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2018 FIFA World Cup Russia: Group E Preview

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International powerhouse Brazil is joined by Costa Rica, Serbia and Switzerland. Which pair of nations will be expected to get through this tricky quartet, and what players should be on your fantasy radar?

Team Brazil Training Camp - Granja Comary
Brazil fans will bring the fun to Russia
Photo by Buda Mendes/Getty Images

The official 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia Fantasy portal has not opened yet, but with the competition approaching soon, hopefully you have been checking out our Group Preview coverage. If not, once you are done poring over this piece, be sure to go back and read the previews for the preceding groups A through D as well. Then keep an eye out for the remaining group previews and other analysis coming shortly. When the fantasy game does start, we will set up a Never Manage Alone “Beat the Bloggers” group that you will want to be sure to join after registering.

Now let us turn our eyes to Group E, which boasts the star-studded, internationally proven outfit from South America that everybody knows, loves and dances the samba to. But this is no easy bossa nova. It could prove a tricky group to shimmy through, as it also features two tough European teams along with a rising squad from Central America who shocked the world by unexpectedly winning a very daunting group in 2014 and making it through to the quarterfinals.

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BRAZIL

FIFA Rank: #2

Betting odds to win: 4/1 (bet365)

Qualified via: 1st place in CONMEBOL

Manager: Adenor Bacchi (a.k.a. Tite)

2014 World Cup Result: Fourth Place

Probable Formation: 4-3-3 or 4-1-4-1

As the #2 ranked team in the world by FIFA, and as the top betting choice, Brazil enters as the heavy favorite to win this group. Brazil has not failed to reach the quarterfinals since 1990, and the five-time champions have held the ultimate trophy twice in recent memory (1994 and 2002), along with a runner-up finish in 1998.

A fourth place finish in the 2014 World Cup held at home in Brazil was a crushing disappointment that brought much soul-searching. It featured an embarrassing 7-1 demolition in the semifinals to eventual winner Germany (Neymar missed out via injury and Thiago Silva was suspended, but that can’t quite account for a six-goal deficit), followed up by a 3-0 loss to Netherlands in the third place game.

Following a bad showing at Copa America Centenario — Brazil finished third in its group behind Peru and Ecuador, failing to make it to the knockout stage — Dunga was let go as national team manager in mid-2016. At the time, Brazil looked to be in some danger of not qualifying, as it had managed a mediocre record of two wins, three draws and one loss. Fresh off a record-setting season with Corinthians, “Tite” took over as Brazil skipper, and the results since then have been absolutely phenomenal, finishing with 10 wins, two draws and no losses to rebound with authority and qualify easily.

The fact that Brazil dominated the brutal CONMEBOL group, scoring by far the most goals (41) and also allowing the fewest (11) by a comfortable margin, is a major reason why it enters as one of the top favorites in Russia. While Brazil was its usual force at home (where it beat Bolivia 5-0 and Argentina 3-0), impressive away wins included 2-0 at Chile, 3-0 at Ecuador, 2-0 at Venezuela, 2-0 at Peru, and 4-1 at Uruguay. In all, the team lost only once during the 18 game tournament. After crushing Russia 3-0, Brazil is also coming off a nice 1-0 win over Germany in two European friendlies in March 2018. This team is in fine form, and it has to feel ready to conquer all in Russia. It may even be more comfortable departing the crushing home pressure of 2014.

Brazilian Players to Consider for Your Fantasy Teams

Seriously, you can put all of the names of the Brazil expected starting XI on a board and toss a dart. Then throw it again. And keep going. There are so many Brazilian players you will be tempted to put in your fantasy sides it’s frightening. This is a mind-blowing all-star team chock full of the best talent that has spread out to bless the globe of club football, now returning together to thrill the world at its grandest contest. Quite simply, the Seleção is the beautiful game.

This list, of course, starts (but does not come close to stopping) with the dynamic smiling superstar, forward Neymar Jr. His Paris Saint Germain crashed out of the Champions League early in the knockout rounds, leaving others (e.g. Cristiano Ronaldo, Mohamed Salah, and Leonel Messi) to take center stage. On top of that, Neymar spent time sidelined from injury. But let’s not go crazy, nobody has forgotten about Neymar, who has 53 international goals and 36 assists from 83 caps. Joy, touch, composure, dribbling, shooting, passing, teamwork, flair, killer instinct... you name it, Neymar has it. As a fan of the game, you just can’t keep your eyes off him.

The worry with Neymar is his level of health/fitness; following recovery from a February foot fracture, he recently admitted that he is not yet 100% but that he will play through what he termed “a bit of discomfort.” Cross your fingers, cross your heart, go ahead and cross everything you can that his greatness will shine in Russia.

Up front at forward, Neymar is joined by talented youngster Gabriel Jesus. While he has struggled to stay fit the past couple of seasons for Manchester City, Jesus actually led Brazil with 7 goals in 10 World Cup qualifying games. Neymar scored “only” 6 times in 14, but he chipped in with eight assists, compared to four for Jesus. The duo sadly rendered Liverpool star Roberto Firmino an afterthought. Neymar will surely be a very popular pick, while Jesus could be a savvy against-the-grain choice, particularly if his price is significantly cheaper.

The midfield is brimming with talent, boasting Barcelona’s Philippe Coutinho and Paulinho, Real Madrid’s Casemiro, Chelsea’s Willian, Beijing Sinobo Guoan’s Renato Augusto, JuventusDouglas Costa, and Manchester City’s Fernandinho. Paulinho tied Neymar for second-most goals in qualifying (six), while Willian and Coutinho each chipped in with four. The biggest dual-threat at the position, Willian also added five assists, and thus might be my favored choice of the bunch.

The defense boasts wingers Marcelo (Real Madrid) and Filipe Luis (Atletico Madrid), along with center backs Thiago Silva (PSG), Marquinhos (PSG) and Miranda (Inter Milan). (Unfortunately, winger Dani Alves is out from injury.) When assembling a fantasy side, the obvious choice is Marcelo, who brings a strong chance at clean sheets combined with attacking returns. But he will be pricey, so whomever of the starting four comes the cheapest is also a fine way to go.

Last but not least, keeper Alisson of AS Roma is talented enough to keep shots out of the goal when needed. He led the Champions League 2017-18 in saves, and was first in CONMEBOL qualifying in racking up nine clean sheets. If you’re not familiar with Alisson, just know that he’s good enough to put Manchester City’s Ederson on the bench. And the Pixies even made a song about him!

Speaking of the benched Citizens’ keeper, have you noticed a problem with the list of players mentioned above? This team is simply overloaded with talent, so much so that several of those stars (in addition to Firmino and Ederson) will simply not fit into the regular XI for the World Cup. Be sure to see who Tite tabs for the June 10 friendly against Austria to get an idea of how Brazil will be expected to roll in the group stage.

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SWITZERLAND

FIFA Rank: #6

Betting odds to win: 100/1 (bet365)

Qualified via: Beat Northern Ireland in European play-off (1-0 aggregate)

Manager: Vladimir Petkovic

2014 World Cup Result: Round of 16 (lost to Argentina)

Probable Formation: 4-2-3-1

Wait, did I mistype that? Switzerland is the #6 ranked team in the world by FIFA?! Ahead of France, Spain, Chile, England, Colombia, Uruguay, and others?! That can’t be right, can it? (Re-checks it.) Yup, Switzerland is #6!!!

I do recall Switzerland being a somewhat popular dark horse candidate in 2014. Popular with me, certainly! I may or may not have asked a co-worker to ask his brother who lives in Las Vegas to place a small bet of 10 or 20 clams on my behalf for the Swiss to take the crown at around 20/1 or 25/1 odds. Alas, that hip punt did not pay off, leaving me to cancel those plans for a celebratory meal at Musso & Frank’s. But what about now, should I repeat the hail mary effort? At 100/1... for what FIFA says is the sixth best team in the world... why not?! Never mind Musso’s, I’ll go stay at the Waldorf Astoria in Beverly Hills and get room service!

But, of course, the bigger question is: Why the heck is Switzerland FIFA’s #6 team? In their UEFA qualifying group, the Swiss finished tied with Portugal in points, as both had nine wins and a single loss (the other teams in the group were Hungary, Faroe Islands, Latvia and Andorra). While Portugal and Switzerland split against each other with identical 2-0 home triumphs, Portugal easily won the group tie-breaker with a much better goal differential (+28 vs. +16), as the Portuguese both scored more and allowed fewer goals than the Swiss. Portugal, of course, is fresh off winning the 2016 UEFA Euro crown, and ranks #4 in the world.

Much of the reason Switzerland ranks so high is its strong 2018 performance, which FIFA weights more heavily than 2017 or 2016. Switzerland actually gets more points from 2018 than titans such as Brazil, Argentina, France, Spain, Chile, England and Mexico, among others. And this has come from just two friendlies: a 6-0 home win over Panama, and a 1-0 victory at Greece. Everything taken together, #6 certainly seems a bit high for Switzerland. Not ridiculously so, but perhaps somewhere in the #10-20 range would be more apropros.

Speaking of the 2016 Euros, how did Switzerland do? So glad you asked! It finished second in its group, behind France and ahead of Albania and Romania. That doesn’t sound too bad, right? Well, Switzerland scored only two goals total in those three games, while conceding just once, in beating Albania 1-0 and drawing with Romania (1-1) and France (0-0), the last game being where both sides were happy to draw and both go through. Switzerland followed that up with a Round of 16 loss to Poland on penalties following a 1-1 draw. That certainly isn’t #6 world-beating form.

Going back further, to the 2014 World Cup, Switzerland again finished 2nd in its group behind France, this time ahead of Ecuador and Honduras. Victories over Ecuador and Honduras sandwiched a 5-2 drubbing from the French. As with the Euros, Switzerland lost its first knockout game.

Switzerland has the talent and the pedigree to make it though to the Round of 16 and perhaps, with a little luck, even beyond. But this group is tougher than the 2014 World Cup or 2016 Euro groups where it finished second, so even a repeat of that would be no small feat. If something is going to hold Switzerland back, the side may be doomed by its lack of offensive firepower.

Swiss Players to Consider for Your Fantasy Teams

As such, let’s start with the back. Keeper Yann Sommer of Borussia Montengladbach could prove to be a good choice, playing behind a strong defense.

Among central defenders, with seven goals in 37 international appearances, Fabian Schar (Deportivo La Coruna) is a much better bet to crack the net than Johan Djourou (Antalyaspor). From wing defenders, AC Milan’s Ricardo Rodriguez and Juventus’ Stephan Lichsteiner both score at about the same rate, but I would lean toward Rodriguez who offers more promise in the way of assists.

Further up the pitch, look to midfield maestro Xherdan Shaqiri, who exploded at Stoke City this season with a breakout performance of eight goals and seven assists, although he was unable to keep the team from relegation. As such, the right winger will want to dazzle on the World Cup stage to intrigue a new club. Shaqiri boasts 20 scores and 18 helpers in 68 national appearances. If you’re looking for daring runs in open play along with thumping goals and curling assists from set pieces, Shaqiri’s your man.

Other than Shaqiri, you’re probably better off looking to other teams in midfield. Similarly, I would be committing fantasy malpractice if I suggested for you to throw away a precious forward spot on this team. After all, its defenders are about as likely to score as its forwards.

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COSTA RICA

FIFA Rank: #25

Odds: 500/1 (bet365)

Qualified via: 2nd in CONCACAF qualifying (behind Mexico and ahead of Panama, Honduras, United States and Trinidad & Tobago)

Manager: Oscar Ramirez

2014 World Cup Result: Quarterfinals (lost to Netherlands in PKs following a draw)

Probable Formation: 5-4-1

Costa Rica is well-remembered for not merely getting out of the “Group of Death” in 2014. but winning the group when they were supposed to finish last! Uruguay came in second, while Italy and England completely flamed out. Los Ticos even proved that they were no fluke by beating Greece in the Round of 16, than putting up a hearty fight in against the Netherlands in the quarters, its best ever finish.

Unfortunately, the managerial continuity was shattered, as Jorge Luis Pinto left following the brilliant 2014 run, taking over Honduras and leaving the team to Paulo Wanchope, who in turn was replaced by Oscar Ramirez. Things since have been mixed: group stage of the Copa America (meh), fourth place in Copa Centroamerica (bah), semis of CONCACAF Gold Cup (pretty good), second place in CONCACAF World Cup qualifying (good but not great). If Costa Rica wants to build on the momentum from the previous World Cup, it would not be a surprise, but it is far from a given. Rather, it seems more something that depends on how the winds blow.

Costa Rican Players to Consider for Your Fantasy Teams

In CONCACAF, Costa Rica tallied only the third-most goals (14) while allowing the second fewest (8). Not a surprise, given its general reliance on the counterattacking 5-4-1 formation. As such, I’m more inclined to go the defensive route. Sure, Brazil will be tough to keep off the scoreboard. But Switzerland and Serbia? Not such a tall task.

So hey, let’s start with keeper Keylor Navas (a.k.a. “Mr. Save,” how catchy!) of Real Madrid. Need I say more? He’s the only Tico plying his trade for a top tier club team... the team that just won its third straight Champions League trophy, holding the mighty Liverpool offense to a single goal in the final. Did you see that amazing save he made on Trent Alexander-Arnold? If you have seen his body of work over the past few years, you were not surprised.

If you’re going with the keeper, then generally speaking you should certainly also consider a defender. Unfortunately, none really offer much of a scoring threat, and when it comes to fantasy, it’s always nice to have a dual threat in back. Wing back Bryan Oviedo (Sunderland) has one goal and five assists in 41 international games, so if you’re absolutely set on a Costa Rican defender, he might pay off, but I’d be a bit hesitant because he’s not quite been a day in, day out starter.

Offensively, Celso Borjes (Deportivo La Coruna) leads the midfield ranks, having scored 18 times with seven assists in 109 international appearances. But that’s not exactly jumping off the page, is it? You may recognize a couple of names from the forward line — Bryan Ruiz (Sporting CP) and Joel Campbell (Real Betis, on loan from Arsenal) — but neither player actually cracks the net with enough regularity to make adding either of them to your fantasy teams a sound investment, unless as a cheap third striker.

Costa Rica is an easy team to root for with underdog appeal, but don’t get carried away in expecting too much in the way of flair and goals. Sadly, as much as I do like the Ticos (when they’re not hammering the United States 4-0, that is), honestly I’m not sure I’d highly recommend anybody aside from Navas in fantasy. And when they face mighty Brazil in the second game, you’re probably going to want to start your other keeper!

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SERBIA

FIFA Rank: 35

Odds: 200/1 (bet365)

Qualified via: finished first in its UEFA qualifyinig group (ahead of Ireland, Wales, Austria, Georgia and Moldova)

Manager: Mladen Krstadic

2014 World Cup Result: Did not qualify (first World Cup since 2010)

Probable Formation: 4-1-4-1, 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3

Serbia has not made it out of the group stage of the World Cup since 1998 (as Yugoslavia). It has not qualified for the Euros since 2000 (again, Yugoslavia). Manager Slavoljub Muslin, who successfully led the team through qualification for Russia, got the pink slip last October, leaving new coach Mladen Krstadic (Serbia’s 9th coach this decade!) little time to make a stamp on things. Putting that all together, Serbia has to come in as the underdog.

However, Serbia should not be dismissed lightly. It won its qualifying group, something that Switzerland and three other European sides that qualified for Russia — Croatia, Denmark and Sweden — cannot claim. The Eagles lost only once in 10 qualifying games, in scoring by far the most goals in the group while also showing a fairly strong, if not lockdown, defense. Importantly, Serbia boasts a number of quality players who will be well-known to Premier League fans.

Serbian Players to Consider for Your Fantasy Teams

Keeper Vladmir Stojkovic (Partizan Belgrade) shouldn’t ship too many goals, but I’m not sure I see a wealth of clean sheets for Serbia. It’s the type of team that could frustrate in that respect by giving up a single goal each to Switzerland and Costa Rica, and more to Brazil. If I were to go the defensive route, I’d peg Aleksandar Kolarov (AS Roma) who had two goals and 12 assists this past Serie A season bombing forward with regularity; meanwhile, he has 10 goals and 11 helpers across 74 career international caps.

The back line will be aided by midfielder Nemanja Matic (Manchester United), but of course defensive midfielders tend to be more valuable on the pitch than in fantasy. Much like Xherdan Shaqiri with Stoke, Serbia has its own attacking wing midfield star from a side that struggled in the Premiership last season. Unlike Shaqiri, Dusan Tadic helped save his Southampton squad from relegation. Tadic stands out as the top Serbian choice at the position, having scored 13 goals with 14 assists in 51 international appearances.

Aleksandar Mitrovic (Fulham) could be an intruiging budget pick up top, having led the team with six goals in qualification. Remarkably he has only one assist in 35 career international games, though, and goals will not be expected to flow freely in this group, so there are probably better options out there.

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THE FINAL VERDICT

I wouldn’t quite call this a “Group of Death,” but do you remember The Princess Bride? Maybe it’s more a “Group of Pain,” with land mines — or Rodents of Unusual Size — at every turn. There really doesn’t figure to be an easy out anywhere.

Brazil may not be able to enjoy numerous 3-0 or 4-1 routs as it would count on in an easier group. But Brazil is Brazil, so even in a tough quartet, the #1 spot should still be safe. The fun comes from who joins Brazil in going through. Switzerland will enter as a favorite for the second spot on paper, but I could honestly see any of the other three sides snagging that honor.

The schedule could prove a big factor. The game order doesn’t do Switzerland any favors, as it starts them against Brazil who will be hungry for an opening statement win. If Switzerland can’t claw a result from that game (and it certainly won’t be expected to), it may have trouble recovering. If the Serbians upset Costa Rica and then fight the Swiss to a draw (as the Swiss are prone to do), then Brazil and Serbia would be in the driver’s seat and could unofficially do the underhanded nod-nod, wink-wink agreement to play to a draw in their final match that would send both through.

But if Costa Rica beats Serbia to start things off, the third match between Costa Rica and Switzerland could end up the decider. I think that’s really how I’m leaning. And you know what, maybe Costa Rica gets through in the second spot after all in a slight upset. Or no, Switzerland wins that one, right? I don’t know. Huh. And what if Costa Rica and Serbia draw to start things off? And then maybe Switzerland and Costa Rica draw at the finish? Geez, this all sounds an awful lot like the battle of wits surrounding iocane powder and that pair of wine goblets.

Ultimately, I guess what I’m saying is: Brazil, Brazil, Brazil. Putting money on any of the other three teams — in fantasy or at the sports book — will more than likely leave you coming up empty. Simple math, my friends: a sure thing (almost) always beats a crap shoot!

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How do you expect this group to turn out? Which players from Group E are you planning to put in your fantasy teams? How many Brazilians can you afford anyway? Is there anybody else you have your eye on aside from those mentioned above? Let us know in the comments!