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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 18 June 2018

World Cup Group E guide: Brazil less reliant on Neymar as other teams scramble for second place

Richard Jolly provides everything you need to know about the four nations that make up Group E of the June 14-July 15 tournament

BRAZIL

Qualified Convincingly and quickly, easily maintaining their record as the only team to play in every World Cup. Their only defeat came in the first game, to Chile. They were the first team to qualify in March 2017. They won the South American section by 10 points, taking 32 from 36 after Tite’s appointment.

Manager Tite. A Copa Libertadores winner with Corinthians, he has had a huge impact since replacing Dunga in 2016, winning 15 of his first 19 games in charge, improving the defensive record – they only conceded four goals in 2017 – and sharing the captaincy around in a bid to reduce the dependency on Neymar.

Player to watch Fagner. Brazil thought they had the ultimate talisman in the shape of the serial winner Dani Alves but with the Paris Saint-Germain right-back ruled out, much rests on his deputy. Corinthians defender Fagner has pace but lacks experience on the international stage. The alternative is Manchester City’s Danilo.

Talking point Do Brazil have more of a team now? In 2014, they capitulated without the injured Neymar, losing 7-1 to Germany. Their reliance on him in attack partly reflected on how wretched strikers Jo and Fred were. The emergence of Gabriel Jesus and the improvement of Roberto Firmino give superior options now, while Philippe Coutinho brings another creative option to take some of the weight off Neymar’s shoulders. But it is still a concern that the world’s most expensive player has been out since February with a metatarsal injury. Willian and Douglas Costa are his probable deputies but Neymar’s record – 53 goals in 83 caps – makes it imperative he is back and at his best.

Prediction. The only side from the Americas to win the World Cup in any other continent and they definitely have the chance to extend that record. Brazil need to win the group to avoid Germany in the last 16; if they do, it is a potential final. There will be questions about Brazil’s psychology after the collapse in 2014 and the lack of a playmaker at the heart of the midfield but there is solidity at the heart of the team and a strong defensive unit (few countries have two goalkeepers as good as Alisson and Ederson), an excellent front three and a galvanising manager equip them to go a long way.

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Costa Rica goalkeeper Keylor Navas attends a training session in San Jose, Costa Rica, 30 May 2018. Jeffrey Arguedas / EPA
Costa Rica goalkeeper Keylor Navas attends a training session in San Jose, Costa Rica, 30 May 2018. Jeffrey Arguedas / EPA

COSTA RICA

How they qualified With a game to spare, even though they only won four of their last 10 matches in the final round. The key result was a 2-0 away victory against the United States as they came second only to Mexico in Concacaf qualifying. A good defensive record, conceding only eight goals in 10 games, helped.

Manager Oscar Ramirez. A veteran of Costa Rica’s 1990 World Cup campaign and a winner of five league titles as a manager. He had been Paulo Wanchope’s assistant with the national team before the former striker resigned after being involved in a brawl. Ramirez got the top job and prospered.

Player to watch Keylor Navas. One of the outstanding goalkeepers of the 2014 World Cup, when he only conceded two goals in five games, the Real Madrid shot-stopper may be his country’s greatest ever player. A second World Cup of defensive heroics would help cement his case to that title.

Talking point. Can they repeat their form of 2014? Most of the surprise quarter-finalists are available again but some are very much in the autumn of their careers – Johnny Acosta and Christian Bolanos are both 34 while captain Bryan Ruiz turns 33 in August – while others have struggled to replicate those exploits; forward Joel Campbell has had an injury-hit season while Ruiz has not been a regular starter for Sporting Lisbon. With only two players under 25 in the squad, Costa Rica benefit from experience and understanding, but lack young blood and are very reliant on the old guard. And some of them arguably played above their natural level four years ago.

Prediction Los Ticos started off as the outsiders in a group with three former winners, England, Italy and Uruguay, four years ago and won the pool before reaching the last eight for the first time. They will be underdogs again. With Brazil their second opponents, much seems to rest on the opening game against Serbia. Win that and Costa Rica could spring a surprise. Fail to, and they may be looking at a repeat of 2002 and 2006 instead, where they exited in the group stages. As their games can be low-scoring affairs, the margin between success and failure may be narrow.

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Switzerland player Xherdan Shaqiri smiles during a training session. Arnd Wiegmann / Reuters
Switzerland player Xherdan Shaqiri smiles during a training session. Arnd Wiegmann / Reuters

SWITZERLAND

How they qualified Deservedly, controversially, eventually. They beat Northern Ireland 1-0 in a play-off with a penalty dubiously awarded against Corry Evans for handball. And yet Switzerland took 27 points in qualifying, winning their first nine group games before defeat to Portugal cost them top spot in Group B on goal difference.

Manager Vladimir Petkovic. Replaced Ottmar Hitzfeld after the 2014 World Cup and took Switzerland to the last 16 of Euro 2016, where Poland beat them on penalties. A former part-time charity shop worker turned Coppa Italia winner as Lazio manager, he has taken Switzerland to sixth in the Fifa world rankings.

Player to watch Xherdan Shaqiri. Relegated with Stoke City this season, but a specialist in scoring from long range, as he demonstrated for the Potters. Scored a spectacular volley against Poland in Euro 2016 and a hat-trick against Honduras in the 2014 World Cup, so he can raise his game on the big occasion.

Talking point The strikers: international football features many a side who are undermined by the lack of a high-class finisher. Swizerland are a case in point: their last goal in a major tournament from an out-and-out centre-forward was Haris Seferovic’s winner against Ecuador in the 2014 World Cup and the Benfica forward, who may be his country’s first choice, has never mustered more than 11 goals in a club campaign. In much of the rest of the pitch, this is one of the most talented Swiss teams ever but while that lack of firepower does not stop them from qualifying, it can make it tough to beat elite opponents, especially in the knockout stages.

Prediction As they open their tournament against Brazil, they may dream of emulating their opening win against Spain in 2010 but, more realistically, they will probably have to ensure they are undaunted by defeat and pick up at least four points from their last two games. They should be the favourites to take the runners-up spot in Group E, though that would result in a meeting with the Group F winners, probably Germany, which would probably further a trend. Switzerland have reached the round of 16 in three World Cups since 1994, but have not played in a quarter-final since 1954. The last 16 seems their glass ceiling.

Serbia's Sergej Milinkovic-Savic during a training session. Marko Djurica / Reuters
Serbia's Sergej Milinkovic-Savic during a training session. Marko Djurica / Reuters

SERBIA

How they qualified Surprisingly, in the sense that they were only the third seeds in Group D and finished ahead of Euro 2016 semi-finalists Wales, plus Republic of Ireland and Austria. They lost only one of their 10 matches and were the one prolific team in a low-scoring pool, aided by Aleksandar Mitrovic’s goals.

Manager Mladen Kristajic. The former Serbia defender was promoted after Slavoljub Muslin was sacked, despite overseeing qualification to the World Cup. Muslin had been criticised for supposedly defensive tactics and for omitting Lazio’s Sergej Milinkovic-Savic. Kristajic has already changed formation to use a back four.

Player to watch Sergej Milinkovic-Savic. The 21-year-old midfielder only made his debut under Kristajic scored 15 goals this season for Lazio, a sign of his considerable talent. He may be installed as a No 10, though he can operate deeper in midfield. A huge physical presence who also has an excellent shot from distance, he has been linked with Manchester United.

Talking point Can Serbia be united? They have been one of Europe’s great underachievers in recent years, failing to qualify for the three previous major tournaments amid questions about the players’ attitude. Muslin’s dismissal may not make it a happier camp, especially as Kristajic then controversially removed Branislav Ivanovic from the captaincy to promote Aleksandar Kolarov. And the 2006 World Cup, when they conceded 10 goals in three games, shows that past talented Serbian squads have a tendency to implode, sometimes collecting red cards in displays of self-destructiveness. The fact they beat Germany in 2010 shows they tend to produce talented teams, though.

Prediction Propped up their group in each of their last two World Cups and a repeat is certainly possible. Equally, they have the ability to advance. With Costa Rica and Switzerland their first two opponents, their fixtures seem in the right order. Serbia’s strength looks to be a central-midfield partnership of Luka Milivojevic and Nemanja Matic. With Milinkovic-Savic, Mitrovic and Dusan Tadic further forward, there should be goals in the side. But with Matija Nastasic not making the squad, theirs is an ageing defence. Goalkeeper Vladimir Stojkovic could be a cause for concern.

Group E overview

Brazil have not gone out in the group stages of a World Cup since 1966. Germany apart, no one is more immune to shocks and it is difficult to envisage anything other than the favourites topping the pool. That should set up a three-way scramble for second place which could come down to Switzerland against Costa Rica on July 27. Serbia may well be the second most gifted team but Switzerland have shown more consistency and have more tournament experience and, potentially, a more stable group. They are the likeliest to accompany Brazil into the last 16.