Matt Brocklebank previews Sunday's World Cup action and reckons tournament favourites Brazil may need to be patient in their opener.
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- Costa Rica 0-2 Serbia
- Germany 1-0 Mexico
- Brazil 2-0 Switzerland
Costa Rica v Serbia (Group E, ITV, 1300 BST)
Aleksandar Mitrovic scored just the one of Serbia's seven goals during the final round of qualifiers in the autumn (played in three matches) but he's carried his fantastic club form into recent international friendlies and should be backed against a weak-looking Costa Rica.
The enigmatic front-man went on a real spree at the end of Fulham's play-off winning campaign, netting a dozen times in 17 Sky Bet Championship outings, and fired a hat-trick against Bolivia in the final World Cup warm-up for his country - showing the long, hard season hasn't left him too weary.
Mitrovic has been the first goalscorer in an impressive eight outings for club and country since the turn of the year, opening the scoring after just four minutes last weekend, and the 4/1 about him continuing that trend looks genuine value.
Costa Rica aren't the side we saw four years ago, when proving to be a real handful before bowing out on penalties against Netherlands. Plenty of the squad remains intact but they're that bit older and results haven't been great.
Granted, away defeats to Belgium and England shouldn't be judged too harshly, but there's a suspicion Serbia will prove to be along those lines in terms of quality - there is a lot of experience at the back and Nemanja Matic alongside Lazio's Sergej Milinkovic-Savic are an imposing central midfield pairing.
There's a spot of even money around for the Serbians which could turn out to be a fantastic price but until the fears over Costa Rica are confirmed it's hard to be too dogmatic and preference is to stick with the man who looks by far the most likely to do the damage up front.
Prediction: Costa Rica 0-2 Serbia
- This will be the first ever encounter between Costa Rica and Serbia.
- Costa Rica have qualified for their fifth World Cup – they have reached the knockout stages in two of their four previous appearances (1990 and 2014).
- Penalty shoot-outs excluded, Costa Rica were one of only three sides to remain unbeaten in the 2014 World Cup (alongside Germany and Netherlands).
- Costa Rica have kept three clean sheets in their last four World Cup games, that’s more than in their previous 11 games in the competition (2).
- Costa Rica have also won their opening game at the World Cup in three of their previous four appearances, the only exception coming against hosts Germany in 2006 (2-4). Meanwhile, Serbia have lost their opening game by a 1-0 scoreline each time in their last two appearances.
Germany v Mexico (Group F, BBC, 1600 BST)
Germany are always ready come the crunch but at 1/2 favourites to beat Mexico they're short enough not to get too heavily involved.
Doubts surrounding squad selection and friendly form will soon fly out of the window if Joachim Low's men kick-off with a victory over Mexico and on paper it represents an obvious chance for them to do so.
World Cup winners four years ago, they added the Confederations Cup to the trophy cabinet last year after a disappointing semi-final defeat to hosts France at the European Championship two summers ago, and they should go deep in the tournament once again.
Germany's only win in six warm-up games came via a 2-1 defeat of the pretty hapless Saudi Arabia so there isn't much encouragement there but a perfect 10 wins from 10 during qualification tells you all you need to know and the 43 goals scored during that spell included five each from Thomas Muller and Sandro Wagner.
Wagner was omitted from the final squad, along with Man City's Leroy Sane, but Low clearly has the utmost confidence in Timo Werner who has become a household name in his homeland thanks to his exploits for RB Leipzig.
The 22-year-old has fired eight goals in his last nine outings for Germany, too, and plenty will fancy him at a shade of odds-against versus an ageing Mexico.
They've found life tough in recent friendlies against Europeans - Croatia, Wales, Scotland and Denmark - the 1-0 defeat of Scotland their only win in that sequence, and Germany hammered them 4-1 at the Confed Cup 12 months ago.
It looks a tough start for Mexico and it'd be a surprise if they were able to winkle out a result, but I'm happy to sit and watch the holders at this early stage of their title defence.
Prediction: Germany 1-0 Mexico
Best Bet: Timo Werner to score anytime at 6/5
- This will be the fourth World Cup encounter between Germany and Mexico. ‘Die Mannschaft’ are unbeaten, with two wins (6-0 in the first group stage in 1978; 2-1 in the round of 16 in 1998) and one draw (0-0 in the 1986 quarter-finals, followed by a 4-1 victory on penalties).
- Mexico have only won one of their 11 games against Germany (D5 L5), it was in June 1985 in Mexico City. Their only previous encounter on Russian soil was in last year’s Confederations Cup – Germany won 4-1 in the semi-finals.
- Germany have won their opening game in each of the last seven World Cups, including scoring 20 goals in their last four openers (8 v Saudi Arabia in 2002, 4 v Costa Rica in 2006, 4 v Australia in 2010, 4 v Portugal in 2014).
- Mexico are unbeaten in their last five World Cup opening games (W4 D1), their last defeat dating back to 1994 against Norway (0-1).
- Only Brazil (21) have reached the World Cup more times than Germany (19). This is also their 17th consecutive participation.
- Germany will be looking to become the first team to win back-to-back World Cup titles since Brazil achieved it 1962. Overall, only Brazil have lifted the trophy on more occasions (5) than Germany (4).
Brazil v Switzerland (Group E, ITV, 1900 BST)
Anything from this match would have to be seen as a real bonus for Switzerland, who will be eyeing Serbia and Costa Rica as more realistic opportunities to register points in Group E.
As such, we can expect the Swiss to set up extremely defensively and for Brazil it'll be a case of needing to be patient and waiting for the opportunities to arise.
If the fine vision of Neymar and Philippe Coutinho can pull Switzerland around the pitch then chances should emerge, but it might be fanciful to expect the pre-tournament favourites to swiftly romp into a lead in their opening match.
Tite's men had to wait until just before the break in recent friendlies against Austria ('36) and Germany ('37), while the wins over Croatia (2-0) and Russia (3-0) featured goals in the second-half only.
The times of Brazil's goals in their final six World Cup qualifiers read: '19, '52, '90, '34, '64, '86, '69, '76, '45, '55, '57, '90.
On top of that, Switzerland conceded just seven goals during the qualification process and have kept clean sheets in five of their last six outings in total and are no mugs defensively at all, so I'm consequently drawn to the action being predominantly in the second half.
The under/over time of first goal is set at 36 minutes (bet365) and the 5/6 overs is there for the taking but marginal preference is to back the second period to contain most goals at evens.
That also accounts for the possibility of an early goal either way before Brazil really get up a head of steam late on.
There are obviously goals throughout the side but midfield engine Paulinho looks the one to have been underestimated at 3/1 anytime after his six goals during qualifying - the same as Neymar, who is odds-on across the board.
Prediction: Brazil 2-0 Switzerland
- Brazil and Switzerland’s only previous World Cup encounter was on Brazilian soil in 1950, it ended 2-2.
- Brazil have won the World Cup more times than any other team, lifting the trophy in 25% of the tournaments played so far (5 out of 20). They are the last team to win back-to-back World Cups (1958, 1962).
- Brazil are also the only team to have taken part in every single World Cup since 1930; this will be their 21st appearance in as many tournaments.
- Brazil are unbeaten in their last 12 World Cup group games, winning 10 (D2), their last defeat in the group phase dating back to 1998 against Norway. In fact, Brazil have topped their group (Round 1) in every single World Cup since 1982 and last failed to progress past the first round in 1966.
- Brazil have also won 16 of their last 18 opening games at the World Cup (D2). The last time they lost their first game in the tournament was in 1934 against Spain (1-3).
- Switzerland are unbeaten in their opening game in each of their last four appearances, winning the last two (v Spain in 2010, Ecuador in 2014).
- Switzerland have qualified for their 11th World Cup, knocking out Northern Ireland in the play-offs. It’s their fourth in a row, which equals their longest run of appearances in the tournament (4 from 1934 to 1954).
Posted at 1300 BST 15/06/18.
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