Costa Rica will be opening their 2018 World Cup campaign against Serbia having upset the odds to reach the quarter-finals in Brazil four years ago.
Oscar Ramirez’s men will be coming up against a nation led by former Serbia defender Mladen Krstajic, who took over the role as manager when former boss Slavoljub Muslin was sacked last year, despite having guided his country through qualification for the showpiece in Russia.
The Central American side return to the World Cup four years after pulling off the unthinkable to reach the quarter-finals at the 2014 tournament in Brazil.
Costa Rica were drawn in a daunting group against Uruguay, Italy and England, but produced two wins on the bounce at the start of the tournament to secure progression into the knockouts with a game to spare.
In fact, Los Ticos went all the way into the quarter-finals and were only denied a spot in the final four having lost out to Holland on penalties following a dogged display against Louis van Gaal’s charges at the Arena Fonte Nova.
This time around, Costa Rica found themselves in the midst of an exciting battle for qualification from the CONCACAF standings. Initially Los Ticos opened up the second stage of qualifying with productive wins over Trinidad and Tobago and the United States, but then picked up just two wins from eight matches going forward.
Ramirez’s side did just about enough to qualify in second place behind Mexico, while the country’s final contest against Panama saw the relative minnows book a place in Russia with a shock 2-1 win over La Sele.
Ramirez’s charges have been troubled by similar inconsistencies since securing a World Cup spot, winning just two of seven friendlies and losing the other five contests, inclusive of defeats to England, Belgium and Tunisia. The country was beaten in both of their most recent warm-up games before travelling to Russia.
Real Madrid stopper Keylor Navas will likely prove to be Costa Rica’s most important asset throughout the group stages. The keeper conceded just eight goals across 10 games during the second stage of qualifying. Los Ticos’ defensive record was bettered only by eventual group winners Mexico during qualification.
Battling past what seemed like an improbable task in Brazil four years ago will inspire Costa Rica as they head into a group that potentially offers another similar-sized threat to the one posed in 2014. Picking up points against both Serbia and Switzerland will be crucial should Ramirez’s charges be aiming for progression in second spot.
Serbia make a return to World Cup action having missed out on qualifying for the tournament in Brazil four years ago.
Questions of autonomy and political fragmentation have seen Serbia’s footballing history dominated by the presence of Yugoslavia’s success in the 1930s and 1960s, but as an independent state Serbia have failed to get out of the group stages.
Qualification saw previous coach Muslin lead the nation to top their group and grab the only automatic qualifying spot ahead of the likes of the Republic or Ireland and Wales, only for the Serbian FSS to announce his departure at the end of October 2017.
Granted Serbia only earned qualification on the final day with a crucial victory over Georgia, but current boss Krstajic would have found it difficult to believe that he would be the man enlisted to lead the Eagles in Russia.
Former Serbia defender Krstajic has 59 caps for his country and played for Serbia and Montenegro at the 2006 World Cup. The coach also has experience as a director of football at former club Partizan Belgrade, although this is his first role as manager.
The country’s fortunes post qualification have been mixed to say the least. Serbia have won three out of six friendly matches recently. The peak of those saw frontman Aleksandar Mitrovic score a hat-trick in a 5-1 mauling of Bolivia.
Beyond trying to pull off something special against either Brazil and sixth-ranked Switzerland, arguably the most exciting prospect for neutrals in Serbia’s campaign will be the chance to see Lazio’s Sergej Milinkovic-Savic in action.
The 23-year-old dynamic midfielder has been a mainstay in the gossip columns for large parts of the 2017-18 campaign, with reported interest from Real Madrid and Manchester United leading to speculation that he might well depart Serie A once the tournament is over.
World Cup narratives often conjure up tall tales of one or two players having breakout campaigns, just as James Rodriguez will attest to. Russia 2018 might just prove to be one for Milinkovic-Savic.
Los Angeles FC forward Marco Urena is likely to lead the line for Costa Rica on Sunday with support coming from a four-man midfield.
Given the country’s problematic warmup contests, Ramirez has late calls to make in the creative department, where Johan Venegas, Bryan Ruiz, Joel Campbell and Christian Bolanos are battling for starts in the wide areas.
Ramirez will probably opt for a 5-4-1 formation that allows full-backs Cristian Gamboa and Bryan Oviedo to break forward from defence. Los Ticos’ three-man central defence should comprise Bologna defender Giancarlo Gonzalez alongside Johnny Acosta and Espanyol’s Oscar Duarte.
For Serbia, Mitrovic will spearhead a 4-2-3-1 that sees creative support coming from Dusan Tadic, Adem Ljajic and Filip Kostic.
Milinkovic-Savic and the vastly-experienced Manchester United midfielder Nemanja Matic will be occupying central roles deeper in midfield.
Branislav Ivanovic, who now plies his trade at Zenit St Petersburg, will sit alongside Dusko Tosic in the centre of defence, while Antonio Rukavina and Aleksandar Kolarov are expected to feature as the full-backs.
Costa Rica possible starting lineup:
Navas; Gamboa, Gonzalez, Acosta, Duarte, Oviedo; Bolanos, Guzman, Borges, Campbell; Urena
Serbia possible starting lineup:
Stojkovic; Rukavina, Ivanovic, Tosic, Kolarov; Matic, Milinkovic-Savic; Tadic, Ljajic, Kostic; Mitrovic
Head To Head
As with many of the opening fixtures at this year’s tournament, the two sides will be meeting competitively for the first time in their respective histories.
Costa Rica’s best-placed finish saw the country reach the quarter-finals four years ago in Brazil, while Yugoslavia claimed fourth place in both 1930 and 1962, long before Serbia gained sovereignty as an independent state.
Prediction: Costa Rica 1-2 Serbia
Costa Rica proved in Brazil that they can produce shocks on the grandest of stages and against formidable opponents.
This tournament sees Ramirez’s men coming up against problematic opponents in Brazil and Switzerland, leaving Serbia as their most likely route to three crucial points in the group.
Serbia arguably have the more proven talents in their ranks and the prospect of both Matic and Milinkovic-Savic in midfield should make things testing for Costa Rica going forward.
Mitrovic’s form for Fulham in the Championship could also cause real issues for Los Ticos at the back and Krstajic will fancy his side to kick their tournament off with a victory at Samara’s Cosmos Arena.