World Cup Group E: Frugal Swiss can follow Brazil through
In a group which is expected to be dominated by tournament favourites Brazil, Jack Lang thinks Switzerland's defence could be key as they battle it out with Serbia and Costa Rica for the runner up spot...
"Switzerland suffer from a slight lack of star quality, Xherdan Shaqiri aside, but have snuck through to the knockout rounds in their last two major tournaments and are solid at the back"
There will always be plenty of interest in the group containing the favourites for the World Cup, and that honour this summer goes to Group E. Brazil are widely expected to dominate the section - they're [1.34] to finish top - but the playing field beyond looks relatively level, with all three remaining sides eyeing a spot in the last 16.
Costa Rica are ranked as outsiders but do have form for upsetting the apple cart, while Switzerland and Serbia would probably regard progress to the second round as a job well done this summer. The group of death this is certainly not, but we could be in for some tight, tense affairs...
Brazil the pace-setters
Had you been asked to pick a potential World Cup winner two years ago, there's no way that would you have chosen Brazil. The Seleção were in a bad way, the visceral horror of that home defeat to Germany having been followed by a remarkable feat of head-burying by those in charge, who opted to reappoint Dunga rather than freshen things up. Two Copa América failures followed, and for a brief moment it appeared that Brazil might even struggle to qualify for Russia 2018.
That the outlook is far rosier now is down to one man: Adenor Leonardo Bacchi, better known as Tite. The former Corinthians coach has revitalised the side, putting faith in a new generation of players (Alisson, Marquinhos, Casemiro, Gabriel Jesus), improving team spirit and, courtesy of a stunning series of wins, bringing some of the old swagger back.
Preparations have been smooth, and while Neymar will probably not be at peak fitness until the knockout stages, this is no longer the one-man team it once was. Jesus, Philippe Coutinho and Paulinho will all chip in with goals, and, in Douglas Costa, Fernandinho and Roberto Firmino, the Seleção have perhaps the most deluxe set of bench options at the tournament.
Brazil have not lost one first-round game since 1966 (the dead rubber against Norway at France '98) and should negotiate this group with some ease.
Can lightning strike twice for Costa Rica?
The Central Americans made plenty of friends at the last World Cup, confounding both England and Italy to win their section, and then coming within a whisker of a semi-final spot. And the good news for fans of that side is that this year's vintage is pretty much the same, with seven or eight of the players who started the quarter-final likely to line up in their opener against Serbia this time out.
Coach Óscar Ramírez takes his tactical cues from predecessor Jorge Luis Pinto, too: Los Ticos play five across the back and look to score on the break. Will that be enough for them to repeat the heroics of 2014? There's an outside chance, but form is a concern: they have lost four of their last five, drawing blanks against Hungary and Tunisia.
Serbia and Switzerland in shootout
Second place may come down to a straight battle between the group's European representatives. The two meet in the second set of games, and if there is an advantage to be gained from the schedule, it probably lies with Serbia, who will aim to build some momentum against Costa Rica and might face a Brazil side keen to preserve energy before the round of 16.
On paper at least, Serbia look fairly strong. In Branislav Ivanović, Aleksandar Kolarov, Nemanja Matić, Luka Milivojević and Dušan Tadić, they have a core of experienced campaigners, while Sergej Milinković-Savić could be a breakout star after a fine season with Lazio. But the jury is out on rookie coach Mladen Krstajić and they look overly reliant on Aleksandar Mitrović in the goal stakes.
Switzerland suffer from a slight lack of star quality, Xherdan Shaqiri aside, and their current FIFA ranking of sixth is flattering in the extreme. But La Nati have snuck through to the knockout rounds in their last two major tournaments and, despite the presence of Johan Djourou, are remarkably frugal at the back: they have kept 10 clean sheets from their last 12 games.
They might start off with a defeat against Tite's side in Rostov, but the Swiss can frustrate Serbia to progress.