Group D is the next port of call in our 2018 World Cup group-by-group preview, featuring Brazil, Switzerland, Serbia and Costa Rica.
The South American giants have just about recovered from the 7-1 nightmare of Belo Horizonte and are bang in-form under manager Tite. The two European sides will see each other as the main competition for that runners-up spot, while Costa Rica will be determined to prove that the heroics of 2014 were not a once-off.
FIFA Ranking (June 2018): 2nd
Best World Cup Finish: Winners (1958, 1962, 1970, 1994, 2002)
World Cup 2014 Finish: Fourth Place
One to Watch – Roberto Firmino: Firmino has found it hard to nail down a starting place under Tite, but can the Brazil manager really afford to ignore a forward who combined finishing with creativity so regularly last season?
The Champions League finally showed the world what Firmino is fully capable of in 2017/18, and a record of 27 goals and 14 assists in all competitions painted a picture of an unconventional yet brilliant number nine. His link-up play with his fellow Liverpool forwards makes him a vital commodity – if he can replicate the same with Neymar et al, he will surely be undroppable.
Verdict: After the nightmare of 2014 (and the misstep of reappointing Dunga in the aftermath), Brazil have been revitalised since Tite’s arrival as manager. They are the favourites of many to end their 16-year wait to lift the trophy, and with good reason.
With the attacking flair of Neymar, Gabriel Jesus, Philippe Coutinho and Firmino (not to mention Marcelo from deep), the midfield composure of Paulinho and Casemiro and the defensive resilience of Miranda, Thiago Silva and Alisson Becker and that all points to the spine of a formidable team. The Selecao are purring, and have every right to feel like they can return to South America as world champions.
FIFA Ranking (June 2018): 6th
Best World Cup Finish: Quarter-Finals (1954)
World Cup 2014 Finish: Round of 16
One to Watch – Breel Embolo: Embolo was touted as one of the hottest young prospects in Europe a couple of years ago while he was still at Basel, to the point where it was strongly rumoured that Man United were circling (then again, who hasn’t been linked with Man United at least once?). In the end, he moved to Schalke for €20m in 2016, but his time in Germany has been seriously hampered by injury.
Still only 21, Embolo has time on his side to realise his potential. He has pace to burn, excellent close control and is a composed finisher. At the very least, the forward will be hoping to make much more of an impression for the national side than he was afforded in a relatively limited showing at Euro 2016.
Verdict: Switzerland’s 27-point finish in qualifying would have seen them win most of the other groups, but as Portugal were in a similarly rich vein of form, Vladimir Petkovic’s side had to come through a tense play-off against Northern Ireland to book their spot in Russia.
Petkovic has done a fine job in blending the experience of the older members of the squad with the youthful enthusiasm of the newer recruits. They have a strong midfield, a strong bond running throughout the squad and a manager that has the know-how to build on their Euro 2016 performance. On the other hand, there’s not a lot up front to suggest that Switzerland will be scoring many goals.
FIFA Ranking (June 2018): 34th
Best World Cup Finish: Fourth Place (1962 as SFR Yugoslavia)
World Cup 2014 Finish: Fourth Place
One to Watch – Sergej Milinkovic-Savic: Milinkovic-Savic has become one of the most sought-after players in Europe this summer, to the point where Lazio feel comfortable demanding €100m for his services (as well as the obligatory Man United links). He’s unlikely to fetch anywhere near that amount, of course, but it shows how highly the Serie A club value the 23-year-old.
His meteoric rise is highlighted by the fact that he only made his international debut after Serbia had qualified for the finals, and yet he is now seen to be key to their hopes of progression. An all-action all-purpose midfielder, Milinkovic-Savic is capable of pulling the strings from midfield as well playing a key role in attacks. Those who have not seen him play in Italy are in for a very pleasant surprise.
Verdict: Mladen Krstaji was only appointed manager last October (with previous incumbent Slavoljub Muslin sacked despite navigating the qualifiers), and the new boss has implemented a 4-2-3-1 that combines steely determination with unpredictable technical ability. Luka Milivojevic and Nemanja Matic are the perfect midfield enforcers, while Milinkovic-Savic is adept at playmaking ahead of them. Factor in the likes of Dusan Tadic Aleksandar Mitrovic, Luka Jovic and Adem Ljajic and it points to a strong attacking threat.
However, the defence could be an issue. Matija Nastasic will be a big loss, while veterans such as Aleksandar Kolarov and Branislav Ivanovic may have a tough time against quicker attacks.
FIFA Ranking (June 2018): 23rd
Best World Cup Finish: Quarter-Finals (2014)
World Cup 2014 Finish: Quarter-Finals
One to Watch – Joel Campbell: Not only is Campbell still technically an Arsenal player, but he’s one of their longest-serving players having arrived at the Emirates in 2011. Five loan spells later, it’s hard to know what state his Premier League career is in – especially with the recent change in manager.
Question marks surrounding his club future aside, the 25-year-old forward is beginning to come into his prime as a footballer. That, of course, means that expectation will also increase. A confident, quick player that likes to drift into space, Campbell has been tipped to fill the void soon to be left by Bryan Ruiz going forward. That said, he is just coming off the back of an injury-hit season with Real Betis so there are doubts surrounding his match fitness going into this tournament.
Verdict: Costa Rica caused a major upset in 2014 by winning a group that contained England, Italy and Uruguay, and they were a penalty shootout away from making the semi-finals in Brazil. A large part of that squad will be in Russia, and manager Oscar Ramirez will be hoping for a similar outcome.
Unlike the majority of sides in this group, Costa Rica are built more on defensive discipline than on attacking flair. In that regard, expect Costa Rica to stifle, contain, and go for the jugular when they feel the time is right. That’s a positive in one sense, but, conversely, there is a worry that this team are too defensively-minded and can’t play on the front foot. Getting out of the group is not beyond them, but it might be a bridge too far.
Prediction: Realistically, Brazil should come through this group relatively unscathed. They look a serious threat under Tite, laid waste to stronger teams than this in qualifiying and look full to the brim of confidence. A nine-point finish is not out of the question for Tite’s men.
Second place is a more interesting prospect but, despite Costa Rica’s heroics four years ago, it’s hard to see lightning striking twice. Switzerland and Serbia are harder to separate – and while the latter could just have the edge due to their stronger attack, there’s not a whole lot separating the two.
4 Costa Rica