Group E is poised to see some interesting contests. The general consensus is that Brazil (FIFA rank 2) will make it as group winners, and the competition will be mainly for 2nd place. Switzerland (ranked 6) seem to be the best choice for that, but can anyone write off Costa Rica (ranked 23) after their incredible run in 2014? And then there is Serbia (ranked 34), always unpredictable.
Serbia’s recent results have not been very impressive, which has resulted in their current low ranking, but they did qualify as winners of a European group that was quite tough. However, their coach Mladen Krstajic was appointed just after they confirmed qualification, and thus they are yet to play in a competitive game under him.
Their likely first choice goalkeeper is Vladimir Stojkovic, who was in the 2006 and 2010 squads and is a time tested performer. In front of him, the defence contains a lot of experienced players who have played for some of the best known clubs of Europe. The central defence is likely to be manned by Branislav Ivanovic (who also played in 2010) and Dusko Tosic, Captain Aleksandar Kolarov will probably play as left back, with Antonio Rukavina as right back.
In the heart of midfield there is Nemanja Matic, with probable support from Luka Milivojevic. The tall and elegant Sergej Milinkovic-Savic is a new addition to the squad, but he is already being spoken of as Serbia’s next big international star as a box to box midfielder. Dusan Tadic is at present their most creative midfielder, and the skilful left winger Filip Kostic along with Adem Ljajic will provide the width. Andrija Zivkovic is another talented winger. Up front, the temperamental Aleksandar Mitrovic is their obvious choice as central striker, with Aleksandar Prijovic providing the cover.
Costa Rica surprised everyone in 2014 when they first won the group that also contained former world cup winners Uruguay, Italy and England, and then reached the quarter finals where they lost to Netherlands only by tie-breakers, after a gallant fight. Current coach Oscar Ramirez, himself a member of Costa Rica’s first world cup squad in 1990, has shown faith on the 2014 team and 12 of that squad are in the present competition.
In goal, Costa Rica have Kaylor Navas, one of the most prominent goalkeepers in the world today. He has a very competent and experienced defence to help him protect his goal, including cup veterans Johnny Acosta, Giancarlo Gonzalez, Oscar Duarte and Cristian Gamboa. Brian Oviedo can also play a part, as can Francisco Calvo and the tall Kendall Waston.
In midfield, there is Christian Bolanos, who also played in the 2006 cup, along with another 2014 veteran, Celso Borges. Captain Brian Ruiz is another cup veteran who can turn games in moments with his skill and his knack for getting important goals. Randall Azofeifa, who missed out in 2014, but was in the 2006 squad, is another skilful midfielder with plenty of experience. Yeltsin Tejada, along with David Guzman, are expected to keep things tight in front of the defence. Joel Campbell is Costa Rica’s best known striker, and Marco Urena is expected to support him up front. Johan Venegas can also play a part, attacking from wide areas.
Switzerland has been one of the most consistent teams in world football in the last few years, though they never seem to get much credit for it. So they will be keen to show the world that their FIFA ranking of 6 is no fluke and they are ready to take on any team in the world. They have an astute coach in Vladimir Petkovic, who has been in charge for 4 years now, and has fine-tuned the team into a splendid unit.
In goal, the Swiss will be served by the safe hands of Yann Sommer. Ahead of him, captain Stefan Lichtsteiner, in his 3rd cup, marshals a very well organised defence that also contains fellow full back Ricardo Rodriguez and centre backs Johan Djourou, Michael Lang and Fabian Scharr. Francois Moubandje is another talented full back who can shine if given the opportunity.
In midfield, the Swiss have Granit Xhaka to control the centre and the mercurial Xherdan Shaqiri, now in his 3rd cup at the age of 26, to provide the creative flair. They will have plenty of skilled support around them, from players such as the experienced Valon Behrami (4th cup) Blerim Dzemaili (3rd cup) and Gelson Fernandes (3rd cup), along with talented younger players like Remo Freuler, winger Steven Zuber and Denis Zakaria. What Switzerland seem to lack is a world class striker, though both Josip Drmic and Haris Seferovic would like to prove that assertion wrong. But the attack does have the supremely talented Cameroon born 21 years old Breel Embolo, who seems to be a major international star in the making.
In spite of their terrible loss to Germany in the 2014 world cup that they had hosted, Brazil is Brazil and always begin a world cup as one of the most likely teams to win it. To do that they first have to qualify for the knock-out stage, and they should achieve that primary target comfortably. However they must not underestimate any of their group opponents. Under their discerning coach Tite, Brazil have slowly climbed out of the 2014 disaster and are now playing like many Brazilian teams of yore – fluently and beautifully.
Brazil have often had goalkeeping weaknesses in the past, but this time they have three superb keepers to choose from. Alisson Becker is likely to be first choice, with Ederson as his principal understudy. The defence is comprised of a lot of experienced players like Thago Silva and Miranda in the centre with Marcelo and Felipe Luis at the sides. Pedro Geromel, Fagner, Danilo and young Marquinhos can provide cover if necessary.
The midfield is filled with hugely talented individuals, as usual. Casemiro and Fernandinho can control the centre and let the likes of Paulinho, Renato Augusto, Philippe Coutinho and Willian flow and enchant. To add to the mix, the talented Fred and Taison are also available. Up front, there is the incomparable Neymar, the captain of the side, with Douglas Costa, Roberto Firmino and Gabriel Jesus to provide further fire-power.
(From the desk of Rajat Subhra Banerjee)