Who? Costa Rica - Serbia
Where? Cosmos Arena, Samara
When? June 17, 14:00 (CET local time)
Costa Rica (Omri Tancman)
Slowly but Surely, Costa Rica has become a significant force in Central American football. From a region dominated mainly by Mexico and USA, CONCACAF can now be seen as a federation with three important regional forces. The progress of Costa Rican football has been steady, with its fourth qualification to the World Cup out of the last five editions.
The most memorable campaign was in Brazil 2014, in the previous World Cup. Costa Rica was drawn with three former World Cup winners, Italy, England and Uruguay. Although no one considered Costa Rica for being able to present any competition, the Costa Ricans proved themselves worthy and topped the group after beating Uruguay and Italy and drawing against England. Their magical campaign ended only in quarter finals after losing to The Netherlands in a penalty shootout.
Some might say that the current appearance is just the final performance of a golden generation. This statement can be true in a way, since Costa Rica has the oldest squad in this World Cup, with an average age of 29.5. The match against Serbia confronts Costa Rica with one of the youngest teams in the tournament so it can be a good test to check if Keylor Navas and his fellow teammates are already too old for this competition. However, it is possible though that the experience of the Costa Ricans can help them overcome the young vibrant Serbians and maybe lead them to another triumph.
Serbia (Eden Roitfarb)
Serbia will face the Ticos from Costa Rica on Sunday to open Group E in a crucial match. The first place looks like a lock with Brazil the favorites to top the group, while the fourth team, Switzerland, would expect to progress as well. Long story short, the second place is up for grabs between three quality teams who all have a case to qualify further.
The Serbians come in a good mood to Samara, after thrashing Bolivia 5-1 last week, as striker Aleksandar Mitrović continued his 2018 resurrection with a hattrick and a bicycle kick assist. The Eagles enjoy a deep attacking cadre: Mitro is joined by fellow Premier League mate Dusan Tadić, Serie A journeyman Adem Ljajić and Greek league top scorer Aleksandar Prijović. Additionally, the defense is anchored by the experienced Branislav Ivanović and Aleksandar Kolarov.
Yet, the most interesting part is the midfield: Luka Milivojević comes off a good season with Crystal Palace, Nemanja Matić is reliable as always, but Serbia’s biggest hope is Sergej Milinković-Savić. SMS, as he is often referred to, had a breakout season in Lazio and is heavily linked to join Manchester United. Although the team qualified impressively to the World Cup, SMS was barely used by coach Slavoljub Muslin, who was also criticized for playing defensive football. These two talking points were allegedly behind Muslin’s surprise sacking in October. He was replaced in the helm by former defender Mladen Krstajić, who has stated that “Milinkovic-Savic proved he can be counted on and is bound to become the backbone of this squad”.
Clearly, the Serbs have high-class individuals and potential. However, recent tournaments show that these players struggle to show unitedness or glue together. Serbia’s biggest challenge would be on the mental and character aspects and these might determine their fate in Russia.