GROUP E returns on Friday as pre-tournament favourites Brazil look to pick up their first victory of the competition against Costa Rica in Saint-Petersburg. Mark O'Haire (@MarkOHaire) previews the encounter and picks out his best bets.
Brazil v Costa Rica | Friday 22nd June 2018, 13:00 | ITV
Pre-tournament favourites Brazil failed to win their opening game of a World Cup for the first time since 1978 as they were held to a 1-1 draw by Switzerland in Rostov on Sunday. The five-time champions, so often lauded for their flair, failed to sparkle after Philippe Coutinho's superbly curled opener on 20 minutes.
Coutinho's strike remained their only effort on-target until the 77th minute, highlighting their struggles in the final third. Tite had dropped the Barcelona magician into his midfield three in a move to make the Selecao more threatening in possession, with Gabriel Jesus and Willian alongside Neymar in a front three
However, the Samba Boys could offer only fleeting moments of fluid play. Neymar's header – straight at Yann Sommer with minutes to go – summed up a performance lacking in cutting edge. Indeed, only in the dying stages did they appear desperate to win, with substitute Roberto Firmino's header forcing a save and defender Miranda blasting wide.
Those hoping to see the free-flowing football Brazil are revered for will have been disappointed as the star-studded side enjoyed just 55% of the ball. Neymar failed to flourish – often showboating and frustrated by the close attention of Swiss defenders – in a display lacking inspiration and intensity.
Don’t write Brazil off too soon
Back home, supporters bemoaned the apparent push on Miranda that led to Switzerland’s leveller but such excuses fail to mask what was undeniably a below-par effort from the South American giants, who arrived in Russia with clear aims and aspirations to conquer the world.
Still, it would be remiss of us to write off Brazil based on their opening efforts. Friday’s fixture with Costa Rica is unlikely to prove quite so trying and the Selecao should be capable of moving up a few gears, even though Neymar’s participation is a slight doubt.
It’s worth reminding ourselves that Brazil have won all bar five of their 22 outings under Tite, losing just once in a friendly when their biggest names were absent. The Samba Boys have recorded 16 clean sheets in that sample, scoring three or more goals on 10 occasions.
With 14 of their 17 triumphs under Tite featuring a clean sheet, I’m happy to invest in a repeat in Saint-Petersburg with 8/11 (BetVictor) on offer against a limited Costa Rican side.
Costa Rica playing catch-up
Costa Rica were one of the surprise packages of the 2014 World Cup as they topped a group that included former winners England, Italy and Uruguay en-route to the quarter-finals. That side became synonymous with a fearless approach against more illustrious opponents.
Many of their squad were at the peak of their careers four years ago, but Los Ticos now have the second-oldest squad at this year's tournament. Their starting line-up against Serbia had an average age of 29 years 346 days with Francisco Calvo, at 25, their youngest player.
Oscar Ramirez’s men looked like a side whose best days were behind them in that curtain-raiser. The Central Americans’ only sporadically threatened the Serbia goal, with an early header over the crossbar from unmarked defender Giancarlo Gonzalez their best effort.
Los Ticos did force two on-target efforts in a lively opening three minutes but then didn't manage another until second-half stoppage-time. And their lack of invention and verve in the final third is likely to prove their undoing here.
Ticos to toil in Saint-Petersburg
Ramirez said he told his team, “this isn’t over” but with 78% of sides suffering elimination following a defeat first up, progression looks highly unlikely. After all, Costa Rica won just four preliminary matches and picked up only two points from a possible 12 against fellow qualifiers Panama and Mexico.
This past-their-prime outfit have only beaten Northern Ireland and Scotland in their last 11 outings, have suffered seven defeats in their most recent nine, failed to score in three of their last five and fired in the lowest Expected Goals average of all 31 qualifiers in Russia.
Just seven of Costa Rica’s past 27 tussles have seen Both Teams To Score bets land and the most obvious selection appears to back a repeat alongside a Brazilian triumph at generous odds.
Brazil v Costa Rica – Brazil to win to nil (8/11 BetVictor)