How Brazil go this summer in Russia will be one of the most intriguing things to look out for. They’ve been imperious over the last couple of years but the horrors of the 2014 World Cup not to mention two early Copa America exits since then may still haunt them and it won’t be until their opening Group E clash against Switzerland that we finally get an idea of what kind of summer they are likely to have.
There are no absolute no-hopers in this group with Costa Rica having come within a penalty shoot-out of the last four in 2014 while Switzerland are always a tough nut to crack. Serbia complete the pool and they have plenty of quality and experience in their squad too.
Brazil will be expected to progress but if they are short of their best or Neymar suffers an injury relapse, they could just be made to work hard in a group where all of the other sides will fancy they stand a chance of progressing.
FIFA Ranking: 2
Best Finish: Five-times winners (1958, 1962, 1970, 1994, 2002)
Brazil should be the class act in this group and they qualified in style. After losing their opening match in Chile, Brazil went 17 games unbeaten and became the first nation besides hosts Russia to book their place at the 2018 World Cup. The tournament’s only ever-presents will clearly be bidding to put the misery of their Semi-Final nightmare against Germany four years ago firmly behind them.
The squad has undergone a major makeover since then while there is a new coach too with Tite in charge following a brief spell from Dunga which also ended in disappointment. Brazil have looked much better at both ends of the pitch since the latest change and with 15 wins and only 1 defeat from their last 19 matches, they clearly take good form into this summer’s showpiece.
FIFA Ranking: 6
Best Finish: Quarter-Finals (1934, 1938, 1954)
While at times you can take the FIFA World Rankings with a pinch of salt, the Swiss are ranked as the 6th best side in the world currently, above the likes of France, Spain and England. They aren’t as good as that suggests but a record of just 1 defeat inside 90 minutes in their last 20 internationals can’t be totally ignored either. They won 9 of their 10 group games in qualifying but still had to go through the play-offs where they enjoyed a bit of good fortune to see off Northern Ireland.
They are also a side with a habit of causing problems for the big guns at major tournaments so Brazil will need to be a bit wary. The Swiss held hosts France to a draw at Euro 2016 while they beat eventual winners Spain at the 2010 World Cup and took Argentina to Extra-Time four years ago in Brazil.
Defensively they are a solid outfit but they are often too reliant on the inconsistent Xherdan Shaqiri for inspiration at the other end.
FIFA Ranking: 25
Best Finish: Quarter-Finals (2014)
Costa Rica were written off four years ago when they were placed in a nightmare group alongside Italy, England and Uruguay. However the Central Americans surprised perhaps even themselves by winning that group as they progressed to the Quarter-Finals.
A repeat will be a tall order in Russia. They have a new coach in the shape of Óscar Ramírez and a very experienced squad that came through qualifying with minimal fuss, most notably winning away to the United States. With the likes of Bryan Ruiz four years older, you have to wonder whether or not they will have the legs to sustain a challenge but they could certainly be awkward opponents for the two European sides who may lack the imagination to break down their solid defence.
FIFA Ranking: 35
Best Finish: Group Stage (2010)*
*Yugoslavia finished 4th in 1930 and 1962. Serbia & Montenegro were also knocked out in the group stage of the 2006 World Cup.
Serbia are the lowest seeds in this group and are also the weakest team according to the world rankings. However they have enough about them to do more than make up the numbers given they won a tough qualifying group which involved three teams that had appeared at Euro 2016 in the shape of Wales, Austria and the Republic of Ireland.
This is actually their first major tournament since 2010 and only their second competing as just ‘Serbia’ following Montenegro’s emergence as an independent nation in 2006. They will certainly be competitive in this group and with Brazil their final fixture, they will be praying the South Americans are already through by then, which could just play into their hands.
They have a host of players based in England or who have played in the Premier League including skipper Aleksandar Kolarov. They will use Aleksandar Mitrović as their targetman and he has been in great form. Certainly Serbia are the most physical team in this group but their defence is an ageing one and you wonder if that could be their undoing.
Read more: The World Cup’s 5 biggest shocks
Group E Fixtures
Sunday 17th June – Costa Rica vs Serbia – 1:00pm, Samara (ITV)
Sunday 17th June – Brazil vs Switzerland – 7:00pm, Rostov (ITV)
Friday 22nd June – Brazil vs Costa Rica – 1:00pm, Saint Petersburg (ITV)
Friday 22nd June – Serbia vs Switzerland – 7:00pm, Kaliningrad (BBC One)
Wednesday 27th June – Serbia vs Brazil – 7:00pm, Moscow (ITV)
Wednesday 27th June – Switzerland vs Costa Rica – 7:00pm, Nizhny Novgorod (ITV4)
Who is travelling the furthest in Group E?
Brazil have got a significant amount of travelling to do having elected Sochi as their base. The draw could have been kinder to them in terms of that with over 7,000km of travelling needed as they negotiate their way through this group. It should be said that Brazilians are no strangers to journeys of that distance though with the Brazilian League regularly requiring flights of multiple hours.
Switzerland are based in Samara and will have almost 7,000km of travelling themselves with their potentially key final game in Nizhny Novgorod the shortest trip. Saint Petersburg is where Costa Rica will be based and that means they won’t have to deal with any flights for their second game against Brazil in the city. They have the shortest total travel time in this group as a result with 4,600km to cover to get to their other two games and back.
Serbia also have the advantage of playing a game in Kaliningrad, the city where they are based. That is where their crucial clash with Switzerland will be played but they will still have to deal with a marathon 4,000km return trip for their opening match in Samara while it will be around a two hour flight to Moscow for their final game against Brazil.
Who is going to qualify from Group E?
This isn’t going to be an absolute stroll in the park for Brazil. If we compare it to England’s group for example, there are no teams as weak as Tunisia or Panama in it and each game will provide a different test for the South American giants. With Neymar unlikely to be fully match sharp in the group stage, there is potential they could drop points with the other sides in the group all pretty well organised.
However it’s still hard to see Brazil not progressing and you have to go back to 1966 for the last time they exited a World Cup at the first hurdle. The race for the other qualifying position promises to be extremely tight and picking 2nd in this group is no easy task.
You wonder if Serbia’s lack of major tournament experience could prove their undoing although they should be well supported and conditions won’t be dissimilar to what they are used to. A lot will hinge on whether Costa Rica can rekindle the spirit of 2014. If they can do that then they are capable of blowing this group wide open but it’s tempting to assume that their run to the Quarter-Finals four years ago was a one-off.
Switzerland have emerged from the group in 3 of their last 4 World Cup appearances and their extra tournament know-how could just be key. They also might just benefit from playing Brazil first given that will be Neymar’s first competitive game in four months and he is likely to be slightly off the pace initially at least. The Swiss therefore could just sneak through in 2nd but it’s likely to be very tight between the three sides besides Brazil.
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