U.S. Markets closed

World Cup 2018 Group E preview: Brazil plus a sleeper? Or just Brazil?

Welcome to Yahoo Sports’ coverage of the 2018 World Cup. With the tournament approaching, and with 32 team previews available for consumption, it’s time to broaden our gaze and dissect the eight groups.

Call them group previews if you like. But they are more so discussions. There will be stage setting and narrative building. There will be questions to answer and pose. There will be analysis and opinions, plus predictions and more. Next up is Group E.

Group E team previews: Brazil | Switzerland | Costa Rica | Serbia

Group E tiers

Every World Cup group has its own structure; its own unique feel. But a simple numerical alignment, separating the four teams into anywhere between one and four tiers, goes a long way toward framing the discussion. And especially in Group E.

Because there are only two possible alignments for Group E. Brazil sits atop it, and should sit atop it come June 28. Switzerland and Serbia are several steps below the Selecao. The question we have to answer is whether Costa Rica is on par with those two, or a few more steps below them – whether the group is a 1-3 or a 1-2-1. By the end of this preview, I’ll answer will become clear.

Does Brazil have any holes?

There is very little reason to doubt Brazil, and especially not here, in a group that basically defines the word “straightforward.” Ever since Tite took over, the group favorites have been the opposite of vulnerable. Aside from one strange stalemate at Bolivia after they had already secured qualification, they’ve beaten every clearly inferior team in their path, and they’ve beaten them by multiple goals.

There are a few concerns as our minds drift deeper into the tournament. Dani Alves’ injury has turned right back into a relative weakness. But “relative” is the key word. Fagner and Danilo are both better than at least two-thirds of the starting right backs at the tournament.

There’s also a bit of uncertainty in midfield, especially with Renato Augusto and Douglas Costa carrying injuries. And, of course, there’s Neymar, who played this past weekend for the first time since fracturing his foot in February. But he looked great on his return, bagging a brilliant goal. And Brazil’s reserves would be heavy favorites to advance from Group E anyway. Its first-choice 11 is more likely than any other in Russia to open with a perfect 9-for-9.

Neymar’s recovery from injury is a slight concern for Brazil, but not to the degree it would have been two or four years ago. (Getty)

The one non-Brazilian in a combined Group E XI

Group E is one of a few foursomes whose combined XI nearly comes exclusively from one team. Nearly. But not quite, because of a 6-foot-3 Serbian goalscoring ballerina named Sergej Milinkovic-Savic. You’ll see his name on plenty “2018 World Cup breakout star” lists, and with good reason. He isn’t a household name yet. But he’s on his way. His size-skill combo is sumptuous. Playing in an advanced midfield role, he can bang in goals but also dance out of trouble in the middle of the park. He’s not the finished product. But he’s only 23. And there’s a reason British papers publish a story linking him to Manchester United at least once every 24 hours.

He’s also the player that separates Serbia from Brazil’s other two challengers. Or at least he could. He’s still a bit of a wild card. He didn’t win his first cap until November, then missed two March games due to injury. So he’s never played with the two holding midfielders who’ll likely support him, Nemanja Matic and Luka Milivojevic. But that trio, just like Milinkovic-Savic’s potential, is enticing.

Serbia’s allure

Milinkovic-Savic personifies a broader point about Serbia, though: It might be more fun to think about this team than actually watch it. There’s a very good chance the thought is more enticing than the on-field product. The Serbs are strong and skilled, and have recognizable names. But they were pretty ordinary in an ordinary qualifying group. The only evidence supporting predictions – like mine – that they’ll be anything more than that in Russia is one impressive performance in a March friendly under new (inexperienced) manager Mladen Krstajic.

But I can’t resist the temptation. I admit it might be irrational. Screw it. In a group that could be excruciatingly boring beyond Brazil, I’ll take the team that at least has some upside.

Switzerland is the most boring team in the field*

*Probably. The only saving grace is the presence of fresh blood in the squad. A promising next generation is threatening to break through. Manuel Akanji and Nico Elvedi are the center back pairing of the future. Denis Zakaria has immense potential in midfield. Breel Embolo is still only 21.

But it seems that only one of those four will start. A few other youngsters couldn’t even sneak into the squad. So this is same old Switzerland. It’s a round of 16 contender, but nothing more. It’s neither obnoxiously defensive nor aggressive and flamboyant. And frankly, the novelty of Xherdan Shaqiri’s unabashed inefficiency has worn off. He’s more frustrating than entertaining. Switzerland is no longer a cheeky upset pick.

Costa Rica is almost unchanged from 2014 …

… And on the surface, that would seem to be a good thing. Everybody remembers the quarterfinal run. As many as nine players who featured against the Netherlands in that shootout loss could start the 2018 opener. The lack of turnover is remarkable. The simplistic conclusion from it is that Costa Rica could be back to cause more upheaval.

But that’s lazy reasoning. A four-year World Cup cycle, in soccer years, is a looooooong time. So much changes. So much has to change. Because styles change. Players age. Approaches become predictable and stale. And … well, yeah, that entire description applies to Costa Rica.

Los Ticos have played four games against non-CONCACAF opponents since the beginning of 2017. They’ve been smashed 5-0 by Spain, lost to Hungary 1-0, beat Scotland 1-0, and lost to Tunisia 1-0. But sure, label them a potential cinderella because of a few games four years ago.

Lessons from Harrison

If there’s a case for Costa Rica, look no further than Red Bull Arena, Sept. 1, 2017 – USA 0, Costa Rica 2. That’s the formula. And Switzerland and Serbia could be susceptible to it. The two European sides have enough quality to control games against Costa Rica, just as the U.S. did, but perhaps not quite enough quality to break through, just as the U.S. did not.

Of course, the U.S. did have chances that night, and seven or eight times out of 10 would have gotten a result. Keylor Navas had to stand on his head at least once. But of course, Navas is part of the formula. If he’s heroic, Costa Rica’s deficiencies elsewhere on the pitch can be spared.

So one or both of those games against Switzerland and Serbia could bring back dark memories for USMNT fans.

Group E TV schedule

All kickoff times ET

Sunday, June 17
Costa Rica vs. Serbia, 8 a.m. (Fox, Telemundo)
Brazil vs. Switzerland, 2 p.m. (Fox Sports 1, Telemundo)

Friday, June 22
Brazil vs. Costa Rica, 8 a.m. (Fox Sports 1, Telemundo)
Serbia vs. Switzerland, 2 p.m. (Fox, Telemundo)

Wednesday, June 27
Serbia vs. Brazil, 2 p.m. (Fox/FS1, Telemundo/Universo)
Switzerland vs. Costa Rica, 2 p.m. (Fox/FS1, Telemundo/Universo)

Group E predictions

Ryan Bailey: Brazil (1), Switzerland (2)
Henry Bushnell: Brazil (1), Serbia (2)
Joey Gulino: Brazil (1), Serbia (2)
Doug McIntyre: Brazil (1), Costa Rica (2)
Leander Schaerlaeckens: Brazil (1), Serbia (2)

More 2018 World Cup group previews

Group A | Group B | Group C | Group D | Group E | Group F | Group G | Group H

Yahoo Sports’ team-by-team previews

Group A: Russia | Saudi Arabia | Egypt | Uruguay
Group B: Portugal | Spain | Morocco | Iran
Group C: France | Australia | Peru | Denmark
Group D: Argentina | Iceland | Croatia | Nigeria
Group E: Brazil | Switzerland | Costa Rica | Serbia
Group F: Germany | Mexico | Sweden | South Korea
Group G: Belgium | Panama | Tunisia | England
Group H: Poland | Senegal | Colombia | Japan

– – – – – – –

Henry Bushnell covers global soccer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at henrydbushnell@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell, and on Facebook.

More World Cup from Yahoo Sports:
2018 World Cup preview hub
FC Yahoo Mixer: The Ronaldo vs. Messi debate
How Vladimir Putin can use the World Cup to his benefit
Ramadan dilemma for World Cup-bound Muslim players: faith or football?
USMNT’s qualifying failure, as told by the two coaches responsible