Four years ago in Brazil, Costa Rica took the World Cup by surprise with victories over Uruguay and Italy to win their group and ultimately reach the quarterfinals. It’s been a different story for Serbia with eight years passing since they last played in a World Cup. Now these sides will meet Sunday in Samara.
With Brazil the runaway favourites in Group E, Costa Rica, Serbia and Switzerland expect to challenge for second place in the group and advancement into the knockout stage. It’s been 20 years, however, since Serbia made it out of the group stage, back when they were part of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.
This match-up pits the old against the young, or at least younger. It features a manager’s continued trial by fire and a squad that hopes experience will pay off. This contest might be the most pivotal game in the group when all is said and done.
Here’s a look at what to keep on eye on:
1 Age ain't but a number
If the names on the Costa Rican roster look familiar it's because they should. More than half of the players on this year's World Cup squad were part of the side that made the nation's memorable run in 2014.
Stars like Real Madrid keeper Keylor Navas, captain Bryan Ruiz, forward Joel Campbell from Betis and 34-year-old Christian Bolaños are all back to help Los Ticos possibly make another serious run for the Cup. In fact, with an average age of 29.6 years, Costa Rica are the oldest of the 32 teams in Russia, according to Statista.
They'll boast 11 players age 30 or older by the time the tournament ends next month. Reserve keeper Patrick Pemberton, who turned 36 last month, is the oldest.
Almost at the other end of the age spectrum is Serbia, who with an average age of 26.8 years, are the fifth-youngest squad in the tournament. They have only five players over 30 and two as young as 20. Two of their top scoring threats, Sergej Milinković-Savić and Aleksandar Mitrović, are both 23.
2 The true test begins
Serbia won't completely need to rely on their youth, 34-year-old keeper Vladimir Stojković, Branislav Ivanović (34), captain Aleksandar Kolarov (32), Dušan Tadić (29) and Nemanja Matić (29) bring big match, domestic league experience. But even with some seasoned veterans and talented youth, it will be interesting to see how the Serbians collectively handle the competition.
The Serbs lost just once in World Cup qualifying against the likes of Moldova, Austria, Wales, Ireland and Georgia. None of which qualified for the tournament. Though Serbia feel good about their roster and this likely will be the only match in the group they are favoured, Costa Rica, Switzerland and certainly Brazil will be the best teams they'll have faced on the road to or at Russia.
Serbia also split their four friendlies in 2018, losing to Morocco and Chile while beating Nigeria and Bolivia. Though Morocco are in the field, they rank below Serbia in the world. Nigeria, also in the World Cup, are a team they should have beaten and did. Chile was a surprising non-qualifier but still a challenge the Serbians could not overcome.
It remains to be seen just how prepared the Serbia will be.
3 This is Mladen Krstajic's team
Since taking over for sacked manager Slavoljub Muslin in October, Krstajic has put his stamp on the Serbian national team. And he wasted no time.
He called up the talented but volatile Lazio man Milinkovic-Savic, who did not seem to be favoured by Muslin. Krstajic also shifted from Muslin's preferred 3-4-3 formation to a 4-2-3-1 look, in another interesting move.
Krstajic was named Serbia's permanent manager in December and is good through the World Cup, but a strong showing in Russia could go a long way in further cementing his future with the team. There's no doubt at the moment this his team, but they have to perform to the liking of those over Krstajic's head.
That just adds to the pressure of Krstajic's World Cup managerial debut.
4 Los Ticos need a fresh start
The pre-tournament talk surrounding Costa Rica is whether they can make another magical World Cup run.
Judging by how they've played heading into the event, the answer would be a resounding "NO." But that's the great thing about sports, the past can be left in the past and an event like the World Cup gets the blood pumping and adrenaline flowing.
Costa Rica, though, need to turn that pumping and flowing in goals and wins ... and fast. In seven friendlies since November, Los Ticos lost five times and managed just five goals in those seven contests.
Ruiz's goal early in their final warm-up, a 4-1 loss to Belgium this month, was his only one in that stretch of friendlies. Stalwarts Marco Ureña and Campbell also netted only one goal each during those seven matches.
So, Costa Rica's chief focus should be to find some offence before even thinking about another memorable run through the World Cup.
5 Let the fun finally begin
The Group E participants will have waited through three days of action before taking to the pitch, so the anticipation will be high. Especially for Costa Rica and Serbia, who play the first of three Sunday matches with group mates Brazil taking on Switzerland that evening.
This also will be the first World Cup match played at Samara Arena, which took four years to build. Located in Russia's sixth-largest city, the stadium boasts a capacity of 45,000 for the World Cup.
Perhaps Serbia will be the more edgy of the two sides, considering their youth and that they are trying to make up for lost time. Costa Rica, meanwhile, are banking on their experience to be the X-factor - in a good way - when play in Group E finally gets underway.
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