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
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
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
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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