and top assist provider in the same season; Arsenal midfielder and 2017 Credit Suisse Player of the Year, Granit Xhaka; Borussia Mönchengladbach’s Nico Elvedi (age 21); and Borussia Dortmund’s Manuel Akanji (age 22) who has 2 Swiss Super League titles under his belt from his time with Basel before joining Dortmund. Elvedi and Akanji both play as defenders for their respective clubs.
Up front for Serbia, look for English Premier League team Newcastle United’s Aleksandar Mitrović to find the back of the net. Mitrović scored 6 in the qualifying games. In midfield, the spotlight will be on Lazio’s Sergej Milinković-Savić who has been sensational for his club and has been linked with big money moves to Real Madrid and Manchester United among others. Of course, we’ll also be watching Nemanja Matić (Manchester United), Aleksandar Kolarov (Roma) and former Chelsea defender Branislav Ivanović (Zenit Saint Petersburg) to hold the line for goalie Vladimir Stojković (Partizan Belgrade).
With 2 Champions League wins and 1 La Liga Title, Real Madrid’s Keylor Navas will be in between posts for his country and will be crucial for keeping Costa Rica in the game. Costa Rica will also be relying on the experience of 2011-12 Danish Cup Player of the Year, Bryan Oviedo (who now plays for Sunderland); 5 time Primera División de Costa Rica winner Celso Borges (who now plays for Deportivo La Coruna); and team captain, 2016 CONCACAF Player of the Year, Bryan Ruiz.
Costa Rica vs Serbia
Serbia. Costa Rica’s strength will be tested here.
Brazil vs Switzerland
Brazil. But the Swiss could upset if Brazil suddenly find themselves out of their element.
Brazil vs Costa Rica
Brazil. Possibly by quite a margin.
Serbia vs Switzerland
Switzerland. Serbia has the stronger squad but this may come down to coaching experience.
Serbia vs Brazil
Brazil. Depth of squad plus coaching experience.
Switzerland vs Costa Rica
Switzerland. The last game in this group, age and energy could come into play here. Costa Rica having an average age of 29 while Switzerland have 26.6
Brazil and Switzerland will progress to the Round of 16.