With the heralded coaching techniques of Tite at their disposal, BRAZIL will be looking to shake off the infamous 7-1 drubbing by Germany in Belo Horizonte four years ago to go one better and reach the final in Russia. An impressive performance in qualifying (including 17 games unbeaten and 12 wins), a favourable group draw, and with their top players coming off in-form seasons at club level, Seleção (The Squad) fans will be upbeat going into the tournament. PSG starlet Neymar has avoided the limelight this season after the move to Paris, which saw him net 19 goals in 20 appearances before fracturing his fifth metatarsal in his right foot and undergoing surgery in February. Two goals in two warm-up games prior to Russia have allayed any injury fears and he will spearhead an attack that will also feature Barcelona’s Philippe Coutinho and Manchester City’s impressive youngster Gabriel Jesus. Bucking from historical trend, a real strength to this Brazilian team is it’s back four, which has recently recorded clean sheets against Russia, Germany and Croatia in the lead up to the finals. Inter Milan’s João Miranda and PSG’s Thiago Silva provide both experience and leadership, and are true defenders who are also smart on the ball. Captain Marcelo has been magnificent for Real Madrid this season, and will always provide an attacking threat from left back. The Brazilians are legitimate contenders in Russia. Óscar Ramírez’s COSTA RICA are the next best in this group in my opinion. They lost just twice in qualifying, conceding only 11 goals in 16 games, and only Mexico held a better record. Quarter-finalists in Brazil, that should be the aim again for this underrated but gritty group of players. Bryan Ruiz is tremendous one minute then invisible the next – he needs to be at his best if they are to succeed in the finals. Joel Campbell, Marco Ureña and Christian Bolaños will be busy around the enigmatic Ruiz, who pulls the strings from a deeper position in midfield. Keylor Navas was sensational in Brazil and comes of the back of three successive Champions Leagues with Real Madrid. Nobody says it, but he is the best goalkeeper in the world right now. Defence wins games, Costa Rica are built on that foundation. On paper, SERBIA have all the makings to be the next great European powerhouse. Yet so far they have failed to concoct the correct mixture of individual talent and effective structure. Only a last minute winner from Austria’s Louis Schaub prevented the Serbians from going unbeaten in qualifying. Once part of the Serbia and Montenegro defensive “Famous Four” in Germany 2006, coach Mladen Krstajić graduated from assistant to head coach in 2017. He is very well liked by the players and has mustered a real togetherness in the current squad. Aleksandar Mitrović led the way with 6 goals in qualifying, and along with his 12 goals in 17 games for Fulham this year, he could fire the Serbs into the latter stages of the tournament. Lazio golden boy Sergej Milinković-Savić remains on the fringes of the starting eleven, but look for him to break out if given the opportunity. SWITZERLAND have reached the last 16 of both the last World Cup and European Championships. Cruelly losing out on penalties to Poland in France 2016, Vladimir Petković’s side nearly beat out Portugal to top spot in their qualifying group but lost out to an inferior goal difference. The ex-Lazio boss has won 25 of his 40 games in charge of the Swiss and he has kept faith the majority of the squad he brought together when taking the job 5 years ago. The unpredictable Xherdan Shaqiri is backed up by veterans Stephan Lichtsteiner, Johan Djourou, Valon Behrami and Blerim Džemaili. Granit Xhaka was desperately poor in France two years ago and will look to bounce back after a better club season with Arsenal. Where the goals are coming for is anyones guess, and that has been the issue for a while of this side. Young Schalke forward Breel Embolo could get the nod despite a barren season for his club side. With Brazil first up, it’s hard to see the Swiss progressing from out of this group.
Players to watch: Marcelo, Neymar and Gabriel Jesus (BRA), Marco Ureña, Keylor Navas (CRC), Sergej Milinković-Savić, Adem Ljajić, and Filip Kostić (SER), Ricardo Rodríguez, Denis Zakaria (SWI)
Fun fact: Brazilians will stop work completely to watch their team, and recently banks in Brazil have agreed to close up to three hours prior to kick off so fans can prepare to watch their team. You have to get behind those initiatives!