GROUP E gets underway on Sunday as 2014 quarter-finalists Costa Rica take on Serbia in Samara. Mark O'Haire (@MarkOHaire) previews the encounter and picks out his best bets.
Costa Rica v Serbia | Sunday 17th June 2018, 13:00 | ITV
Costa Rica were the surprise package four years ago, exceeding expectations as 50/1 shots to top a pool containing England, Italy and Uruguay before eventually suffering heartbreaking elimination on penalties in the quarter-finals.
Los Ticos entered the tournament as rank 4,000/1 outsiders but built their successful campaign upon a solid and organised backline. The Central Americans shipped just two goals across eight hours of action with Real Madrid cat Keylor Navas playing a starring role as the team’s last line of defence.
However, there’s a real sense that this side have passed their peak. Twelve of the 2014 squad have returned to Russia – including their three centre-halves Johnny Acosta, Giancarlo Gonzalez and Oscar Duarte – while 18 of the group are aged 28 or over. Experienced, yes, but could Costa Rica be found lacking elsewhere?
Costa Rica could be found wanting
I’d say so, yes. Matching or bettering their best World Cup performance appears a tall order for the 750/1 shots, although current head coach Oscar Ramirez is at least attempting to replicate their Brazilian exploits by retaining the same 5-4-1 system with wing-backs Cristian Gamboa and Bryan Oviedo providing width.
The issue for Los Ticos is, few of their first XI are in-form or fighting fit. Captain and playmaker Bryan Ruiz didn’t feature prominently for Sporting Lisbon last season and speedy Joel Campbell has been ravaged by injuries. Striker Marco Urena could cause problems but service is likely to be lacking.
The CONCACAF outfit’s only qualification victories in the final round of preliminaries came against the USA and Trinidad & Tobago – the two teams that flopped – and no World Cup qualifier averaged fewer shots from inside the opposition penalty area, or Expected Goals en-route to Russia.
Warm-up friendlies have also highlighted their flaws. Belgium and England have contributed to a combined 6-1 aggregate win over Ramirez’s men, who’ve now been beaten in six of their most recent eight outings.
Serbia can start with a success
Serbia were the team from pot four that nobody really wanted to face, and accordingly are the shortest-priced to win the competition of the fourth-ranked teams. The Balkan boys boast a lovely blend of youth and experience, and can field a particularly elegant and balanced midfield.
Nemanja Matic and Luka Milivojevic will sit and protect, allowing Lazio’s superstar Sergej Milinkovic-Savic freedom to bomb on and support Dusan Tadic and Adem Ljajic behind central striker Aleksandar Mitrovic. It’s a very talented front five that really could fire if they function collectively.
The Eagles are now under the stewardship of Mladen Krstajic and there has to be a few lingering doubts over his ability. It’s the new boss’ first taste of senior coaching and he’ll be desperately hoping to start in style after a fairly innocuous and inconstant opening eight months in the hot-seat.
The betting angle
It’s difficult to dismiss Serbia at a shade of odds-on (49/50 Marathon) here. The Europeans scored in all 10 of their qualification tussles and topped a tricky pool containing Ireland, Wales and Austria with minimal fuss.
Defensively, four (40%) of the 10 goals the Eagles shipped during the preliminaries came from shots outside of the penalty area and they arrive in Russia having silenced their opponents in five of their past six triumphs. A repeat wouldn’t be a huge surprise, nor would a low-scoring encounter.
Ten of Serbia’s last 15 fixtures have featured fewer than three goals, while only seven of Costa Rica’s last 27 games have seen Both Teams To Score land. But I’m going to keep things simple and take the straight Serbian win at an attractive price.
Costa Rica v Serbia – Serbia to win (49/50 Marathon)