Many bookmakers have Brazil listed as their favourites to lift the trophy this summer, and that is reflective of the redemptive powers of a nation for whom football remains the number one priority.
It was just four years ago that the Brazilians were embarrassed and humbled in front of their own supporters; Germany dishing out that infamous 1-7 defeat that has since been crystallised in history as the ‘Mineirazo’.
But they have risen, phoenix-like, since. They won the Olympic gold medal in 2016, and qualified for this summer’s World Cup by topping the ever-difficult South American sectional group with a goal difference of +30.
So Brazil are in good heart heading into their skirmishes in Group E; will they lay down a signal of their intent here?
Brazil – Group Winner Odds: 2/5
Head Coach: Tite
Key Man: Neymar
Neymar, Firmino, Gabriel Jesus, Willian, Philippe Coutinho, Fred….it really is a mouth-watering prospect for Tite and his Brazilian fans.
The good news is that there is a nice balance to his team; even if the squad looks overloaded with attacking talents. In goal there is the excellent Roma shot-stopper, Alisson, and in front of him a central defensive partnership of Thiago Silva and Marquinhos will keep him well protected.
Attacking width will be provided by Marcelo and Danilo, while Casemiro and the rejuvenated Paulinho will marshal the middle of the park.
Brazil were outstanding in qualifying. They scored more goals than any other South American side, conceded fewer and lost just one of their eighteen outings; they were excellent across a two-year period.
As if they needed a helping hand, the Brazilians have also landed themselves in a kind group that contains Switzerland, Serbia and Costa Rica. Winning Group E is just the first step for Tite’s men, and the 2/5 available on them doing just that is an absolute steal.
Switzerland – Group Winner Odds: 13/2
Head Coach: Vladimir Petkovic
Key Man: Xherdan Shaqiri
It was a time of much trouser-shredding anxiety for Switzerland, who won a hard-fought play-off with Northern Ireland 1-0 on aggregate.
They had finished second behind Portugal at the group stage without doing anything wrong; indeed, they defeated the European champions on home soil.
The Swiss have not gone beyond the last 16 of a major tournament since the 1950s, and just getting through the group here will be top of their list of achievements. A solid backline (Lichtsteiner, Djourou, Rodriguez, Schar) allows some decent attacking talents (Shaqiri, Seferovic, Drmic) to play, but the lack of an obvious goalscorer may just come back to haunt them.
Serbia – Group Winner Odds: 8/1
Head Coach: Mladen Krstajic
Key Man: Nemanja Matic
Given their relative proximity to Russia, there will be plenty of Serbians cheering on their heroes at the World Cup, and many will be hoping they can sneak through the group stage alongside Brazil.
They came through a tough old qualification group that included Wales, the Republic of Ireland and Austria, and so they have certainly earned their place at the summer showpiece.
This is a squad where experience is not in short supply: Stojkovic, Ivanovic, Kolarov and Tadic have more than 300 caps between them, and so they won’t be daunted by the big occasion.
They will need Aleksandar Mitrovic, fresh from his promotion to the Premier League with Fulham, to fire them to glory, but in truth there is very little to choose between them and Switzerland, and so their head-to-head meeting will presumably determine who will finish second in Group E.
Costa Rica – Group Winner Odds: 22/1
Head Coach: Oscar Ramirez
Key Man: Bryan Ruiz
Cast your mind back four years and you might recall Costa Rica finishing top of their group at World Cup 2014; at the expense of England, Italy and Uruguay no less!
A large number of that squad remains here in 2018, and no doubt they will be dreaming of replicating their glories of ’14.
We don’t really know where they are at, given that the Central American section of qualifying is rather straightforward, but there is plenty of experience in this squad – many of whom play their club football in Europe.
Could Costa Rica spring another surprise in Russia? Absolutely. It’s just that we won’t be putting our hard-earned cash anywhere else other than Brazil in Group E.