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GROUP E

BRAZIL

The gloom that engulfed Brazil after the 7-1 debacle against Germany in the 2014 World Cup has lifted.

Brazil was the first team to clinch qualification for Russia and had memorable wins on the way, including a 3-0 success over Argentina in the same Mineirao stadium of the 2014 semifinal humiliation.

It took the appointment of Tite in September 2016 to revive Brazil. Under his helm, there have been 13 wins, three draws and only one loss - in a friendly against Argentina.

Key player- Neymar Jr

 

SWITZERLAND

Now is the time for Switzerland to be more than the sum of its talented parts. The quarterfinals are a realistic goal.

Don't call it a golden generation, but the Swiss have a core of players from the 2009 Under-17 world champion team and a depth of tournament experience.

However, those World Cup and European Championship adventures ended, at best, in the Round of 16. Switzerland last won a World Cup knockout game in 1954, and that was just in a group playoff as host nation.

Critics can pick holes in how the Swiss qualified: Nine straight wins in a weak group, and a playoff against Northern Ireland decided by a dubious penalty call.

A well-balanced team has seemed to need a high-class central defender and reliable scorer. In Basel's Manuel Akanji, it might have found that defender.

Key player- Valon Behrami

 

COSTA RICA

The tiny Central American country reached the quarterfinals of the World Cup four years ago, losing to the Netherlands on a penalty shootout.

This will be Costa Rica's fifth World Cup appearance, impressive for a country with a population just under 5 million. Bryan Ruiz is the main attacking threat, while Celso Borges of is a midfield linchpin.

Still, November friendlies were hardly encouraging, with a 5-0 thrashing by Spain and a 1-0 loss to Hungary.

Key player- Keylor Navas

 

SERBIA

Serbia cruised through its qualifying group to return to the World Cup final tournament after eight years, the second time since becoming an independent nation in 2006.

The skillful squad scored the most goals - 20 - in the group with Aleksandar Mitrovic the best scorer with six goals, leaving behind Ireland, Wales and Austria.

Just their fans traveling to Russia to support their team should behave, after FIFA fined the Serbian soccer federation 160,000 Swiss francs ($160,000) for incidents involving fans at World Cup qualifying games.

Slavoljub Muslin was removed as coach despite the successful qualifying campaign, with Mladen Krstajic placed in temporary command.

Key player- Branislav Ivanovic

 

GROUP H

 

POLAND

It's the first World Cup since 2006 for Poland, whose fans are likely to travel to Russia in large numbers. It could be the last chance to play on the biggest stage for strikers Robert Lewandowski and Jakub Blaszczykowski, who will be 29 and 32 respectively by the finals.

Poland is largely unchanged from the team which reached Euro 2016 quarterfinals where it lost on penalties to eventual champion Portugal. One concern in qualifying was a 4-0 thrashing by Denmark in September that raised concerns about the defense.

Key player- Robert Lewandowski

 

SENEGAL

Senegal is back at the World Cup for the first time since its stunning debut in 2002, when it beat defending champion France on the way to the quarterfinals, then only the second African team to make the last eight.

This qualification has been contentious, with Senegal benefiting from an unprecedented decision by FIFA to order a replay of its 2-1 loss in South Africa because of match-fixing by the referee. Senegal took advantage to win the replay, changing the dynamic of the group.

Key player- Sadio Mane

 

COLOMBIA

Reached the quarterfinals four years ago in Brazil and has the talent to do it again.

This will be Colombia's second straight appearance after sitting out for 16 years. Qualifying was a struggle this time. Colombia waited until the last match to make it to Russia.

Key player- James Rodriguez

 

JAPAN

While the squad lacks the star power of many other World Cup teams, Japan can count on a group of reliable players with plenty of European experience. Shinji Kagawa of Borussia Dortmund and Shinji Okazaki of Leicester should play key roles.

Japan finished first in Group B in Asian qualifying, ahead of Saudi Arabia and Australia.

Key player- Shinji Kagawa    

 

 

 
 
 
 
 

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