Last edition’s surprise package Costa Rica will kick things off in Group E of the 2018 FIFA World Cup with a tie against Serbia on Sunday.

Costa Rica will face off against European nation Serbia in the first game of Group E, on matchday 4 of the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia, at the Samara Stadium.

The Central American nation was one of the biggest success stories of the previous edition of the World Cup in Brazil four years ago, as they went on to make it all the way to the quarterfinals of the tournament, after managing to qualify from a group that also had the likes of England, Uruguay and Italy.

Los Ticos, ranked 23rd in the world and managed by former midfielder Oscar Ramirez, will be hoping to recreate the same magic again in Russia this time out. However, two defeats in their last three fixtures heading into the competition doesn’t put them in the best of the positions.

Serbia, on the other hand, were not involved in Brazil four years ago and will be making just their second appearance in the FIFA World Cup, after becoming an independent nation, with their debut in 2010 ending in a group stage exit. The Serbians enjoyed a brilliant qualifying campaign as they topped Group D of the UEFA qualifiers that also had the likes of Austria, Republic of Ireland and Wales in it.

Mladen Krstajic’s Eagles won their final pre-tournament friendly in style, thrashing Bolivia 5-1 last week and will be hoping to carry the momentum into Sunday’s clash against the Costa Ricans at the Samara Stadium.

Team News & Tactics

Costa Rica

Defender Ronald Matarrita will miss the World Cup with a right hamstring strain, the Costa Rican federation has confirmed, with Kenner Gutierrez being named as his replacement.

Ramirez has managed to retain the core of the players who were part of the fairytale run four years ago and is likely to set his team up in a 5-4-1 setup in order to pack the defence and the midfield areas, which will transform into more of a 3-4-3 when they are attacking, with the full-backs and wingers pressing higher up.

In goal, Los Ticos will count on the vastly experienced Keylor Navas, who recently won his third UEFA Champions League trophy with Real Madrid. Celtic star Cristian Gamboa will take up the right-back slot, with former Everton full-back Bryan Oviedo set to man the opposite wing. In the heart of the defence, the trio of Giancarlo Gonzalez, Jhonny Acosta and Oscar Duarte are expected to form a solid partnership.

The Costa Ricans will be relying a lot on their wingers to provide the impetus going forward and a lot of the creative responsibilities will be on the shoulders of captain Bryan Ruiz, who is expected to start on the right wing, while Christian Bolanos will also be a key outlet on the opposite wing, with his pace and guile. David Guzman and Celso Borges will be expected to hold fort in the middle and keep a check on their opponents.

Marcos Urena, who led the scoring charts for the team during their qualifying campaign, is expected to lead the line.

Probable Starting XI (5-4-1): Navas; Gamboa, Gonzalez, Acosta, Duarte, Oviedo; Ruiz, Guzman, Borges, Bolanos; Urena;

Serbia

There are no injury concerns for Serbian manager Krstajic to contend with heading into the game. There is a great balance between youth and experience within the Eagles’ squad, which should hold them in good stead in the tournament.

Vladimir Stojkovic, who will be playing his third FIFA World Cup (2006 with Serbia & Montenegro, 2010 with Serbia), will be the preferred option between the sticks. Former Chelsea star Branislav Ivanovic is likely to start in the centre-back role, despite his ability to play on the right-hand side. And he is likely to be paired up with Dusko Tosic. Given their strength and physicality, it will make for an interesting tussle against Urena.

Antonio Rukavina and Aleksandar Kolarov will slot in as the full-backs on the right and left sides respectively. Both will be given the license to romp forward and offer more width in attack.

Nemanja Matic will play as one of the two-man midfield pivot and screen the backline, while the second slot is likely to be taken up by Serbia’s newest heart-throb Sergej Milinkovic-Savic. The Lazio star will provide the forward drive from the middle of the park for the Eagles. Adem Ljajic will take up the No.10 slot after his performance against Bolivia, when he scored a goal.

Dusan Todic and Filip Kostic are the most likely to start on the right and left flanks respectively and will be a serious threat with their pace and movement. Leading the line for Serbia will be 23-year old striker Aleksandar Mitrovic, who was the leading goal-getter for the Eagles in the qualifying rounds with six strikes and grabbed a hat-trick against Bolivia.

Probable Starting XI (4-2-3-1): Stojkovic; Rukavina, Ivanovic, Tosic, Kolarov; Matic, Milinkovic-Savic; Tadic, Ljajic, Kostic; Mitrovic;

Key Stats

  • This is the first time ever that the two nations, Costa Rica and Serbia, are facing each other.
  • With an average age of of 29.8 years, Costa Rica have the oldest squad in the 21st edition of the FIFA World Cup.
  • Serbia, on the other hand, have the fifth youngest squad in the competition, with an average age of 26.8 years.
  • Branislav Ivanovic will become the most-capped player ever for Serbia, if he features on Sunday. The 34-year old is joint-top with Dejan Stankovic, tied at 103 appearances.

Player to watch

Sergej Milinkovic-Savic (Serbia)

Toast of the town - Sergej Milinkovic-Savic (R) (Photo: JOE KLAMAR/AFP/Getty Images)

Talk of the town – Sergej Milinkovic-Savic (R) (Photo: JOE KLAMAR/AFP/Getty Images)

The Serbian midfielder has grown into one of the most coveted midfielders in Europe over the past couple of seasons with Lazio. Coming on the back of a brilliant season, in which he scored 14 goals and set up 6 more, Milinkovic-Savic is being chased by the likes of Manchester United and Real Madrid, with fees of €150 million being spoken about.

The 23-year old is an all-round, powerful midfielder, who has the ability to make a telling impact on both sides of the field. Someone who can score and create goals in equal measure, Milinkovic-Savic also possesses a solid defensive nous and will be the Eagles’ main man heading into the game and the tournament.

Prediction

Costa Rica 1-2 Serbia

Costa Rica began their campaign in 2014 with a shock 3-1 win over Uruguay and went on a splendid run from thereon. However, it is hard to see them pull off a similar miracle this time out, considering their performances in the pre-tournament friendlies. Serbia are coming on the back of a spectacular 5-1 win over Bolivia and seem to possess more quality in their side compared to the Central Americans. And as a result, we at the Hard Tackle, are going for a 2-1 win for the European nation at Samara on Sunday.

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