What’s their deal? Perennial favorites in terms of both betting lines and worldwide adoration, Brazil are back with a vengeance after the national tragedy that was their performance in front of home fans in 2014. Indeed, they look like a different team entirely, having been revamped and reinvigorated under coach Tite. They breezed through qualifying, dominating their South American competition, and are hungry for a sixth world championship.
But who can play? On a roster of galacticos, the brightest is “the glitter bomb that is Neymar,” in Ray Hudson’s wonderful styling. It is an utter delight watching what this feline forward does to defenders in front of the net. The only thing holding Neymar back is his occasional tendency to fly off the handle and earn a red card. Around him will be attacking threats like Willian, Gabriel Jesus, and, crucially, Philippe Coutinho, who seems poised for a breakout performance on the big stage. Casemiro is the constant CDM who will get the ball rolling. Behind him will be the nominal left back Marcelo, who plays solid defense for his keeper, Allisson, but often wanders up the pitch to thrilling results.
What’s their soccer look like? The Dunga days of ball control and physicality are over. Tite’s regime features a titillating attack, and how could it not with this roster? With so many interchangeable forwards and attacking midfielders, look for a 4-5-1, or perhaps 4-1-4-1 if Casemiro is feeling more defensive-minded. Neymar, Gabriel Jesus, and Coutinho will likely shift from the wings to the center from game to game, giving the opposition different looks. All this attacking flair happens in front of a remarkably solid defense, to boot.
So, how far can they go? Even the uninitiated could probably tell you that Brazil is favored to win it all; betting markets even favor them ahead of defending champions Germany.
What’s their deal? Los Ticos are back for more after their truly incredible success at the 2014 World Cup, where they lost on penalties to Holland in the quarterfinals. It was rock-solid defense that got them that far, and it’s defense that has gotten them to where they are today. If they are to make any progress in Russia, it will be because of…their defense.
But who can play? Perhaps more important than the defensive unit in front of him is goalkeeper Keylor Navas, one of the world’s absolute best and a big part of Real Madrid’s recent success. Celso Borges, in central midfield, is the first line of defense as well as the key passer. The attack, such as it is, depends on Bryan Ruiz and the speedy Joseph Campbell, who Costa Ricans will be hoping is fully recovered from his recent injury.
What’s their soccer look like? Defense first. Ruiz and Campbell will be active on any counterattack, but this well-organized team’s efforts are entirely directed towards making sure the opponents can’t and won’t score. To that end, they typically deploy a 5-2-2-1. Against the competition in this group, it will almost certainly look more like a 5-4-1.
So, how far can they go? Not even Costa Ricans expect anything remotely approaching the fairytale success of 2014, and most everyone expects a group stage exit. Then again, no one expected anything in 2014 either…
What’s their deal? There is something about former Yugoslavian nations that keeps them pumping out soccer talent at a level far above what their populations or GDP would suggest is possible, and Serbia is at the upper end of the Balkanized bunch. This year’s Serbian squad is impressively balanced, featuring front-to-back quality that can produce goals as well as deny them.
But who can play? This team is low-key loaded, with a roster that can’t compare to the top flight teams but can confidently line up against any team in the next tier. Aleksandar Mitrovic is an electric striker who will be supported by Sergej Milinkovic-Savic just behind him, creating all kinds of chances. Nemanja Matic and Luka Milivojevic round out the impressive midfield, and behind them the defense features the veteran quality of Branislav Ivanovic and Aleksandar Kolarov.
What’s their soccer look like? After riding a 3-4-3 throughout qualifying, Serbia are playing in a new 4-2-3-1 formation under new manager Mladen Krstajic. For that reason, the play style is a bit difficult to predict, but the likely game plan will be to use the superior midfield quality in that possession-oriented formation to maximize the conduit from Milinkovic-Savic to Mitrovic.
So, how far can they go? In the battle for second place, the Serbs represent the most talented squad and should have the best shot. They have failed to impress in World Cups past, though, and to improve on their record this time around will be easier said than done while actively trying to implement a new system. On top of that, a matchup with Germany almost certainly awaits the second-place finisher, and almost nobody is good enough to beat that team.
What’s their deal? Switzerland have been competent performers in European and world soccer for some time now, largely thanks to an infusion of kaleidoscopically multiethnic talent. Though some Swiss are none too pleased with this transalpine invasion, there will be no complaints from the national soccer federation. The team only had to go through a playoff because they were stuck in the same group as a dominant Portugal; otherwise they acquitted themselves rather nicely in qualifying, no surprise after keeping the same group that showed well at Euro 2016 together..
But who can play? At just 26, Xheridan Shaqiri already has 68 international appearances, so his importance to this team cannot be understated–not least of all because he can occasionally dwell on the ball in his search for shots. His midfield mate Granit Xhaka is perennially underrated, and will be looking to silence his Premier League detractors. Stephan Lichtsteiner and Ricardo Rodriguez provide some dynamism when moving up from the fullback positions.
What’s their soccer look like? Switzerland consistently play a 4-2-3-1 but the formation is not so rigid; movement from the back line is encouraged in order to maximize width and crossing ability. And yet the Swiss like to keep things cautious and conservative and can be unexciting to watch. Maybe that’s because the lack of true scoring threats up front force them to rely on Shaqiri’s hero ball.
So, how far can they go? Switzerland have a legitimate shot at second place but it will all come down to the match against Serbia, and that will be a difficult test. There is simply not enough here to expect anything beyond the round of 16 though, especially if the Swiss are pitted against their vastly superior northern neighbors.