Zlatan Ibrahimovic says he hasn’t had the opportunity to keep a track of the latest World Cup news in the United States because of the time difference.
The Swedish star, who has had an action-packed stint with LA Galaxy in MLS, said: “I haven’t heard a lot about the World Cup because normally it’s bigger talk. But maybe because I am over here and the time difference.”
Ibrahimovic retired from international football two years ago but had hinted at a possible return on numerous occasions. However, nothing has come out of it.
Costa Rica were responsible for a couple of upsets at the last World Cup, beating Italy and Uruguay on
their way to the quarter-finals in Brazil where they were defeated on penalties against the Netherlands.
The man presented with the daunting task of emulating the heroics of former manager Jorge Luis Pinto and his dedicated troops is Oscar Ramirez.
The 53-year-old has largely kept the same system in place, retaining the 5-4-1 formation and it’s naturally helped them maintain a fairly miserly defence.
Los Ticos conceded just eight goals in 10 World Cup qualifying games as they finished second behind Mexico from the CONCACAF region. That defensive record was only bettered by the group winners who conceded just seven.
The 4-0 win over the United States was the highlight of their qualifying campaign but they were exposed in recent international friendlies.
Despite a 1-0 win over Scotland, defeats to Hungary and Tunisia by the same scoreline and a 5-0 thumping at the hands of Spain means they will head to Russia with a sense of trepidation.
Costa Rica have a tendency to sit deep without possession and even when going forward, it’s not always pretty. They’re a hard-working side but the onus lies heavily on their captain Bryan Ruiz, playing from either the left or right side of midfield, to drop into pockets of space in the middle and conjure a few openings.
Meanwhile, Celso Borges is the midfield anchorman and chief distributor. Marcos Urena has his work cut out for him up front as he’s often left isolated for most of the game. Between the sticks is Keylor Navas, under constant pressure over his place at Real Madrid, but who proved himself worthy after such a fine tournament four years ago.
In Russia, Costa Rica will be competing in their fifth World Cup tournament, quite an achievement for a country whose population is under five million.
Prior to 2014, they failed to advance from the group stages in the previous two editions although they did make it to the round of 16 in their maiden appearance during the 1990 tournament in Italy.
Their undisputed number one starred in Brazil four years ago as they conceded just twice in normal
time during the tournament. His performance earned him a move to Real Madrid and he’ll have to
play out of his skin again.
The former midfielder served as assistant manager from 2006 to 2008. He was then Paulo Wanchope’s second in command after Pinto stepped down, only to be handed the head coaching role when the former Premier League midfielder resigned after a post-match fight.
He’s the one who makes things happen in the team. Renowned for his supreme technical ability and creative
qualities, the Sporting winger is responsible for much of his side’s attacking play. At 32, the former Fulham player is now an experienced figure in the team.
The 23-year-old is one of Costa Rica’s few young prospects. The left-back started well with New York City FC a couple of years ago – named their defensive player of the year in 2016 – but has endured injury setbacks. Suffers in the air but is good going forward and strong in the tackle.
KEY FACTS AND STATS
– Pinto, their coach at the last World Cup, was inspired by German discipline and has a sports degree from Cologne University
– Costa Rica were one of only three unbeaten teams in normal time during the 2014 World Cup
– In 2011, Bryan Ruiz was the highest-paid athlete in Costa Rica, according to ESPN
– 21, shots on target saved by Navas at World Cup 2014
69 DEF 73 MID 73 ATT
World Cups competed at
5 (First in 1990)
World Cup record
P15, W5, D4, L6
P16, W9, D5, L2
K. Navas (Real Madrid), P. Pemberton (LDA), L. Moreira (Herediano).
C. Gamboa (Celtic), I. Smith (Norrkoping), R. Matarrita (NYCFC), B. Oviedo (Sunderland), O. Duarte (Espanyol), G. Gonzalez (Bologna), F. Calvo (Minnesota United), K. Waston (Vancouver Whitecaps), J. Acosta (Aguilas Dorados).
D. Guzman (Portland Timbers), Y. Tejeda (Lausanne), C. Borges (Deportivo La Coruna), R. Azofeifa (Herediano), R. Wallace (NYCFC), B. Ruiz (Sporting Lisbon), D. Colindres (Saprissa), C. Bolanos (Saprissa).
J. Venegas (Saprissa), J. Campbell (Real Betis), M. Urena (LAFC).
They are comfortably the underdogs in a group that features Brazil, Switzerland and Serbia – but the same was said of their chances four years ago.
Iran were simply stunning en-route to qualifying for the World Cup, conceding just five goals in 18 matches.
Indeed, they were so dominant that they were the third team to book their tickets to the summer spectacle, after hosts Russia and record champions Brazil.
And not even seemingly being thrown to the lions in the heinous-looking ‘Group of Death’ alongside 2010 champions Spain and reigning European champions Portugal will be enough to quell the excitement of an expectant nation from spilling out into the Gulf.
They did their 81 million inhabitants proud on the way to Russia with a campaign built on a stingy defence – something which will be severely tested in the group stage.
Remarkably, they qualified from the third and final round in Asia without conceding a single goal, a 2-0 win against Uzbekistan last June seeing them book their passage.
It wasn’t until a final day 2-2 draw with Syria their defence was finally breached.
Goals were hard to come by, with just 10 scored in 10 final phase games, although they were prolific before that, netting 26 times in the eight group second stage (3.25 goals per game) while again stout at the back – conceding just three.
They finished a commanding seven points clear of South Korea with 11 goals from Sardar Azmoun, Iran’s next great hope, seeing him finish joint-second highest in the individual scoring charts alongside Australia veteran Tim Cahill.
The 23-year-old has netted 23 goals in his first 32 caps. Carlos Queiroz’s men are a well rounded squad with players who have plenty of experience playing outside their own country.
Captain Masoud Shojaei and attacker Karim Ansarifard have excelled in Greece, Reza Ghoochannejhad and the emerging Alireza Jahanbakhsh doing the same in the Netherlands.
One surprise came last month when Queiroz decided to cut veteran former captain Jelal Hosseini.
What also doesn’t bode well for Iran is their dismal recent record at World Cups.
They have only won one of their 12 previous games – a 2-1 win over the USA in 1998.
A player not easily kept out of the headlines. He caused a stir when he was banned by FIFA for four months in September after being found in breach of his contract, having returned to Persepolis despite agreeing to move to Turkey’s Caykur Rizespor.
Scored eight goals in qualifying and is likely to form a key striking partnership with Azmoun.
Supremely experienced, the ex-Portugal and Real Madrid manager has been in charge of Iran for the last seven – often tumultuous – years. His policy of introducing players from the Iranian diaspora has proved key to their progress, making him the first man to qualify them for successive World Cups.
The 33-year-old midfielder represents the modern face of this Iran team, thus far playing in five different countries for nine different clubs. This tally also includes Sharjah in the Arabian Gulf League. His ability to add elegance to a workmanlike team is invaluable.
Not only is the Rubin Kazan striker one to keep an eye on when watching Iran, he’s also a player many of Europe’s big teams will be watching closely. He has repeatedly been linked with a move to the big time, with Arsenal, Juventus and Valencia all keen.
KEY FACTS AND STATS
– Touted as the heir to Iran goalscoring icon Ali Daei, Azmoun scored a mesmeric 23 goals in his first 32 Iran caps, placing him as the country’s fifth-highest scorer of all-time – and he’s just 23
– Iran refused to participate in the qualifiers for the 1986 World Cup because of having to play on neutral ground
– Azmoun still has some way to go to reach the No1 spot though. Daei is the leading goalscorer in the history of international football, with 109 goals from 149 caps
73 DEF 72 MID 74 ATT
World cups competed at
5 (First in 1978)
World cup record
P12, W1, D3, L8
P18, W12, D6
A. Beyranvand (Persepolis), R. Mazaheri (Zob Ahan), A. Abedzadeh (Maritimo).
M. Hosseini (Esteghlal), R. Rezaeian (Ostende), M. Reza Khanzadeh (Padideh), M. Pouraliganji (Alsaad), P. Montazeri (Esteghlal), M. Mohammadi
(Akhmat Grozny), R. Cheshmi (Esteghlal), E. Hajsafi (Olympiacos).
S. Ezatollahi (Amkar Perm), M. Shojaei (AEK Athens), M. Torabi (Saipa), O. Ebrahimi (Esteghlal), K. Ansarifard (Olympiacos).
A. Jahanbakhsh (AZ Alkmaar), M. Taremi (Al Gharafa), S. Azmoun (Rubin Kazan), R. Ghoochannejhad (Heerenveen), S. Ghoddos (Ostersunds), A. Dejagah (Nottingham Forest), V. Amiri (Persepolis).
The odds are stacked against them but that won’t bother Iran or their fans, who will head to Russia with huge optimism but no real hope