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Brazil

Don’t mention 2014. From the delight of hosting to the abject depths of despair, Brazil’s most recent World Cup appearance descended into the stuff of nightmares for this proud football nation.

Yet for long-time watchers of the Seleção, their 7-1 semi-final thrashing at the hands of Germany in Belo Horizonte came as no major surprise. This was a team fond of harking back to its long and glorious history, but one that had largely failed to keep up with the times. Dunga’s pragmatic football may have got them to the final four, but it was never going to be enough to match the modern Germans.

Fast forward four years and new coach Tite has the machine in gear again. While early qualifying results under Dunga were patchy – including a 2-0 opening defeat at the hands of Chile and three further draws – Tite promptly oversaw a seven-game winning streak after taking over in September 2016. It meant Brazil were the first team to book the place in Russia after finishing a massive 10 points clear of Uruguay in the marathon 18-game CONMEBOL qualifying section.

And some decent friendly results – including a 1-0 win over Germany in Berlin – suggest the Seleção are slowly getting back to their best. Much of their football revolves around the mercurial talents of Neymar, who clearly felt the strain of trying to lead his nation to a world title on home soil four years ago. However, the emergence of Manchester City striker Gabriel Jesus as a regular goal-scoring threat, coupled with the career resurgence of powerful Barcelona midfielder Paulhino, ensures Brazil are no longer the one-man team of the recent past.

It’s led to renewed optimism that Tite’s team can give the World Cup a real shake. But they’ll need to get out of a tricky looking group first, and they’ll be looking to get off to a fast start against Switzerland in Rostov. 

Head coach: Tite

Star player: Neymar

One to watch: Gabriel Jesus (pictured)

Switzerland

It’s fitting that the coach of Switzerland is a migrant himself, since the Swiss national team has undergone a rapid transformation in recent years. Many mocked the appointment of the unheralded Vladimir Petković when he was installed as coach in 2014, yet the Bosnian-born tactician has clearly had the last laugh. 

After taking over from the legendary Ottmar Hitzfeld following the 2014 World Cup, Petković is now the most successful Switzerland coach of all time – at least in terms of winning percentages. But the much-travelled tactician – who oversaw a remarkable run of nine straight victories in qualifying – will be the first to acknowledge that Switzerland’s recent tournament record is a poor one.

Incredibly, not even nine straight wins enough for Switzerland to top its qualification group. That’s because Portugal were neck and neck with the Swiss throughout the duration of Group B qualifying in Europe – with the Swiss stunning the Euro 2016 champions with a 2-0 win at a packed St. Jakob-Park in Basel on the opening night. When the two teams met again on the final evening in front of a febrile crowd at the Estadio da Luz in Lisbon, it was the Portuguese who prevailed 2-0 – finishing top of the group on goal difference and condemning Switzerland to the playoffs.

And Switzerland’s progress was hugely controversial, after they were awarded an astonishing penalty in a 1-0 win over Northern Ireland in Belfast after the ball had clearly hit Jonny Evans in the back. Ricardo Rodríguez converted from the spot and a scoreless draw in the return leg in Basel saw the Swiss through, but after such a dominant qualification campaign, it’s not how Petković will have wanted to reach Russia.

Still, the Swiss are in the draw and despite an obvious lack of goal scorers, they’re not without their own strike power. The Albanian influence continues to run strong, with Xherdan Shaqiri, Blerim Džemaili, Granit Xhaka and Valon Behrami all key members of the squad. Yet Petković has also shown a knack for unearthing new talent, with the likes of Remo Freuler, Denis Zakaria and powerful Basel striker Dimitri Oberlin all pushing their claims for selection.

Head coach: Vladimir Petković

Key player: Xherdan Shaqiri

One to watch: Breel Embolo (pictured)

Costa Rica

For some teams, simply qualifying for the World Cup finals is a major achievement. That was certainly the case for Costa Rica’s neighbours Panama – who benefited most from the United States’ catastrophic implosion – but following a thrilling run at the 2014 World Cup, expectations are considerably higher among Los Ticos fans.

After topping a group containing European giants Italy and England – who were both unceremoniously dumped out at the group stage – Costa Rica then beat Greece on penalties to advance to the last eight in Brazil. And they came within a whisker of knocking out the Netherlands for good measure, only going out on penalties following a scoreless draw.

They cruised through CONCACAF qualifying – finishing top of their Third Round group ahead of neighbours Panama, before negotiating the traditionally tricky ‘hexagonal’ with aplomb. Mexico might have streaked away to win the six-team group, but a 4-0 thumping of a shell-shocked United States in San José set Costa Rica up for a comfortable ride to Russia – they did the double over the United States with a 2-0 win in New Jersey – and by the time the hexagonal was decided on a crazy final night of qualifying, Costa Rica had already progressed.

They shared the goals around in the hexagonal, with Los Angeles FC striker Marcos Ureña chipping in with a valuable three. And Ureña is just one of several veteran members of a squad brimming with experience. Skipper Bryan Ruiz remains the star, but in Real Madrid goalkeeper Keylor Navas, Deportivo La La Coruña midfielder Celso Borges and mercurial Real Betis striker Joel Campbell, the Costa Ricans are not short on talent.

What they may be missing is the element of surprise. Having beaten Uruguay and Italy and drawn with England in the group stage at the last World Cup, Costa Rica can no longer rely on ambushing their opponents. Coach Óscar Hernández – who only took charge after Paulo Wanchope resigned following a brawl with a steward – knows he’ll need to inspire his team to new heights if they are to emerge from a tough group.

Head coach: Óscar Hernández

Key player: Keylor Navas

One to watch: Christian Bolaños (pictured)

Serbia

Will the real Serbia please stand up? The break up of Yugoslavia clearly affected its constituent nations differently, but despite plenty of big names, Serbia has so far struggled to make its mark on world football.

Rookie coach Mladen Krstajić is the latest symbol of the tumult in Serbian football. Despite leading Serbia to the World Cup finals, former coach Slavoljub Muslin was unceremoniously sacked just weeks after qualification – reputedly the victim of the personal politics so prevalent in Balkans football. Muslin’s stubborn refusal to call up Lazio star Sergej Milinkovic-Savić made him unpopular with some members of the press, yet Serbia breezed through a tough qualifying group that contained the likes of the Republic of Ireland, Wales and Austria.

Krstajić might be untested as a coach, but as member of Serbia and Montenegro’s “Famous Four” – the four defenders who conceded just one goal in qualifying for the 2006 World Cup – he knows what it takes to perform on the highest stage. And following a long career as a player in the Bundesliga, where he was a tough-as-teak centre back at Werder Bremen and Schalke, Krstajić will no doubt also have learnt a thing or two about managing big personalities.

That’s probably a good thing for a team that contains plenty – from inspirational skipper Aleksandar Kolarov to grizzled veteran Branislav Ivanović, bruising Manchester United midfielder Nemanja Matić and enigmatic front man Aleksandar Mitrović. The latter, in particular, combined well with fellow English-based attacker Dušan Tadić, as Serbia comfortably qualified for Russia by finishing two points clear of the Republic of Ireland at the top of Group D.

Simply reaching the finals is an achievement for a team that failed to qualify for the last World Cup in Brazil. Yet with fierce regional rivals Croatia boasting a vastly superior international record, there’s a feeling Serbia has traditionally squandered the immense talent at their disposal. They’ll want to avoid doing so once again in Russia. But with a rookie coach in charge and a tough draw to negotiate, it remains to be seen exactly which Serbia turns up in Russia.

Head coach: Mladen Krstajić

Key player: Nemanja Matić

One to watch: Aleksandar Mitrović (pictured)


Categories: Analysis | World Cup

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