Manchester United target Sergej Milinkovic-Savic must rise to the occasion as Serbia take on Brazil

Alex Rea 26/06/2018
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Brazil’s spot in the last-16 is far from secure and they will require at least a point against Serbia if they are to advance from Group E on Wednesday.

The Spartak Stadium will host this fascinating battle and with that in mind, we compare and contrast some of the key players for both sides.

Sergej Milinkovic-Savic v Paulinho

2706 keybattles savic v paulinho

Europe’s elite sides will no doubt be getting their message across to SMS with the €100-million-man one of the most sought-after playmakers in Russia.

Manchester United, Juventus and Real Madrid are among the clubs said to be monitoring his movements for Serbia this summer and they will be deeply impressed by his showings so far.

Operating as a No10 behind striker Aleksandar Mitrovic in a 4-2-3-1, the 23-year-old Lazio star was brilliant in their tournament opener with Costa Rica, repeatedly breaking through the lines with physical presence and poise.

Intricate footwork hallmark his precocious talent but a hulking frame will make him a nightmare for a potentially fragile Brazil.

As he proved last season, Milinkovic-Savic’s performances match the occasion and they don’t come much bigger than this.

Paulinho, Milinkovic-Savic’s closest opposite in this clash, perhaps best illustrates the contrast between these two sides. Where the Serbian star wraps power and craft into his sizable physique, pocket-sized Paulinho’s energy and predatory instinct mark him out.

The 29-year-old was Brazil boss Tite’s first major shake-up when he took charge, immediately installing the reinvigorated Barcelona midfielder despite the protestations regarding his ‘anti-Brazilian’ style.

However, he provides crucial balance to the flair around him and has shown an eye for goal with seven plundered under Tite’s stewardship. He has, though, been poor in Russia. A taxing season with the Blaugrana may be catching up with him, and Brazil need him to step up against Serbia’s midfield.

Aleksandar Mitrovic v Gabriel Jesus

2706 keybattles mitrovic v jesus

Mitrovic is a menace. The Serbia forward has continued the fine form which saw Fulham promoted back to the Premier League last season as he was chief tormentor against Switzerland.

He scored a brilliant header to open the scoring and was dominant in the air throughout, winning a game-high eight aerials to both win possession high up the pitch and provide a threat in the box as Serbia went wide with their attacks, crossing the ball 17 times.

The 23-year-old does not possess pace or guile, but he works hard, is always on the move and anything inside the box will be finished without fuss.

On the other side, Neymar is the star for Brazil and naturally attracts the most attention but that fact can’t mask just how big of a fixture this is for Jesus.

The calls for Roberto Firmino to replace him as the spearhead are growing louder, especially after the Liverpool forward made another big impression with a crucial cushioned header in the build-up to Philippe Coutinho’s late opener against Costa Rica.

The Manchester City man has so far struggled with the supply into him stifled by the knock-on effect of Neymar’s negligence. He’s cut an isolated figure but perhaps the debate of Jesus or Firmino should turn into Jesus and Neymar.

Brazil need more numbers in the box and with Paulinho failing to make inroads, perhaps it’s time for Tite to form what could be a deadly duo.

Nemanja Matic v Casemiro

2706 keybattles matic v casemiro

For onlookers who appreciate the art of defensive midfielders, a sub-plot in this clash will be two of the best in the game going head-to-head.

Matic was a generally excellent anchor in his first season for Manchester United and has only got better in Russia, making well-timed interceptions and tackles as highlighted in the lead-up to Mitrovic’s goal against Switzerland.

He’s an asset in launching attacks, but the 29-year-old’s defensive nous will be of more significance to blanket Brazil’s plethora of attacking options. Lateral movement to screen the back four will be a feature of his game as he seeks to break up their advances.

Casemiro, though, will be the man charged with setting the tempo while also tempering his own gallivants into the final third.

While he’s emerged as one the finest DMs on the planet with Real Madrid, the Brazilian does have bad habits and if he doesn’t maintain a sense of calm, Serbia may be able to profit.

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Mexico's mental fortitude to come to the fore and other talking points as Group F leaders prepare for Sweden clash

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Mexico are in pole position ahead of their game against Sweden.

Mexico and Sweden face off in their World Cup Group F clash on Wednesday with a spot in the Round of 16 on the line for both sides.

It’s a must-win game for Sweden, while Mexico will want to cap a stunning showing in the group stages with a result which will see them top their group ahead of both Sweden and Germany.

Here’s a look at the talking points ahead of the game.

ALL IN THE HEAD FOR MEXICO

Mexico played with great verve in their famous win against Germany, and matched that against South Korea, dominating a game they really should have won by more than the eventual 2-1 scoreline.

Can they produce a third straight performance of the same ilk and quality? Sweden will be a tougher nut to crack, with a well-organised defence and a team wary of being hit on the counter. Mexico will not be able to catch them by surprise, so if they win it will be after going toe-to-toe with their European foes.

It will help this is a must-win game for Sweden, while Mexico will top the group with a draw. Still, the weight of expectation will come with its own challenge for El Tri, one they will have to manage the entire game – and especially if they fall behind.

If that does happen, Mexico will need to keep their heads for entirely different reasons. There is still the slightest chance that they don’t qualify for the last 16 – if they lose to Sweden and Germany win their game, all three sides will be on six points and it will come down to goal difference – so Mexico will have to avoid panicking.

Regardless of how the game’s going, the game will test their mental fortitude.

Can Mexico keep their cool after two superlative performances?

Can Mexico keep their cool after two superlative performances?

CAN SWEDEN SHOW MORE ATTACKING IMPETUS?

Sweden have made a name for themselves as a hard-working, spirited side, but on Wednesday they will need to find a more expansive version of themselves. The easiest way to guarantee qualification for the last 16 is by winning with a two-goal margin or more, which means Sweden will have to be more attacking than they usually are.

It’s something they’re quite capable of – their qualifying run for this tournament saw them score 26 times in 10 games, including an 8-0 win over Luxembourg and a 4-0 and 3-0 wins over Belarus.

It’s one thing beating up on a couple of European minnows, however, and entirely another trying to rack up the goals against a side that has been one of the best in this tournament.

This could be a game where their lack of star power hurts them – Sweden don’t seem to have a player who can take a game by the scruff of its neck and dominate it, at least not from an attacking sense. Coaxing that sort of performance out of one or more of his squad will be manager Janne Andersson’s toughest task against Mexico.

Sweden need to find another gear against Mexico.

Sweden need to find another gear against Mexico.

MEXICO’S GOLDEN GENERATION CAN ACHIEVE CROWNING MOMENT

Hirving Lozano may have stolen all the headlines for Mexico as their country’s next big young hope, but in truth this is a veteran side, with players like Chicharito, Carlos Vela, Miguel Layun, Hector Herrera, and Andres Guardado all having experienced big games for their national teams.

Mexico have been a fixture in the last 16 at recent World Cups, so they’ve been in high-pressure situations together, and it would be a stretch to say that this is the biggest game they’ve faced together.

Yet as they usually enter last-16 ties as underdogs, this game will provide a different sort of pressure. They have an opponent they would normally be expected to find tough, but not on current form, and not based on the way they’ve raised expectations at this tournament.

Chicharito especially has struggled to live up to the hype at football’s biggest tournament, even as he’s embarked on a glittering career that’s taken him to the top of his country’s scoring charts as well as great success at club level. He’s only scored four times at a World Cup, at three different tournaments, but in Russia he’s been a driving force in attack.

Mexico will need that sort of performance from him and his colleagues to see this through.

It's a chance for Chicharito and his colleagues to stamp their authority.

It’s a chance for Chicharito and his colleagues to stamp their authority.

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Barcelona star Paulinho needs rest from Brazil action after astonishing marathon season

Alex Rea 26/06/2018
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Brazil’s spot in the last-16 is far from secure and they will require at least a point against Serbia if they are to advance from Group E on Wednesday.

The Spartak Stadium will host this fascinating battle and with that in mind, look at some of the key tactics which could play out for both sides.

JESUS AND FIRMINO, NOT JESUS OR FIRMINO

FBL-WC-2018-BRA-TRAINING

It’s the great debate which surrounds the Brazil team right now but with Tite’s obvious preference for golden boy Gabriel Jesus, it’s unlikely we will see Liverpool’s Roberto Firmino displace him in the starting XI.

Jesus has, however, so far struggled to make an impact in Russia but there is a mitigating circumstance with Neymar’s indifferent form behind him cutting off the avenues into his feet.

Paulinho, too, is not providing the expected support in the box from midfield so it should be to little surprise the Manchester City forward has been quiet.

However, he’s livened up when Firmino has entered proceedings from the bench, Tite switching from a 4-3-3 to a 4-4-2 against Costa Rica to positive effect. And perhaps that’s a change Brazil can deploy from the get go against Serbia, especially considering the inevitability of Jesus being crowded out by a physically imposing outfit.

SERBIA’S CROSSING ASSAULT

FBL-WC-2018-MATCH26-SRB-SUI

Brazil have already shown fallibility in the air at this World Cup with Switzerland’s Steven Zuber the beneficiary of poor marking from a corner to head home an equaliser in their Group E opener.

Centre-back Miranda, the culprit up against Zuber, is the tallest member in the squad at a modest 6ft2 with the Canarinho largely on the smaller side.

That could well play perfectly into the hands of Serbia who possess comparable giants in Sergej Milinkovic-Savic (6ft3), Aleksandar Mitrovic (6ft1), Nemanja Matic (6ft4), Nikola Milenkovic (6ft4), Luka Milivojevic (6ft1) and Branislav Ivanovic (6ft).

They crossed the ball 17 times against Switzerland, striker Mitrovic winning a game-high eight headers and deliveries out wide or from set-pieces could give Serbia a big advantage.

REST PAULINHO

Brazil v Costa Rica: Group E - 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia

It’s easy to forget but Paulinho’s season has been a marathon.

Due to the Chinese Super League being scheduled by calendar year, when he joined Barcelona last summer it was midway through Guangzhou Evergrande’s campaign.

That means should the midfielder take to the field on Wednesday, it will be his 94th appearance for clubs and country in 490 days.

His exhaustion was a talking point throughout the season for Barcelona and it is again an issue for Brazil.

As a box-to-box operator, energy is absolutely paramount to the role so Tite has a decision to make.

Does he bring in Renato Augusto who arrived in Russia with a knee injury when question marks still hang over his fitness or will the Brazil boss persist with running Paulinho further into the ground?

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