World Cup Preview: Serbia v Brazil

Who? Serbia - Brazil
Where? Otkritie Arena, Moscow
When? June 27, 20:00 (CET local time)

Serbia (Eden Roitfarb)

It seems that since losing to Switzerland, the Serbian national team is dealing mainly with politics rather than football. In case you live under a rock, here is a quick reminder: Serbia faced a Swiss team full of players with roots in former Yugoslavia – mainly from Kosovar descent. Two of them, Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri, have scored and celebrated by marking the Albanian double eagle gesture. In the aftermath, the Serbian FA called for both players to be banned for the political provocation and even made an official complaint to FIFA. An even more controversial statement was made by coach Mladen Krstajić, who tried to talk football and complained about the outrageous non-penalty call that involved Aleksandar Mitrovic and two Swiss defenders but ended up calling for German referee Felix Brych to be tried in The Hague tribunal for war crimes. He himself can face sanctions from FIFA for this slip up.

After this loss, Serbia are in a do or die situation, and there is no worse opponent to face at this point than Brazil. To put it very simply, Serbia are in a “win and in” situation that can even put them in first place in a certain scenario. A draw and they depend on Costa Rica to beat Switzerland in order to have a chance through a tiebreaker. Brazil struggle heavily with European opponents since the 2014 World Cup, and Serbia would count on that fact to try and do the unthinkable. Both teams have a rich history and met regularly in the first World Cups, when Serbia where still known as Yugoslavia, but the Balkan’s only win came at the first ever tournament in 1930 – a win that also helped knock out the Brazilians from the group stage, and what a story it would be if Serbia would recreate this history.

Brazil (Vitor Buratini Mendes)

The only feeling that the Brazilians felt minutes after the final whistle of the game against Costa Rica was that of relief. After a difficult game, in which the team created good opportunities that ended in the hands of goalkeeper Keylor Navas, many believe that now the Brazilian team will be able to play better with a better rhythm to their game. Question being – will these hopeful thoughts really come in to fruition?

The game against Costa Rica presented a big problem: the winger Douglas Costa, who filled Willian’s shoes very well and who was perhaps the best player in the match, was injured at the end of the game and will not be available to play for the next two matches. Another replacement was right-back Fagner who took Danilo's place as the latter was injured as well. What appeared to be a major problem, luckily for Brazil, ended up not even an afterthought. Fagner made a great match, playing even better than Danilo.

The game against Serbia might be the most difficult so far: there are many rumors that changes in the starting lineup will be made, such as Renato Augusto in place of Willian and moving Coutinho to the right wing. Either way, the game will be very diffcult and in a scenario that the team loses Brazil will hang their hopes for advancing in the tournament tied to a Swiss loss against Costa Rica.

On another note, Neymar scored his first goal of the tournament in the last matchday and we are all left with the hope of this being a sign that the team's star will now be playing better? He is undoubtedly the player who has the most potential to impact the match, even coming back from injury. Fans around the world and Brazil espcially, want to see Neymar's talent to play more than he has shown and that he will just stay focused on football and not care about the referees.

The opposing team has talented, high-profile players such as Kolarov and Milinkovic-Savic but this does not seem to be a major obstacle for the Brazilian team. It's easy to see that Brazil has high chances of winning the match and securing the first place in the group. If things go as planned, there are great chances of a rematch between Brazil and Germany in the next phase.

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World Cup Preview: Serbia v Switzerland

Who? Serbia - Switzerland
Where? Kaliningrad Stadium, Kaliningrad
When? June 22, 20:00 (CET local time)

Serbia (Eden Roitfarb)

The latest game of Friday features a European derby between Serbia and Switzerland, the two more impressive teams of Group E. And that group includes favorites Brazil. The Serbs come after a 1-0 victory over Costa Rica, the previous tournament’s biggest surprise and that hasn’t lost a game in Brazil 2014. Within the Serbian camp, the mood is great, and optimism is running high. A win vs the Swiss means a qualification to the next round for the first time since France 1998, when they were still called Yugoslavia. However, finishing first in the group might lead to a meeting with Germany in the round of 16 – a matchup everyone would want to avoid.

An interesting storyline worth following is how the Serbian fans would treat Switzerland’s three Kosovar born players: Valon Behrami, Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri. Before becoming an independent country, Kosovo was part of Serbia, and the Serbian fans are usually not shy to express their feelings towards political and state issues – with even some chanting “Kosovo is Serbia” in the streets of Russia. Coach Mladen Krstajic has been asked by Swiss journalists about this topic but refused to talk anything but football. He himself was born in Bosnia to a Bosnian mother and Montenegrin father and moved to Serbia in a late age due to the Bosnian War. As a player, Krstajic’s first goal for Serbia came against Switzerland in a 2002 World Cup qualifier, a fact he made sure to remind the Swiss journalists.

Although getting the edge over Costa Rica, Serbia did not show a brilliant display of football but was rather clinical. Striker Aleksandar Mitrovic has missed a few clear-cut chances and will need to put the previous game behind him, as he will need to be on top form against the tough Swiss defense.

Switzerland (Yossi Medina)

When Switzerland looks on the Serbian squad, they can share some memories with them. The Serbian squad includes six players who won the U-20 World Cup in 2015. With some cleverness, a national team can understand how to use its talented young generation. In Switzerland we are 9 years after such a success.

In 2009, Switzerland upset Nigeria and won the U-17 World Cup. Only eight players made later an international cap for a senior team, but three of them made it in other national teams. Among the players, you can find also players that lead the team nowadays: Haris Seferovic, Granit Xhaka and Ricardo Rodriguez.

Switzerland is enjoying one of its best ever generations. These players, alongside with others who made impressive performances in other youth teams, are building the bright future of the Swiss football. While aiming for another knockout stage appearance, Switzerland knows that Serbia is the main challenger for the second place.

They can find another interesting connections to former Yugoslavia, as their coach Vladimir Petković is a Bosnian Croat who was born in Sarajevo. Without facing any political issues, Petković will accept this challenge from Serbia and will try to do his best with the team. Such optimism is the reason the Switzerland will make this game interesting.

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World Cup Preview: Costa Rica v Serbia

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.

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World Cup Warm-up: Serbia v Chile

Who? Serbia - Chile
Where? Merkur Arena, Graz
When? June 4, 21:00 (CET local time)

Towards the end of the 2015 – 2016 season, Wigan Athletic fans dedicated a song to their prolific striker Will Grigg. To the tunes of “Freed from Desire” by Italian artist Gala, “Will Grigg’s on Fire” became a worldwide sensation during Euro 2016 as Grigg mostly sat on the Northern Irish bench. Unbeknownst to most, this song was originally sung to Aleksandar Mitrovic by Newcastle United supporters, who still claim “Mitro’s on Fire” was stolen by the Wigan faithful, and have always seen the Serbian as a cult hero in St James Park.

Regardless of this debate, there is one thing that is very clear - Just like the song states, defenses should be terrified of the Serbian forward. After falling down the pecking order in Tyneside, Mitrovic was offered a lifeline by compatriot Slavisa Jokanovic who brought him in January to high flying Fulham from the Championship. It was a match made in heaven: Mitro scored 12 goals in 20 games and played a vital part for the Cottagers as they finished the season strong and qualified to the Premier League through the grueling playoffs.

The Serbians are delighted to be back in the front stage, as they qualified for their first big tournament since the 2010 World Cup. Mitrovic has played a huge part in making that happen as well: 6 goals in 6 straight games, which made him the top scorer in a tough qualifying group that included Wales, Austria and Ireland. Additionally, he scored twice in a friendly win vs Nigeria in March. With that in mind, it is very likely Mitrovic will lead Mladen Krstajic’s attack in the tournament

It will be incredibly interesting to see how the emotional and passionate Smederevo born striker will perform, and whether he can “ignite” the Serbian team to glory this summer.

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