The surprise package of the 2014 World Cup, Costa Rica looks to show its quarterfinal appearance four years ago was no fluke as it faces Serbia in the Group E opener Sunday in Samara.
Little was expected from the CONCACAF side in Brazil after being placed in a group with champions Italy, Uruguay and England. Yet it was the Ticos who finished on top with two wins and a draw while conceding just once. Their stunning ride continued by ousting Greece on penalty kicks in the round of 16 before being undone in similar fashion by the Netherlands.
Serbia is in the World Cup for the second time in three editions since its latest incarnation as a country ahead of qualifying for the 2010 tournament. The Orlovi have not been to the knockout round since reaching the round of 16 in 1998 when they were known as the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.
In previous iterations, Serbia’s best showing were fourth-place finishes in both the inaugural 1930 World Cup and again in 1962. The Orlovi have just one win in their last two appearances and finished last in the 32-team field in 2006.
HOW THEY GOT HERE
All five of Costa Rica’s World Cup appearances have come since qualifying for the first time in 1990. The Ticos finished second to Mexico in the final round of CONCACAF play despite not winning any of their final three matches but also sweeping the United States.
Oscar Ramirez had balanced scoring as 10 different players had at least one goal, with Marco Urena leading the way with three of his team’s 14 markers. Prior to their first quarterfinal appearance four years ago, Costa Rica had only reached the knockout round in its maiden showing in 1990.
Serbia also booked its spot in the World Cup via automatic qualification, finishing atop a group that included Ireland and 2016 European Championship semifinalist Wales. The Orlovi went unbeaten through their first eight matches and secured their spot by beating Georgia in their finale.
Aleksandar Mitrovic scored a group-high six goals and Dusan Tadic contributed four with seven assists as Serbia qualified for its first major tournament since the 2010 World Cup.
Costa Rica uses three center backs with a pair of wide backs that can shift between a 5-2-2-1 and a 3-4-2-1. But it all starts between the sticks with Keylor Navas, who is the best goalkeeper in the CONCACAF region and coming off his third consecutive Champions League title with Real Madrid.
There is one key change on the right side with defender Ronald Matarrita unavailable due to a hamstring injury. On the left, Christian Gamboa will try to push forward on rhe flank to provide support for Celso Borges. Up front, talisman Bryan Ruiz is back for his second World Cup after scoring twice in Brazil, but he also had a penalty saved in the quarterfinal loss to the Netherlands.
Borges and Ruiz are the two most capped players on the Ticos roster with 111 and 110, respectively, which puts them in the top five all-time. If Borges plays all three games, he will move into third place and Ruiz would move into a tie for fourth if he does likewise.
The Orlovi will likely set up in a 4-2-3-1 formation, and there is quality in the spine with central defender Branson Ivanovic and midfielder Nemanja Matic ahead of him. Partnering with Ivanovic is 20-year-old Nikola Milenkovic, who has just three caps to his name.
Mitrovic and Tadic are the offensive focal points up front for Serbia, but playmaker Sergej Milinkovic-Savic will be under pressure to produce after coach Mladen Krstajic was able to bring him back into the fold after being exiled by predecessor Slavoljub Muslin. The midfielder scored 15 goals for Lazio in all competitions this season but has just four caps.
Ivanovic is the only centurion on Serbia’s roster with 103 international appearances, and will become the country’s all-time leader with his next appearance. Goalkeeper Vladimir Stojkovic (81), Kolarov (76) and Tadic (53) are all over the half-century mark.
PLAYER TO WATCH
Costa Rica – Joel Campbell (M)
The 25-year-old had a goal and an assist in the 2014 World Cup and also showed plenty of calm in converting against Greece in the round of 16. Campbell has plenty of pace, and with an inexperienced central defender on his side in Milenkovic, look for the Ticos to try and find him in space to let him cut into the final third.
Serbia – Aleksandar Mitrovic (F)
After failing to make an impact with Newcastle United and having loan deals to both Anderlecht and Bordeaux fail to materialize, Mitrovic took out his frustrations constructively in helping Fulham win promotion to the Premier League. He scored 12 goals in 17 league matches for the Cottagers after arriving in February, and the 23-year-old already has 16 goals in 37 international appearances.
RUMORED TO MOVE
Even with three Champions League titles, Navas will reportedly be on the move after the World Cup as new Real coach Julen Lopetegui reportedly wants Manchester United keeper David De Gea at the Bernabeu. Campbell is technically on loan for Arsenal at Real Betis, and it would not be surprising to see him at least make a bid for a spot with the Gunners before possibly returning to Portugal next season.
Tadic could be yet another Southampton player who winds up at Anfield with Liverpool, though Everton were reportedly interested in the winger last month as well. Newcastle have reportedly put a £15 million transfer price on Mitrovic, and it may be up to Fulham to decide if the striker is worth the price tag as it makes the jump to the top flight.
Per Ladbrokes, Serbia are decided favorites for this contest with 10-11 odds to win compared to 7-2 for Costa Rica. The odds of a draw are listed at 11-5. Mitrovic is the first choice as first goal-scorer with 10-3 odds, followed by Aleksandar Prijovic (7-2) and Luka Jovic (4-1). For the Ticos, Johan Venegas and Urena are joint-favorites at 13-2 while Ruiz is 8-1.
In Group E, there is Brazil… and there is everyone else, which makes the race for second wide open among the Ticos, Serbia and Switzerland. Costa Rica and Switzerland both made the knockout round four years ago, so there are no easy outs in this group.
The Orlovi have the talent on paper to give Costa Rica all sorts of problems, but relying on a playmaking midfielder with just four international appearances in the World Cup seems unorthodox at best and foolish at worst. The good news for Serbia is Mitrovic has been irresistible of late and had a hat trick in Serbia’s 5-1 thumping of Brazil in a tune-up earlier this month.
If Milinkovic-Savic can get the ball to the Fulham forward, good things can happen, even against a world-class keeper in Navas. This is not a good matchup for Costa Rica since Ivanovic and Matic are very good at shutting down opponents, and the Ticos do not have a dynamic midfield that controls possession.
It will be choppy at times, but Serbia should emerge with a 1-0 victory.