We now move on to Group E. Again we find similar traits to groups A and C. There is one clear favorite to finish first in Brazil but after them, second place is up for grabs. Mainly between Switzerland and Serbia.
There wasn’t a more dominant team in World Cup qualifying than Brazil. They breezed through CONMEBOL qualifying, finishing first with 41 points, 10 ahead of second place Uruguay. Brazil only lost once during qualifying and it was in the opening matchday against Chile. Since then, Brazil has been on fire. They are one of the deepest squads in the tournament and have more than enough talent to be called legitimate title contenders.
It all starts up top for Brazil and as we saw in the last World Cup, everything will be functioning through Neymar. The PSG winger scored 6 goals in qualifying and will be healthy to suit up when they play their first match against Switzerland. He’s not often used on the wings when playing for Brazil but this time around Neymar will get some much-needed help when it comes to the attack up front.
Manchester City’s Gabriel Jesus had a breakout year for the Citizens and when you combine it with his 7 goals in qualifying, you can see why he would be the first choice striker. Behind Jesus’s pace and crafty moves, Brazil has two guys up top who can beat defenders one on one and slot it into the back of the net. Roberto Firmino and Willian will also be attacking options as well. Douglas Costa, who had a great season with Juventus in Serie A, should get a look too.
The midfield also has many options for Tite to choose from. Casemiro can sit back in front of the back four and be a destroyer in the same role he has with Real Madrid. Fernandinho can also provide defense solidarity as well as veteran leadership.
In terms of attacking options from the midfield, it’s the Barcelona duo of Philippe Coutinho and Paulinho. For Coutinho, Brazil can play him on the left wing if they want to or even centrally in a CAM role. He is expected to be another playmaker and can certainly score too. Paulinho is an aerial threat along with having a big work rate. He can get up and down the pitch, working sort of as a box to box midfielder at times. At Barcelona, Paulinho was always known for coming in late on attacks to provide another man and scoring threat. Expect him to do the same with Brazil if subbed on.
Defensively, Brazil is decent overall. Allison is expected to be the starting goalie despite his backup Ederson having a brilliant season for Man City. Miranda and Thiago Silva will be there as the center backs while Marcelo will be running up and down the left flank, providing offensive support at times. With Dani Alves not selected to the 23-man roster, Danilo will likely be starting at right back in his place. Only question about the defense are the fullbacks and if being too attack-minded will leave them exposed.
Brazil is clearly head and shoulders the best team in this group. They are certainly one of the top four teams in this tournament and should breeze through Group E.
The Swiss had a much tougher time qualifying for the World Cup. They finished second in Group B, losing on goal difference despite being tied on points with Portugal. If it wasn’t for a 2-0 loss to Portugal on the final matchday, they could have finished first but they had to settle for second place. It took a Ricardo Rodriguez penalty to win a tense two-legged playoff with Northern Ireland to advance to Russia, where they'll bring an interesting squad to this tournament.
On the wings, Switzerland will have two dynamic players in Xherdan Shaqiri and Breel Embolo. Both are capable of creating offensive chances on their own and like we saw from Shaqiri in the 2014 WC and the Euro’s, he’s not afraid of cutting inside and blasting a shot into the corner. The real question will be for Embolo, who is getting his first real World Cup action. Only 21 years old, expectations are going to be high for the Schalke forward and it will be interesting to see how much he can produce for this Swiss side. Benfica’s Haris Seferovic and Josip Drmic are solid striking options up top. Seferovic might get the nod due to him leading Switzerland in scoring in qualifying with 4 goals.
In the midfield, Switzerland also have some quality as well with Granit Xhaka being a solid link between the defense and the midfield. Hopefully, for the midfielder, he will be looking to play much better in this World Cup than he did for his club team Arsenal this past season. For the Swiss, Xhaka can string passes all over the field while also coming in as a solid attacking option from time to time. Valon Behrami, Blerim Dzemaili, and Gelson Fernandes are also experienced players in the midfield, but expect the first two to be put in the starting XI in Russia.
Like the midfield, the defense has some World Cup experience and most of the same guys who played in Brazil will be playing in Russia. For the fullback spots, captain Stephan Lichtsteiner showed this past season that even at age 34, he can still contribute offensively and defensively. Ricardo Rodriguez had a lackluster year at AC Milan but still can be a dangerous threat moving forward in attack as well as a solid set-piece taker for his country. John Djourou is expected to be one of the starting center backs and is the third member of this defense to have more than 50 caps to his name (73). Questions will be asked about who will start next to him as manager Vladimir Petkovic has some options to choose from. One name to look for will be Fabian Schar. Yon Sommer is expected to start in goal.
Switzerland will be fighting for second place in this group and it will all come down to their match against Serbia. They have some talent in different areas of the pitch but will rely on the experienced guys to take them to the knockout stages once again.
Costa Rica made a shock run to the quarterfinals in the 2014 World Cup and will look to play spoilers again. They finished second in the CONCACAF hex stage with a +6 goal difference. It was a great qualifying run for them, which included two victories over the United States with one of them being a 4-0 beatdown in November 2016. Just like Switzerland, Costa Rica will be bringing a lot of the same squad as well as the same tactics.
In Brazil, we raved about Costa Rica’s defensive structure despite playing a 3-man back line, and they're expected to stick with the same strategy this time around. With players such as Oscar Duarte, Cristian Gamboa, Johnny Acosta, and Giancarlo Gonzalez all coming with them in their 23-man squad, Costa Rica will have options to choose from. Sunderland and former Everton fullback Bryan Oviedo can play at wingback if need be. But playing at the back 3 comes with its risk and given how much Costa Rica will be sitting back in this game, you can expect a lot of teams to be trying to exploit the space given. Especially in the case that one of the three center backs get beaten.
That’s where Keylor Navas comes in. He had a breakout year in Brazil and has played ok at Real Madrid ever since. Navas will be a huge part of Costa Rica’s success and if they want to pull off another upset. But one has to wonder just how many shots he can save against the teams in this group.
For attack, Costa Rica still relies a lot on their captain Bryan Ruiz to be the link which holds this team together. Christian Bolanos will provide support in the middle of the park as well. But questions will be asked about which of their two solid striking options they'll choose from. Joel Campbell showed out at the '14 WC and Marco Urena had the key goal against Uruguay last year to gain their first upset win of the tournament. Both are good options to choose from and it could be possible for Costa Rica to play them both with Campbell on the left wing.
Costa Rica has a tall task getting out of this group, but this isn’t the first time we have doubted Los Ticos. It’s hard to forget that they got out of a group with England, Uruguay, and Italy last time around. If there is a team which knows how to pull off a stunner, it’s this team. They are well drilled defensively and their structure will be tested. Costa Rica is going to have to soak up a bunch of pressure defensively hit gold on the counter and on set pieces as well.
Serbia had a good qualifying campaign in Europe, losing only once in UEFA’s group D while beating the likes of Wales, topping the group and earning automatic qualification for Russia. They have a solid squad which will rely on some talent who are coming off remarkable seasons for their clubs.
Up top, Fulham striker Aleksandar Mitrovic expects to start and there is no reason why he shouldn’t. He had a great second half of the season, helping Fulham get promoted to the Premier League in addition to leading the Serbian team in scoring during qualification. Right behind him will likely be Lazio’s Sergej Milinkovic-Savic. The 23-year-old midfielder will have all eyes on him as he will be expected to be the main playmaker for his country. He showed capabilities of being a solid box-to-box midfielder in Serie A and at 6’3, he certainly has the physical traits to dominate the midfield. But expect things to be a bit bumpy for him as he hasn’t had that many caps for his country. He will be the future of Serbia and if he has a solid World Cup, this may be the summer where he gets signed by a big club.
Dusan Tadic will also help out in attack after a solid season at Southampton, also scoring 4 goals in qualifying. Adem Ljajic is be a name to look out for as well. Nemanja Matic will be a solid defensive midfield and will help break up opposing attacks. He can sit in front of the back four and provide much-needed cover for them.
On defense, Serbia is going to rely on experience, but it also sees an aging group in its last go-around. There are 4 defenders over the age of 31 on this Serbian team, with captain Alexander Kolarov being the youngest at 32. He and former Chelsea right-back Branislav Ivanovic will be manning the left and right sides of the pitch respectively. Kolarov is still a decent offensive option going forward and has shown his left foot can still produce some rockets. He’ll be Serbia’s go to on free kicks and a set-piece specialist. Ivanovic isn’t any younger and could get exposed on that right-hand side. He may not even offer any threat moving forward but only time will tell with him.
Past them on the flanks, there will be even more questions and it doesn’t help that a lot of their younger players don’t have a lot of experience. Matic will have to do a lot of covering for them but overall as a unit they still work well together. Like I said, this a defense going through it’s last World Cup and they will still be stingy to some degree.
Serbia still has the quality to get past this group but it will come down to if Mitrovic and Milinkovic-Savic can shine like they did this season. Youth isn’t on their side but Serbia do have the experience to go off of. This is a core which has played a lot together and should be a challenge to play for any team in this group.
Brazil will run this group and it will be a toss-up between Switzerland and Serbia. Costa Rica could make some noise but there is too much offensive quality for them to keep out. Ultimately, Switzerland will edge out Serbia but it will be a very close match. It will come down to whose playmakers can stand out the most.
Brazil, Switzerland, Serbia, Costa Rica