Verdict: Both teams to score
Best odds: 9/10
Group G of the World Cup in Qatar kicks off on Thursday, and after Switzerland do battle against Cameroon, Brazil, one of the favourites to lift the trophy in the end, will take on the very interesting team of Serbia in the evening at the Lusail Stadium, the venue selected to host the final as well.
It’s not easy to find anything to say about Brazil that hasn’t already been said. Even the bookies naming them as the top favourites to become world champions this year for the sixth time is nothing new. This is a top, top side, made of several players of vast quality in each position.
There may have been a few eyebrows raised about coach Tite leaving out in-form Liverpool star Roberto Firmino in favour of Tottenham Hotspur backup striker Richarlison, but even so it’s hard to find a weak spot in his squad. In fact, Tite did not shy away from the favourites tag going into the tournament, obviously believing his team to be ready to retake the crown after a two-decade pause.
Brazil’s qualifying campaign was a record-breaking one, with 14 triumphs and three draws from the 17 matches played and a tally of 45 points, six more than second-place Argentina.
Preparing for the tournament, the Selecao played friendlies against Ghana and Tunisia at the end of September, beating the former 3-0 and the latter 5-1 to boost the morale ahead of the Qatar trip.
Liverpool goalkeeper Alisson Becker is likely to stand between the post, picked ahead of Manchester City’s Ederson Moraes. Chelsea defender Thiago Silva is likely to be joined by his former PSG teammate Marquinhos in the heart of defence, flanked by Juventus duo of Alex Sandro and Danilo. Casemiro, who swapped Real Madrid for Manchester United this summer, should start at the base of midfield ahead of Liverpool’s Fabinho. Arsenal striker Gabriel Jesus should lead the line ahead of Richarlison, with creator-in-chief Neymar behind as the No. 10, and it will be interesting to see who starts on the right attacking flank, Barcelona’s Raphinha or United’s Antony. The left wing appears almost certain to belong to Real Madrid’s Vinicius Junior.
Serbia, on the other hand, weren’t exactly the favourites to finish top of their qualifying group, but here they are, having done just that by unexpectedly beating Portugal in Lisbon in the final round to get three points ahead. Ajax captain Dusan Tadic and Fulham striker Aleksandar Mitrovic were the nation’s heroes on the day, bagging a goal each to overturn Renato Sanches’s early opener for the hosts.
Serbia may not have real superstars in their ranks, with the most notable names in their ranks, apart from Tadic and Mitrovic, being Juventus striker Dusan Vlahovic and Lazio midfielder Sergej Milinkovic-Savic. But coach Dragan Stojkovic has certainly put together a fine team, a compact, tactically sound unit, something that wasn’t exactly the case when they had the likes of Nemanja Vidic, Branislav Ivanovic, Neven Subotic, and Nemanja Matic in their ranks. They are currently a well-balance mixture of experience and young talent, and even Brazil will likely want to take them very seriously or risk suffering an unpleasant surprise.
Further more, the Serbs have come to Qatar in fine form, having beaten Sweden in Belgrade and Norway in Oslo in September to finish top of their Nations League group, and they’ll therefore play in the top tier in the next edition of the competition. Just before arriving to Qatar, they passed the final test by smashing Bahrein 1-5, with Tadic (twice), Vlahovic, Filip Djuricic and Luka Jovic all on target.
Stojkovic has been dealt an injury blow with Aleksandar Mitrovic having an ankle problem from which he reportedly hasn’t fully recovered, and the powerful striker is therefore likely to start on the bench in favour of Jovic. The former Real Madrid man, now playing for Fiorentina, will in that case pair up with Vlahovic upfront in Stojkovic’s 3-5-2 system.
Sergej Milinkovic-Savic should be in the middle of the park, joined by Nemanja Gudelj and Tadic in a slightly more advanced role, flanked by Andrija Zivkovic and Filip Kostic. Strahinja Pavlovic of RB Salzburg should be at the back, along with Stefan Mitrovic and Nikola Milenkovic.
Sergej’s brother Vanja Milinkovic-Savic appears to have established himself as Serbia’s No. 1 between the posts, ahead of Predrag Rajkovic and Marko Dmitrovic.
Despite Serbia’s indisputable team cohesion, Brazil are obviously the team more likely to win this contest. A look at their attacking options, as well as the fact that Serbia did not keep a single clean sheet in the qualifying process, is enough for such a conclusion, even with the vast individual quality of Brazil set aside for a moment.
That, however, does not mean that Stojkovic’s men aren’t capable of scoring against Brazil. With the odds on the Selecao winning being extremely short, maybe it’s worth betting on both teams finding the back of the opposition net at least once.
Verdict: Both teams to score
Best odds: 9/10