Keylor Navas, Aleksandar Mitrovic, Neymar and Xherdan Shaqiri.
Keylor Navas, Aleksandar Mitrovic, Neymar and Xherdan Shaqiri.

Group where second is all you’re going to get

IF any group in Russia was set up for a team to totally dominate than this is it.

Brazil should win Group E - and in a canter.

If they have overcome the mental demons of their 2014 collapse on home soil then Switzerland, Serbia and Costa Rica are all playing for second place.

Brazil have the form. They have the pedigree. They have the talent. Enough said!

The battle for second place is intriguing. All three have claims yet have significant enough flaws for many to be wary tipping them.

Switzerland are the highest ranked, Costa Rica have recent history while Serbia are young and on the rise.

THE KEY MATCH

Costa Rica v Serbia (Sunday, June 17, Samara, 10pm)

It may seem strange to not include a match featuring Brazil. The South Americans though should really steam away with this group, leaving an intriguing battle for second. Switzerland will be favourite but this game right at the start of the tournament could be decisive, especially if the Swiss fall to Brazil. Big chance for an underdog to make an early statement.

TEAMS

 

Neymar will be key for Brazil.
Neymar will be key for Brazil.

BRAZIL

The first team - outside of the hosts - to book their place. Regained some of their lustre after the disappointment of their 2014 performance on home soil - which included that 7-1 losxs to Germany - by winning 12 and only losing one of their 18 qualifiers. That loss was a 2-0 defeat to Chile way back in late 2015. They scored 41 goals in the process and conceded only 11. Plenty to like about their chances of making amends in Russia and this group will hold little fear.

Key player(s): Take your pick! Main man Neymar has been out injured but will return to action shortly. Philippe Coutinho hasn't yet made the impression he hoped for at Barcelona but is still a world-class player while Roberto Firminio has had an outstanding season at Liverpool. Defensively they look solid as well although they will miss Dani Alves. Then there is Fernandinho, Willian and Paulinho in midfield.

Recent form: It's super, super hot! Since the end of qualification, they have beaten Japan, Russia and Germany while drawing 0-0 with England at Wembley in a game they should have won. And remember, all these were away from home. They have - in fact - only suffered two defeats in the last two-and-a-half years, the first to Chile and the other in Melbourne against Argentina.

World Cup history: They are five-time winners but have not saluted since 2002 when Ronaldo inspired a final win over Germany in Yokohama. The pressure told on home soil four years ago when they finished a disappointing fourth. They have won previously in Europe - in Sweden in 1958 when a 17-year-old Pele was the star - but their most recent tournament wins have come in Asia (2002), USA (1994) and Central America (1970). The last time the Cup was in Europe - in 2006 in Germany - they were knocked out in the quarter finals by France.

Coach: The 56-year-old Tite took over from Dunga after Brazil's poor performance at the 2016 Copa America and he has an almost 80 per cent win ratio from 19 games.

FIFA ranking: 2

Betting: $5.50

Xherdan Shaqiri can produce a wonderous strike or two.
Xherdan Shaqiri can produce a wonderous strike or two.

SWITZERLAND

Hard to justify how the Swiss are a top 10 ranked team based on their recent tournament results. Highly fancied four years ago in Brazil, they were thrashed 5-2 by France before bowing out in the round of 16. Then at Euro 16 they went out to Poland on penalties - again in the round of 16. Apart from facing Portugal, their qualification path to Russia wasn't all that difficult, yet they almost blew it in the playoff against Northern Ireland - and needed a stroke of luck to get through. They have though landed in a group where they will be favoured to progress - albeit in second place which puts them in line for another round of 16 exit.

Key player: Benfica striker Haris Seferovic is their main man in attack and will be required to step up a little more than he has in the past. Scoring goals in tournaments is a big problem for the Swiss. He'll get good service from the likes of Stephan Lichtsteiner and Ricardo Rodriguez. Based on his 2014 exploits alone, Xherdan Shaqiri is the player to watch - although he couldn't prevent Stoke City's relegation from the EPL.

Recent form: Hard to fault their results of late - although they have only played twice since the close call against Northern Ireland. After beating Greece away from home they smashed fellow World Cup participants Panama 6-0, a game which featured six different goalscorers.

World Cup history: Their best performance from six previous Cup visits was way back in 1954 when they reached the quarterfinals. They had big hopes four years ago in Brazil and - made the final 16. Seferovic was the hero with his last-minute winner against Ecuador but they came crashing back to earth in a 5-2 thumping by France. They recovered though to beat Honduras 3-0 - thanks to hat-trick from Shaqiri - and reach the final 16. There they were cruelly knocked out by a 118th-minute goal from Argentina's Angel Di Maria.

Coach: Vladimir Petkovic has been in charge for four years and has overseen some big improvements in the Swiss. He has won 24 of 38 games, losing just eight - although that's largely outside of tournament play.

FIFA ranking: 6

Betting: $125

Keylor Navas was a revelation for Costa Rica in 2014.
Keylor Navas was a revelation for Costa Rica in 2014.

COSTA RICA

The surprise packets from four years ago likely won't top their group this time, but second place is definitely within reach. Playing in Russia though is a lot different to causing upsets in South America. They were comfortable enough through qualification - finishing second behind Mexico and losing only twice. The first game against Serbia looms as a must-win. Getting off to a good start before facing Brazil is imperative.

Key player: Goalkeeper Keylor Navas was so important to their 2014 campaign that he took home three man of the match awards. His reward was a nice, juicy transfer to Real Madrid where he has since established himself as their No.1 custodian. Bryan Ruiz made his name in England with Fulham and offers plenty of goalscoring ability while striker Joel Campbell looks primed for a big tournament.

Recent form: Scoring goals has been a real problem. They have only found the net once in four games since the qualifiers. Even then they only scored 14 in 10 games. Spain gave them a real jolt with a 5-0 demolition before Hungary - who aren't even playing in Russia - beat them 1-0. They did beat Scotland 1-0 before losing to Tunisia by the same scoreline.

World Cup history: This will be their fifth visit to the big show. Their effort four years ago - when they reached the final eight - was undoubtedly their best performance. Victory over Uruguay and Italy was followed by a draw with England. In the final 16 they sent home Greece on penalties before bowing out to the Dutch in similar circumstances in the quarter finals. They also fared well in their debut back in 1990. Back then - when, ironically, they were in a group featuring Brazil - they reached the final 16, beating Scotland and Sweden along the way before going out to Czechoslavakia.

Coach: It's coming up to three years since Oscar Ramirez - who played at the 1990 World Cup - was appointed as head coach. He was initially brought in as assistant to Paulo Wanchope but was given the reins when Wanchope quit after being involved in a fight.

FIFA ranking: 35

Betting: $500

 

Serbia will nedd Aleksandar Mitrovic to bang in the goals.
Serbia will nedd Aleksandar Mitrovic to bang in the goals.

SERBIA

It's been a dry time in recent years for the Serbian national team but they did top Group D in qualifying with six wins from 10 matches. It was a tough group as well which featured Republic of Ireland, Wales and Austria. They have a nice nucleus of talent - especially in midfield with the likes of Nemanja Matic, Dusan Tadic and Sergej Milinkovic-Savic. They need a lot of things to go their way to reach the next round but it's not totally out of the question.

Key player: Aleksandar Mitrovic - who scored six goals in qualification - joined Fulham on loan from Newcastle earlier this year and has been a roaring success, scoring 12 goals and leading the Cottagers into the Championship final next week. Fullback Aleksandar Kolarov had an excellent season at AS Roma and can make an impact at both ends of the field.

Recent form: They have played only twice since the end of the qualifiers for a loss and a win against African opponents. A 2-1 defeat to Morocco was followed by a 2-0 over Nigeria - Mitrovic scored both goals.

World Cup history: Do you remember who Serbia's last opponents at a World Cup were? It was the Socceroos, with Pim Verbeek's men ending their run at the group stage in Nelspruit in 2010 thanks to goals from Tim Cahill and Brett Holman. They didn't qualify for Brazil after a dismal qualifying campaign that saw them finish third behind Belgium and Croatia. While they have featured in several World Cups as Yugoslavia and Serbia and Montenegro, 2010 represents their only excursion into the big time.

Coach: The former Serbia defender - who earned 59 caps over a nine-year period - only took over from Slavoljub Muslin in December last year.

FIFA ranking: 35

Betting: $200

GAMES

June 18: Costa Rica v Serbia, Samara

Brazil v Switzerland, Rostov-on-Don

June 23: Brazil v Costa Rica, St Petersburg

Serbia v Switzerland, Kaliningrad

June 28: Serbia v Brazil, Moscow

Switzerland v Costa Rica, Novgorod



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