Impact Sports continues its 2018 World Cup preview with a look at Group E. A preview of Group D can be found here.
The FIFA rankings may suggest that there are two clear favorites for progression, with No. 2 Brazil and No. 6 Switzerland headlining Group E of the upcoming World Cup. However, 2014 quarterfinalists Costa Rica and consistent European contender Serbia have a shot at making noise in a supposedly sewn-up group.
Brazil (FIFA ranking: 2)
Overview: After starting brightly in 2014, the end of the tournament for the previous World Cup hosts went about as poorly as possible. A 7-1 defeat in the semifinal to Germany was the biggest loss in Brazilian soccer history for almost a century. The Seleção are again amongst the tournament favorites, as Paris Saint-Germain’s Neymar will again be the main man in the team.
There is even more attacking flair in 2018’s lineup, though key right-back Dani Alves will miss the tournament through injury.
Star non-Neymar player: Striker Gabriel Jesus, Manchester City (England)
Jesus (pronounced HEY-soos) is potentially the next big thing in Brazil, and his first tournament could be a major arrival on the world scene after a high-profile move to Manchester last summer. The 21-year-old scored 13 goals in 29 league matches for City, and has speed and strength up top. If Neymar isn’t firing on all cylinders, coach Tite may not have to worry.
Biggest question: How mentally fragile is this team?
7-1 still has to linger somewhat in the minds of the soccer-obsessed nation, and how the Brazilians respond to adversity will speak volumes about their ability to rebound and make a run.
Best-case scenario: Brazilian’s golden boy Neymar picks up right where he left off before his injury in 2014 and the Seleção cruise to a sixth world title.
Costa Rica (FIFA ranking: 25)
Overview: Quarterfinalists in 2014, the CONCACAF members are not by any means an attractive, forward-thinking team. Where the Ticos feel most at home is playing defensively and catching opposing defenses napping with quick counter-attacks. Whether or not they can sneak up on anyone in 2018 remains to be seen, but this was a team that beat the U.S. 4-0 in qualifying back in November of 2014.
Star player: Midfielder Bryan Ruiz, Sporting Lisbon (Portugal)
After years of playing his club soccer in England, Ruiz struggled to adapt to the Portuguese game this year before helping Sporting to the Europa League quarterfinals. The 32-year-old is an inventive attacking midfielder who can put as much curve on a shot as anyone in the world.
Biggest question: Does their group matchup forebode success?
Serbia and Switzerland aren’t overly attacking teams, and one could argue that both teams play Costa Rica’s style better than the Ticos. If they fall behind early, they may not have too many attacking options to answer back.
Best-case scenario: The Ticos squeeze a second-place finish out of the group, and receive a favorable draw in the round of 16 before repeating their success of 2014.
Serbia (FIFA ranking: 35)
Overview: Premier League fans will recognize multiple names from 2018’s Serbian squad. Head coach Mladen Krstajic has a tough ask to get out of the group stage for the first time since 1998, but the perennial qualifiers are usually good for a surprising result or two. What this team needs is enough firepower up front. Attacking midfielder Dusan Tadic of Southampton (England) and winger Adem Ljajic of Torino (Italy) are the primary creative forces, and their quality will be necessary for success.
Star player: Midfielder Nemanja Matic, Manchester United (England)
Matic has plenty of big-game experience after playing for both Chelsea and United over the past few years, and serves as the lynchpin of the Serbian midfield. The 29-year-old has long been one of the best defensive midfielders in the world, and how he slows down the Brazilian attack could decide their World Cup fate.
Biggest question: Is the central defense good enough?
Roma (Italy)’s Aleksandr Kolarov and Zenit St. Petersburg (Russia)’s Branislav Ivanovic have a combined 177 appearances for their country, but the middle of the defense is a major question mark for Krstajic heading into Russia. A pair of options are both over the age of 30, and more established options were omitted from the squad in favor of Fiorentina (Italy)’s Nikola Milenkovic, a 20-year-old with just two appearances at the senior level.
Best-case scenario: Playing with a slight proximity advantage, the Serbs find enough firepower to edge past the Swiss and Costa Ricans to make the knockout stages, where they find a way to avoid the Germans in the round of 16.
Switzerland (FIFA ranking: 6)
Overview: The Swiss may not have elite-level star power, but as a team, they’re among the most dangerous in the field. The center of midfield is a bit light when compared to the tournament’s top teams, but there’s a handful of youth on this team that if given the chance could make waves. How they match up against Brazil or potential knockout round opponents Germany isn’t necessarily favorable, but if any nation is primed for a deep run, it might just be Vladimir Petkovic’s team.
Star player: Winger Xherdan Shaqiri, Stoke City (England)
Shaqiri has struggled to find major success in England, having his team relegated in May, but his ability at international level is rare as an all-around winger with a flair for the spectacular. He’ll likely stay in the Premier League following the tournament, but as he goes, so does the Swiss attack.
Biggest question: Can they score enough to keep up with the favorites?
Shaqiri can be more provider than scorer at times, and Switzerland’s other strikers have struggled during their club seasons. 21-year-old Breel Embolo is the most expensive player in Swiss history, and recovered from a severe knee injury in late 2016 to make the squad.
Best-case scenario: Avoiding Germany in the round of 16 would be nice, but it remains to be seen if they have the firepower for a run to the last four. That said, their floor seems to be a comfortable progression to the knockout stages.
Brazil 9 pts
Switzerland 4 pts
Costa Rica 2 pts
Serbia 1 pt