- Brazil has Neymar back healthy and looks poised to challenge for a sixth title. But Serbia, Switzerland and 2014 Cinderella Costa Rica all can duke it out for a place in the knockout stage, too.
Group E at Russia's 2018 World Cup isn't the most star-laden or high-profile, but there's an argument to be made for all four sides to go through, paced by one giant and three capable contenders. Brazil will go through barring disaster—when combining talent and recent form, Brazil is arguably the team to beat across the entire tournament.
While Brazil is the class of the bunch, the injury gods haven’t been the kindest to the Seleção. Stalwart right back Dani Alves will miss the tournament due to an injury suffered late in PSG's season, and other key contributors like Douglas Costa, Renato Augusto and new Manchester United signing Fred are also dealing with knocks as the tournament inches closer. But no injury status will garner more attention than that of Neymar, who played last weekend for the first time since February.
The good news for Brazil is that Neymar looked fantastic, and no residual effect from the foot injury was visible. He scored a remarkable goal and seemed to be moving well. All signs point toward Neymar regaining his spot in the starting lineup from the opening game. With him in form and in the lineup, manager Tite’s team breezed through qualifying like a well-oiled machine.
The big question in Group E is which team will emerge from the non-Brazil pack. Will it be Switzerland, a team that’s become a regular in major tournaments but one that doesn’t really have the firepower to make a deep run? Will it be Costa Rica, Concacaf's quarterfinal darlings from Brazil 2014? Or will it be Serbia, a talented side but one adjusting to a new manager after Slavoljub Muslin was let go last October? The margins between that trio are quite slim.
Sunday, June 17 (8 a.m. ET): Costa Rica vs. Serbia
Sunday, June 17 (2 p.m. ET): Brazil vs. Switzerland
Friday, June 22 (8 a.m. ET): Brazil vs. Costa Rica
Friday, June 22 (2 p.m. ET): Serbia vs. Switzerland
Wednesday, June 27 (2 p.m. ET): Switzerland vs. Costa Rica
Wednesday, June 27 (2 p.m. ET): Serbia vs. Brazil
Most pivotal match
Serbia vs. Costa Rica. Any match that doesn’t include Brazil is a worthy candidate for this designation, because any of those matches may prove decisive in determining who makes it out of the group. I’m going to go with the group’s first match for two reasons. One, I’m not high on this Switzerland team, so I think this match will likely determine who advances. Secondly, getting three points from this match would be a massive psychological boost to either side.
Potential sleeper team
Experience tends to come in handy in big tournaments, and 17 of the 23 players on Costa Rica’s roster have at least 35 caps. It’s not surprising, then, that the core that led the nation to the quarterfinal four years ago is aging. They have one more good run in them, though, and don’t underestimate the impact a world-class shot-stopper like Keylor Navas can have on a team.
Players to watch
Danilo/Fagner (Brazil): The only real question mark Brazil has personnel-wise is at the right back spot. Dani Alves, at 35, was still playing at a world-class level before his injury, and his loss is a significant blow to a team that had mastered its winning formula. The two candidates here are Manchester City’s Danilo and Corinthians's Fagner. Danilo got the nod in Brazil’s 2-0 win over Croatia last Sunday. Both players have the quality to aptly fill in, but it’ll be interesting to see how they slide into a back line that was virtually unchanged throughout qualifying.
Joel Campbell (Costa Rica): It feels like he’s been around forever, but the constant Arsenal loanee (most recently: Real Betis) is still just 25 years old. Campbell started and scored in Costa Rica’s impressive 3-0 victory over Northern Ireland, and he’s probably the most talented attacker on the roster. Having him be dangerous in Russia alongside the ever-consistent Bryan Ruiz would be huge for Los Ticos.
Sergej Milinkovic-Savic (Serbia): Premier League fans will be more familiar with names like Nemanja Matic, Branislav Ivanovic, Dusan Tadic and Aleksandar Kolarov, but Milinkovic-Savic is the key. The 23-year-old midfielder had a terrific year at Lazio and could move to a bigger club this summer, especially if he shows out in Russia. In an interesting tidbit, one of the reasons Muslin was let go was his reluctance to call up the player, who only made his senior team debut in November.
Granit Xhaka (Switzerland): The Arsenal central midfielder is the best player on his team and Switzerland’s best bet to produce some offensive magic, along with Xherdan Shaqiri and Breel Embolo. After avoiding a debilitating injury after a scare in a recent training session, he’ll be tasked with a lot of the responsibility. It’s safe to say that as he goes, Switzerland likely goes.
Predictions to go through
Brazil is a no-brainer here, and anything besides a comfortable nine points would be a big disappointment for one of the pre-tournament favorites. The second spot is well and truly up for grabs, but Costa Rica’s experience will see them through. Los Ticos will be ready for that crucial opener against Serbia, and the three points they’ll get will be vital.