These previews will be as free from well-trodden ‘narratives’ as is possible. There are a plethora of other ones out there – some well-informed, some… not so much. I have opted for brevity over bells and whistles, but I still think they provide a fresh take on the most highly anticipated tournament.
Head Coach: Tite
Odds to Win: 4-1 (Favourites)
Tactics & Players to Watch: Tite has built a much more defensively solid side, but without really sacrificing any of the attacking verve. Thiago Silva or Marquinhos will step out of defence to play the ball to Casemiro, who does a remarkable job at positioning himself in both attacking and defending phases of play. The other central midfielders will drop deep to look for the ball, whilst the full-backs bomb on and will be extremely high up the pitch in games they are expected to dominate. If selected, Willian will carry out an important role on the right of the front three; he is expected to cover a lot of ground in a fluid system. The burden for goals rests mostly elsewhere, of course. Neymar and Gabriel Jesus alone are enough to worry any opposition manager, but it’s important they don’t focus solely on the elite names. Almost every single outfield player is a goal threat from at least one situation or another.
Prediction: There is always relentless pressure and expectation that Brazil will get to the final of every tournament they feature in. They certainly have the roster to win it and there is real strength in depth in almost every position, save for a couple of concerns at right-back, without the mercurial Dani Alves. Tite is a more astute tactician than they have had recently, so a repeat of the débacle four years ago is unlikely. Even the semi-finals would constitute abject failure and perhaps said pressure is the only element preventing them from a sixth title.
Head Coach: Vladimir Petković
Odds to Win: 150-1
Tactics & Players to Watch: Another 4-2-3-1, the main threats are Xherdan Shaqiri, cutting in from the left and the injury-ridden Breel Embolo on the right, who will look to stretch the opposition by pulling out wide with the ball and dart inside without it. The central player of the three will come back to take the ball from the holding midfielders, whilst also making a late run into the area to support the striker when possible. There is considerable experience at full-back; Ricardo Rodríguez is always a threat from set pieces and is the first choice penalty taker. In the middle, Manuel Ekanji might just get the nod. He has a very bright future ahead of him and he is excellent at picking out his teammates at a wide variety of distances.
Prediction: Up top, they are likely to struggle. However, they do have two game-changers in the XI and the defence looks mean, which they will need to be against Serbia and Brazil. It looks like a straight fight against the former for second spot, but on their day, they’re more than capable of frustrating and upsetting more fancied sides. I think they might just fail on this occasion to qualify, but there won’t be much in it.
Head Coach: Óscar Ramírez
Odds to Win: 500-1
Tactics & Players to Watch: The shape will flip from a 3-4-3 to a 5-4-1 without the ball. Los Ticos are set up to play the ball out from the back; the flanking centre backs will split to give elite custodian, Keylor Navas, passing options. Both the wing-backs and wingers will tuck inside to play in between the lines. In truth, the defending starts from the main striker. In possession, they will get the ball wide and have the natural advantage of being able to double up on their opponents with their chosen formation. This will hinge on both Bryan Oviedo and Christian Gamboa’s work rate on the flanks. Bryan Ruiz is also a canny operator and, whilst he has lost a yard of pace, can still do plenty of damage.
Prediction: It’s difficult to foresee a repeat of four years ago, but stranger things have happened. Navas’ shot-stopping will be heavily called upon to save the day for Costa Rica. They could certainly take points off both UEFA sides but two draws won’t be sufficient to prevent them from finishing bottom. Ramírez’ side are seasoned competitors and should not be taken lightly.
Head Coach: Mladen Krstajić
Odds to Win: 150-1
Tactics & Players to Watch: Captain Aleksandar Kolarov remains a big threat from set pieces and if given any space to cross from deep. Serbia play vertically, with the back four shielded by another two. Sergej Milinković-Savić is a prodigious talent and a move to one of the world’s elite clubs seems inevitable either during or after the tournament. The playmaker roams the centre of the park, looking to support the wider players by feeding them through passes or by running into the space created by the extreme abrasiveness of Aleksandar Mitrović. The Fulham loanee has just enjoyed an excellent half-season at club level and looks to be back to his best. There’s much more to him than initially meets the eye, and, supplied by a dangerous attacking midfield, he should be on the end of a good number of chances, even against the likes of Brazil.
Prediction: A solid ‘dark horse’ candidate, if they can oust Switzerland, they have a real chance of making the quarter-finals. The worry for them is if teams can exploit the gaps left by Kolarov and the ambling figure of Branislav Ivanović on the opposite wing. No matter how they perform, they will be exciting to watch for the neutral and will doubtlessly earn some admirers along the way. It could be a tournament to remember…