Sport

World Cup: Group E preview. Tight battle for second behind Brazil in store

The group stages of the World Cup this summer doesn’t make for tense reading, with the top sides seemingly ensured qualification to the knockout phase. Group E is no different as Brazil are likely to come away from the group with maximum points and qualification to the last 16.

In truth, Brazil have developed immensely since their humiliation at the hands of Germany in 2014. Gone are liabilities such as Fred, Bernard, Oscar, Hulk, Luiz Gustavo, Dante, David Luiz, and Maicon. Welcomed are Roberto Firmino, Paulinho, Phillippe Coutinho, Gabriel Jesus, and Casemiro.

The improvements are not consigned to the players, as Tite’s appointment as their new manager reaped rewards from the very moment he replaced Dunga. Following his debut victory over Ecuador, Tite led Brazil to seven straight wins to become the first team to qualify for this year’s competition other than the hosts Russia. In fact, after 21 games, Tite has a win percentage of 80.95% with 17 wins and just one loss: against Argentina in June of last year.

So far this year, Brazil have been formidable. The Samba stars picked up four wins from four friendlies, including a 1-0 win against Germany in March. What has stood out since Tite’s appointment is the defensive assurance that has become so integral to the Brazilian game. They have conceded just five goals in 21 games, with their last conceded goal coming against Japan in November. This resilience has not compromised Brazil at the other end of the pitch, with 47 goals scored since Tite was brought in.

On the pitch, Neymar will be the focal point of the Brazilian team as he was in 2014. The PSG talisman recently became the third highest-goalscorer in Brazil’s history with 55 goals, seven behind Ronaldo and 22 behind Pelé. Whatever Brazil achieve at this World Cup will likely go through Neymar, with the team’s star-studded supporting cast able to build on their success from there.

With Brazil’s eventual dominance in Group E in mind, it will be a fight for second place between the remaining sides in the group: Costa Rica, Switzerland, and Serbia.

Costa Rica’s qualification to the World Cup was not exactly straightforward. They picked up four wins from ten games in qualification, finishing second behind Mexico. However, since qualifying they have won just twice in seven games, against Scotland and Northern Ireland. In that time, they lost five times including against Tunisia, Hungary, and 4-1 and 5-0 defeats to Belgium and Spain respectively. While Costa Rica had a great World Cup last time around, it would take something even better for them to get past the group stage.

From the underdog team to the favourites to join Brazil in the knockout stages, Switzerland will likely be Brazil’s closest challengers in group E. Despite only managing to get through to Russia via a playoff win over Northern Ireland, the Swiss had a very good qualifying campaign. They finished on 27 points from 10 games – the same record as group winners Portugal – with their only defeat in qualifying coming against Portugal on the final day of qualifying.

Since that defeat to Portugal, Switzerland have gone unbeaten. Two draws – against Northern Ireland and Spain – and four wins from six games make for impressive reading for the sixth-best team in the FIFA world rankings.

That just leaves us with Serbia. In terms of how qualifying played out, Serbia had a more impressive campaign than Switzerland – finishing top in a group which contained Ireland and 2016 European Championship quarter-finalists Wales.

However, further investigation makes for less impressive reading. While they did top the group, they finished with 21 points – the lowest tally of any team to top their group in European qualifying. Additionally, their record since has not been as stellar as that of the Swiss.

In the six games since qualification, Serbia won just three, losing two and drawing once – including defeats to Morocco and Chile.

History is also not on the Serbians side, as they haven’t made it out of the group stage since 1998. They did not qualify in 2002 and 2014 while failing to make it out of the group stage in 2006 and 2010.