After eight years of failing to make it to a major championship, Serbia qualified for Russia 2018 by topping their group at the expense of teams like Wales. This is just their second World Cup appearance since becoming an independent nation in 2006, but comes with a shadow cast by a change of head coach within weeks of achieving qualification.
Former head coach Slavoljub Muslin was sacked amid speculation that his poor relationship with Lazio midfielder Sergej Milinković-Savić was behind his demise. The caretaker manager Mladen Krstajić announced the inclusion of Milinković-Savić straight away and the star midfielder played his first ever international games in two friendly matches against China and South Korea.
Although the treatment of Muslin is still being widely debated in Serbia, the 23-year-old Milinković-Savić did indeed have an amazing season with Lazio, scoring 14 times and attracting scouts from Manchester United, Real Madrid and Tottenham Hotspur. A fine World Cup will surely be the youngster’s springboard towards something bigger.
Coach: Mladen Krstajić
Captain: Aleksandar Kolarov
FIFA Ranking: 35 Odds: $201.00
World Cup appearances: 12
Best World Cup performance: Semi-finals – 1930
Russia is the fourth consecutive World Cup run for Switzerland and with the Swiss people now expecting nothing less from their national team, there was no great euphoria when it booked its place in the finals – even after progressing through a difficult play-off against Northern Ireland.
Arsenal midfielder Granit Xhaka is clearly the heart of the Swiss squad, setting the pace of the game. Switzerland’s attack will mostly involve the two flanks, with speedy wingers such as Xherdan Shaqiri and Steven Zuber providing the crosses into the middle. The wingers also have strong full-backs behind them in Juventus’s Stephan Lichtsteiner on the right and Milan’s Ricardo Rodríguez on the left.
But the major concern for them will be the lack of quality in the center forward position. Benfica striker Haris Seferović, who is now the side’s number one choice, scored only four league goals this season. Seferović is by no means as prolific as Alexander Frei, the previous No.9 of the Switzerland national team.
Coach: Vladimir Petković
Captain: Stephan Lichtsteiner
FIFA Ranking: 6 Odds: $101.00
World Cup appearances: 10
Best World Cup performance: Quarter finals – 1934, 1938, 1954
Brazil will enter the World Cup as co-favorites. The five-time winners are looking to wipe away the miserable memory of its home World Cup in 2014 where they were defeated by Germany 7-1 in the semi-final – their biggest ever defeat at a World Cup and first home loss in a competitive match since 1975.
Felipe Scolari guiltily resigned after the Brazil World Cup, and after another disappointing run in Copa América in 2015 under Dunga’s reign, well-respected Tite came in and earned qualification to Russia.
Tite’s preferred formation is 4-1-4-1, and he has such faith in his players that he revealed the squad to local media as early as February. It’s little wonder. Roma goalkeeper Allison remains tough to beat in-goal and while legendary right back Dani Alves has been ruled out with injury, his replacement Danilo along with Marcelo will provide an attacking surge from both flanks. In the middle, Casemiro, Fernandinho, Renato Augusto and Paulinho will shield the screen.
Nevertheless, it is the attacking force that makes Brazil one of the most entertaining teams in the world. Roberto Firmino has been sensational for Liverpool and around him is Neymar, Coutinho and Gabriel Jesus.
FIFA Ranking: 2
World Cup appearances: 20
World Cup titles: 5 – 1958, 1962, 1970, 1994, 2002
Costa Rica was the surprise packet four years ago in Brazil, progressing to the knock-out stage alongside Uruguay at the expense of Italy and England.
Not only did Costa Rica top the group against three of the gameʼs big guns, they also defeated Greece in the Round of 16 before eventually falling to the Netherlands.
This time around they achieved qualification with ease in a very tight CONCACAF Group, progressing with two games in hand. However, repeating their 2014 effort could be difficult for the Costa Ricans.
Real Madrid goalkeeper Keylor Navas is their star man. Four years ago it was his outstanding performance against Greece, which saw him make several incredible saves in normal time before starring in the penalty shootout, that led to Costa Rica to the quarter-finals for the first time.
Defence may well be Costa Rica’s strongest area, as the attacking players who performed so well four years ago, such as Bryan Ruiz and Joel Campbell, are past their prime time and have struggled with injuries.
Coach: Óscar Ramírez
Captain: Bryan Ruiz
FIFA Ranking: 25
World Cup appearances: 4
Best World Cup performance: Quarter-finals – 2014