Underachieving players and lost points due to crowd trouble have kept Serbia from qualifying for the last three major tournaments. But everyone got their act together for this qualifying cycle, and the Serbians put together an impressive run in their group, finishing on top of the Republic of Ireland, Wales, and Austria.
Serbia will rely on an experienced set of players in Russia, with a number of starters age 29 or older. But there’s some interesting youth mixed in as well — Aleksandar Mitrovic, Andrija Zivkovic, Marko Grujic, Nemanja Maksimovic, Milos Veljkovic and Sergej Milinkovic-Savic are all 23 or younger. All are expected to play some part in Serbia’s team in Russia.
Serbia have some talented attacking players and creative midfielders. If they want to give those players the freedom to get forward and try to score, they’ll need Manchester United’s Matic at his best, backing them up and slowing down counter-attacks.
South American qualifying was a messy, bloody brawl for everybody involved, except one nation: Brazil. The five-time World Cup winners scored 41 goals in 18 qualifying games, lost just once early on, and eventually finished 10 points ahead of second-placed Uruguay. With the exception of the hosts, they were the first team to book their place in Russia, maintaining their proud and slightly intimidating record of appearing in every finals.
And it’s just as well they’re looking good, since they’ve a national humiliation to avenge. 2014’s shredding by Germany was followed by two years of Dunga-managed purgatory before the Brazilian FA decided that their people had suffered enough. Tite took over in June 2016, and his charges promptly won nine qualifiers in a row. Even better, they did so while looking kind of exciting. A World Cup with a decent, entertaining Brazil team? Exactly what this tired planet needs.
The answer to this question is Neymar, but the key to the key, so to speak, has been Tite finding a system and lineup to share the burden around. Now that he has Gabriel Jesus running around up front, and Philippe Coutinho cutting in from the opposite side, Brazil’s most iconic player looks far happier in the national shirt. And a happy Neymar is a wonderful, terrifying sight.
This World Cup will be the chance for Switzerland’s golden generation to do what so many others haven’t done. The Swiss have reached the round of 16 in the last two tournaments, but with a team that has won 10 of its last 12 games and only went to the playoffs because of a tie with Portugal, they have the expectations now to be more than they have been since 1954. A quarterfinals berth would set expectations for future generations.
The problem is that Switzerland only escaped past Northern Ireland on a controversial penalty, after failing to score in the first leg of the matchup. That and the fact that their best players, Xherdan Shaqiri, Granit Xhaka, are either unreliable or on the verge of a red card.
The Stoke forward is the inspiration for the Switzerland attack, and the team will need him in the best form if it’s to achieve what it’s capable of. Thankfully he’s supported by the likes of Xhaka and Ricardo Rodriguez.
Los Ticos were the best Cinderella story of the 2014 World Cup, and they return to the world’s biggest stage with a similar squad. They secured World Cup qualification early, having defeated the United States twice and secured a draw against Mexico. The Costa Rican team is an experienced one and is unlikely to start any player with fewer than 20 caps. Most of their starting lineup will enter Russia 2018 having made more than 60 appearances for their country.
While Costa Rica has some technical players and solid attacking talent, it’s their defense that will give them a chance to advance in this tournament. They can frustrate opponents with a well-organized 5-4-1 formation, then punish them on the counter-attack. Los Ticos sometimes play a more open style against CONCACAF opposition but expect to see them sitting deep and breaking quickly against top competition.
The Real Madrid goalkeeper has remained CONCACAF’s best player since his heroics in Brazil. With him in goal, Costa Rica always has a chance to keep a clean sheet.