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Brazil didn’t get over that humiliating 7-1 World Cup semifinal loss at home to Germany four years ago for some time; not until further disappointments in Copa America and a poor start to the qualifying process for Russia.
Then, finally, the dour Dunga was dumped, replaced by one Adenor Leonardo Bacchi — known as “Tite” (pronounced “Chi-Chi”) to all — a little-known coach revered in Brazil for turning around hapless teams. In no time, the magic was back.
The Canarinho won nine straight qualifiers, booking its World Cup berth a good two and a half months before anyone else (save host Russia), while playing with a samba-like flair that offered a soothing reminder of what Brazil’s most celebrated sides offered.
The masters are back, looking for a record sixth World Cup championship, and there’s nobody in Group E that’s going to hold them back. Switzerland might be sixth in FIFA’s rankings, owing to a clockwork consistency, but nobody takes that stuff seriously. Costa Rica is always up for a surprise, but there’s only so much the Ticos can do. And Serbia’s talent hasn’t produced a whole lot yet, so why now?
The fight among these three for second place — and a Round-of-16 assignment against Germany — could be stirring.
WATCH: How Brazil can recapture World Cup glory
Not all of the news out of Brazil in the World Cup buildup is good — legendary wing-back Dani Alves is done after going down with a knee injury in Paris Saint-Germain’s French Cup triumph in early May — but the most worrisome moment apparently has passed. Neymar, who stands shoulder-to-shoulder with Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, is back after three months away with a broken foot and is slated to make his return in a June 3 friendly with Croatia.
Tite’s team is loaded with exceptional talent — from Real Madrid’s Marcelo at the back to Barcelona’s Philippe Coutinho and Paulinho in midfield to Manchester City’s Gabriel Jesus and Liverpool’s Roberto Firmino up front — but it’s nearly impossible to imagine a World Cup triumph without Neymar. He’s shone under the new regime, in great part because of how the team has been constructed around him. Tite uses a 4-1-4-1 alignment that allows for free movement in attack but demands defensive organization, and by slotting Real Madrid’s Casemiro in front of the back four, giving Gabriel Jesus the target spot up top, and having Philippe Coutinho attack from the right, Neymar has all he needs to play joyously from the left.
There are fabulous players throughout the squad, almost all of them at the biggest clubs in Europe or at home, and enough Brazilian talent to field another two or three worthy World Cup sides, but this starting XI seems likeliest to challenge, and perhaps conquer, the mighty Germans.
There are conflicting expectations for Switzerland, which is playing in its fourth straight World Cup and has been to the Round of 16, but no further, three times in four appearances since 1994. The “golden generation” that won the FIFA U-17 World Cup nearly a decade ago — behind midfield general Granit Xhaka, striker Haris Seferovic and left back Ricardo Rodriguez — is in its prime, and Italy-based elder statesmen Stefan Lichtsteiner, Valon Behrami and Blerim Dzemaili remain prime contributors.
The Swiss went 9-1-0 in a weak qualifying group, finishing second to Portugal on goal difference, then needed a dubious penalty to get past Northern Ireland in a UEFA playoff. They’re diligent and organized, emphasize teamwork and work ethic, and play with marvelous consistency. They’re difficult to beat but struggle to win when it counts.
Borussia Dortmund’s Manuel Akanji, just 22, seems to have answered questions at the back, but finding a goalscorer, whether that’s Seferovic or someone else, remains a priority.
You don’t have tell U.S. fans about Costa Rica — the Ticos played a huge role in the Yanks’ failure to reach Russia — and the rest of the world is privy, too, thanks to a dream run to the quarterfinals in 2014. Oscar Ramirez, a midfielder in the 1990 team that beat Scotland and Sweden to reach the Round of 16, has kept the same tactics and much of the same team that Jorge Luis Pinto guided to a group title over Uruguay, Italy and England four years ago. Winning this group is unlikely, but who’d be surprised if they joined Brazil in the knockout phase?
The Ticos are a strong, veteran side with key players based in Europe or MLS. They’re tight at the back and run an dynamic counterattack, and there’s enough quality to beat more revered foes. Kaylor Navas, whose exploits in Brazil led to a Real Madrid contract, is among the world’s finest goalkeepers, and there’s plenty of talent and depth on the backline with Bologna’s Giancarlo Gonzalez, Sunderland’s Bryan Oviedo and three MLS backliners: Vancouver’s Kendall Waston, Minnesota United’s Francisco Calvo and New York City FC’s Ronald Matarrita.
Deportivo La Coruña’s Celso Borges ably runs the midfield, and they’re dangerous with Sporting Lisbon’s Bryan Ruiz running underneath Los Angeles FC’s Marco Ureña up top in a 5-4-1 alignment. Ureña’s status is uncertain after he underwent surgery last week to repair two fractured bones in his face.
Serbia hasn’t lived up to the legacy Yugoslavia left, failing to get out of group play in 2006 and 2010, but change is afoot, and if the impact isn’t so influential in Russia, watch out in Qatar four years from now. Mlade Krstajlic, a defender on the 2006 side, took charge as coach last October — at first on a caretaker basis — after federation leaders grew impatient with Slavoljub Muslin’s slow integration of stars from Serbia’s 2015 U-20 World Cup title-winners (and his inability to find a spot for do-everything Lazio midfielder Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, the rising star).
Krstalic, whose first coaching job had been as Muslin’s assistant, is presiding over a youth movement, with several standouts from that team — Milinkovic-Savic, Benfica’s Andrija Zivkovic, Cardiff City’s Marko Grujic, Valencia’s Nemanja Maksimovic and Milos Veljkovic — joining established striker Aleksandar Mitrovic. All are 23 or younger.There’s a lot of attacking skill among them, and veterans still wield influence in midfield (Manchester United’s Nemanja Matic and Southampton’s Dusan Tadic) and on the backline (Zenit St. Petersburg’s Branislav Ivanovic and Roma’s Aleksandar Kolarov, both on the other side of 30). The Orlovi impressed in qualifying, winning a group that included Ireland, Wales and Austria, and if the requisite chemistry develops, there’s enough talent to make it out of the group.