Switzerland perform like clockwork but Brazil underwhelm in World Cup opener

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Favourites Brazil experienced an underwhelming start to World Cup 2018 after Philippe Coutinho’s epic opener was deservedly cancelled out by Steven Zuber’s unmarked second-half header.

Expectation grew at Rostov Arena in Group E once the Barcelona playmaker’s rasping shot flew in on 20 minutes. But Hoffenheim midfielder Zuber evaded weak marking by Internazionale centre-back Miranda – via a gentle push – from a corner to power home a 50th-minute header that headlined a superb response by the Swiss in this 1-1 draw.

BRAZIL HAVE SERIOUS QUESTIONS TO ANSWER, WHILE SWISS PLAY LIKE CLOCKWORK

And so Brazil join the list of misfiring big guns.

Portugal v Spain was a joyously flawed 3-3 draw, France’s 2-1 triumph against Australia utterly bereft of joy. Argentina and Lionel Messi were frozen by Iceland’s grip in a 1-1 stalemate, holders Germany overrun by mesmerizing Mexico in deserved 1-0 defeat.

This pattern appeared at an end when Coutinho lashed in an alluring 20th-minute opener for the record five-times winners and pre-tournament favourites.

But Brazil’s distinct lack of fluidity – only 11 key passes from a total of 543 passes, five shots on target from 21 shots – and defeat in the physical battle – 10-per-cent less possession from Switzerland translated into 13 more tackles and seven more fouls – saw the Europeans justifiably come away with a share of the spoils in Group E.

Particularly in the second half, none of Brazil’s stellar names shone.

Golden boy Neymar’s grand return from injury was a virtual washout. The 26-year-old had no answer to the 10 fouls inflicted upon him – no player has suffered more in one World Cup game since England’s Alan Shearer 20 years ago.

A defence which conceded once in 11 prior matches was also easily cracked by Zuber.

This was more 2014’s living nightmare than 1970’s Technicolor dream. In contrast, a Swiss side which won nine out of 10 qualifiers and whose XI possessed 595 international caps grew in strength.

Tite will hope improved match fitness from acolyte and second-half substitute Renato Augusto translates into a more-effective performance on Friday against Costa Rica.

For the Swiss, head coach Vladimir Petkovic will care little that their only attempt on target led to a goal. Satisfying certainty is a feeling his lauded opposite number doesn’t currently possess.

COUTINHO ANSWERS HIS CALLING

It feels incongruous to note that Coutinho only made his World Cup debut on Sunday night, at the age of 26.

Players of rare talent can open up their body on the edge of the penalty box and produce the whipped opener which flew perfectly, at breakneck speed, into Borussia Monchengladbach goalkeeper Yann Sommer’s top corner.

This club becomes more exclusive when you consider an extensive backlog of similar efforts recently includes his first strike for Barcelona after January’s club-record €160 million (Dh683m) move from Liverpool.

Tagged for greatness when wrestled from the Vasco Da Gama youth system by Internazionale a decade ago, he was expected to mirror the precipitous rise of contemporary – and great friend – Neymar.

But he was enduring teething problems at San Siro for the 2010 event. By the time the tournament headed to his homeland four years later, career rehabilitation was still under way on Merseyside and head coach Luiz Felipe Scolari ignored his claims.

Such ignorance was not to last. The only tangible legacy of Dunga’s poor second spell at the helm was a reintegration of Coutinho.

This process accelerated under Tite since 2016. The challenge now is a documented ability to answer his nation’s call at times of strife. This cry for help went unanswered in Rostov.

BRAZIL’S BASIC FAILURE

Reputations count for nothing at the World Cup. Brazil’s superior standing simply did not translate onto the pitch.

Winger Xherdan Shaqiri was relegated from the Premier League with Stoke City last season. His three key passes was one less than Brazil’s best, Neymar.

Udinese veteran Valon Behrami’s six tackles was double the leading tallies registered by Miranda and Marcelo.

Centre-back Fabian Schar also suffered the drop in 2017/18 with Deportivo La Coruna from La Liga. His five clearances was exactly the same as Paris Saint-Germain’s Thiago Silva.

Until Brazil master the basics, they cannot hope to sweep aside the so-called stragglers.

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Sergej Milinkovic-Savic shows vivid flashes of talent in our Costa Rica v Serbia talking points

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Captain Aleksandar Kolarov lashed home a trademark free-kick in the second half to begin Serbia’s World Cup 2018 campaign with a vital 1-0 win against Costa Rica.

Kolarov, 32, belied any injury doubts from the warm-up when he sent a ferocious set-piece past Real Madrid goalkeeper Keylor Navas on 57 minutes. This followed opportunities in an entertaining first half for coveted Lazio centre midfielder Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, both ruled offside, plus a fluffed one-on-one from Newcastle United-owned centre forward Aleksandar Mitrovic shortly after the interval.

Los Ticos only managed three attempts on target and Bologna centre-back Giancarlo Gonzalez wasted two easy headers. Their odds of repeating 2014’s shock knockout-stage qualification appear slender.

SMS SENDS OUT A MESSAGE

This summer’s enduring transfer saga gained fresh life at Samara Arena.

Emerging Serbia starlet Milinkovic-Savic, labelled “Mr 100 million” by Gazzetta dello Sport after supreme exploits at Lazio in 2017/18, was granted his chance to sparkle on the global stage by head coach Mladen Krstajic. Some turnaround after not being granted a minute’s action in qualifying, a decision of harmful consequence for predecessor Slavoljub Muslin.

This is a player of which much has been staked by club and country.

His employers will demand a nine-figure sum if they are to sell in the coming months – and a stellar spell in Russia will only increase demand. Real Madrid, Juventus and Manchester United are most frequently linked to his coveted signature.

At national level, Muslin gained Serbia their first entry to any major tournament since 2010. But he was dismissed in October after declining to grant opportunities to the generation that claimed 2015’s FIFA Under-20 World Cup.

The 23-year-old wonder boy was moved to centre stage by his nation on Sunday, who declined to repeat his productive deployment on the left-hand side of midfield for Lazio that produced an outstanding 12 goals and three assists in 35 Serie A run-outs.

Backed up by commanding Manchester United anchorman Nemanja Matic and Crystal Palace’s Luka Milivojevic, permission to break into long stride was granted.

Milinkovic-Savic responded with a leading three key passes for Serbia, plus a joint high of four aerials and second-most dribbles with four. The only worry would be a pass accuracy of just 65.8 per cent – his nation’s eighth worst among the starters.

The first half saw an impressive take in mid-air, followed by a weak low shot on the stretch at Navas. Just before the interval, a flamboyant bicycle kick was athletically repelled by the goalkeeper.

Both of these incidents were flagged offside. But they left positive impressions on watching scouts, as would his later delicate one-time pass to prolific Fulham loanee Mitrovic that should have produced the breakthrough.

CLOSE CALL FOR COSTA RICA

A granite edge emerges for Costa Rica when the real action begins.

Propitious signs were in short supply for 2014’s surprise package when a pair of warm-up matches against England and Belgium were lost to a combined score of 6-1.

This narrow, but damaging, set back in Russia means that a repeat of their run to top spot ahead of England, Italy and Uruguay in the previous edition is a firm impossibility.

So now is a second run into the quarter-finals. Favourites Brazil are up next on Friday.

But a defence that conceded just eight times during the final stage of CONCACAF qualifying – a record table-topping Mexico only bettered by one – again stood firm. Mitrovic’s poor effort in the 50th minute was the only time Serbia truly got behind them, despite boasting 53 per cent possession.

Experienced heads – this XI was the oldest ever named by the Islanders at the tournament – given fresh faith by boss Oscar Ramirez tried to do their bit.

Los Angeles FC forward Marco Urena flashed one promising effort wide, while Saprissa winger Johan Venegas got into a number of promising positions without delivering. Arsenal-owned Joel Campbell is only 25-years old, but started on the bench after a season of inactivity at Real Betis.

Time is again now closing in on these players.

KOLAROV’S RENAISSANCE CONTINUES

A change of scenery has worked wonders for Kolarov.

Last summer’s escape from the sidelines at Manchester City saw him revitalised at Roma. The Eternal City must do something for the rampaging ex-Lazio employee.

At 32-years old, he was unquestionably Serie A’s best left-back. A return of eight assists and three goals from 35 appearances in that competition for the third-placed finishers was an excellent return on their £4.5m (Dh22m) investment.

Throughout his time in and out of the City team, Kolarov remained a key man for his country.

This astonishing free-kick from nearly 30 yards helped justify Krstajic’s decision to strip Zenit Saint Petersburg stalwart Branislav Ivanovic of the captaincy.

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Germany must guard against complacency as reigning champions take on Mexico

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Germany must be fully focussed for their World Cup opener against Mexico.

Germany kick off the defence of their World Cup title on Sunday against Mexico.

It’s a potential banana-skin tie for the champions, although they will back themselves to secure the three points despite recent indifferent form.

Here are three talking points going into Sunday’s game.

GERMANY MUST BEWARE OF COMPLACENCY

Joachim Low was understandably upset after Germany lost a friendly to Austria in the build-up to this tournament, the last failure in a five-match winless run that ended when they defeated Saudi Arabia in their final pre-World Cup friendly.

He knows what his side are capable of; they breezed through European qualifying, won the Confederations Cup last year handsomely despite fielding an untested squad, and the last time they failed to reach at least the semi-finals of a major tournament was Euro 2004. And, of course, they enter the World Cup as the trophy holders.

But Low must worry if complacency has taken a hold of his squad. Saudi Arabia looked hapless against Russia in the World Cup opener on Thursday, but Germany struggled to break them down, with more or less a first-choice XI.

Perhaps it’s just a case of flipping the switch once the real contest begins, but that’s a dangerous mentality to have. Their loss to a flawed France team at Euro 2016 should have been a warning that that they cannot simply turn up and win, and while a group of Mexico, Sweden, and South Korea holds no demons, Low needs to ensure the winning mentality is back.

There's been an air of complacency about Germany in recent fixtures.

There’s been an air of complacency about Germany in recent fixtures.

MEXICO’S STARS NEED TO SHAKE OFF THE PRESSURE

Mexico departed for the World Cup with boos ringing in their ears after their final pre-tournament friendly at home, against Scotland. Their crime? Not winning by more than the solitary goal.

That’s the level of pressure El Tri face, despite not being one of the fancied sides at the tournament. Realistically, they’re headed for a Round of 16 exit for the seventh straight World Cup – they’re likely to finish second in their group at best, with Germany expected to top, and in all probability that means a matchup with Brazil. The fans want more, but it’s highly unlikely they’ll get it in Russia.

Faced with such demanding standards, how do Mexico cope? Merely acquitting themselves well against the world champions may not be enough, even when the most optimistic fans will probably be steeling themselves for a loss, and potentially a heavy one.

Lead striker Chicharito is among those Mexican players who seem to struggle under this pressure. Despite being their all-time leading goalscorer, a return of just three World Cup goals is underwhelming. And if a player who can be a star at Manchester United regularly underperforms for his country, how will a rising star like Hirving Lozano fare?

Can Chicharito and Lozano help Mexico meet the expectations of their fans?

Can Chicharito and Lozano help Mexico meet the expectations of their fans?

LOW CAN PLAY IT SAFE WITH OZIL

Mesut Ozil has been declared fit for Germany’s opener, after picking up an injury during their friendly against Austria that kept them out of their final warm-up match last week. But perhaps the smarter option is to leave him on the bench.

Not that they should take Mexico lightly, but the depth in attacking positions that Germany possess means they can ease Ozil back to full fitness. Marco Reus is an excellent backup in the No 10 role, and having him in top form will be a boost for Die Mannschaft even if he does ultimately have to cede his starter status to Ozil.

More importantly, an aggravation to the Arsenal star’s injury will be far more damaging than any effects of leaving him out – again, keeping Germany’s depth in mind. The champions’ second match is against Sweden, the most stubborn defence they will face in the group stages – just the sort of side against which Ozil becomes a necessity rather than a luxury.

Saving him for that game, allowing Reus to find his feet on the biggest stage in world football – he missed Germany’s triumph in 2014 through injury – may serve the side better in the long run.

Playing it safe may be the way to go for Ozil and Germany.

Playing it safe may be the way to go for Ozil and Germany.

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