Brazil, Costa Rica, Serbia, Switzerland
Other than the hosts Russia, who qualified automatically, Brazil were the first team to book a place at the 2018 World Cup, wrapping up their berth in March 2017 and dominating the CONMEBOL section. They won 12 of their 18 matches and lost just once, finishing 10 points clear of Uruguay with the best attacking and defensive statistics.
In CONCACAF Costa Rica finished second behind Mexico and were comfortably in the top three ahead of Honduras – who faced Australia in a play-off – with the United States surprisingly eliminated.
Serbia finished top of their group in qualifying with relatively straightforward opponents. Wales and Austria underperformed and could not even make the play-offs with Mladen Krstajić’s side losing just once and claiming 21 points.
Switzerland won nine of their 10 games in UEFA’s Group B, which was the same record as Portugal, but the European champions had a better goal difference and so finished top, leaving the Swiss to go to the play-offs despite claiming 27 points. There they beat Northern Ireland 1-0 over two legs.
Previous World Cups
Brazil are the most successful country at the World Cup with five trophies, each claimed between 1958 and 2002. Following their embarrassing 7-1 exit at their home tournament four years ago, Seleção are due a win and they are among the favourites this summer.
The Swiss national team have reached the last-16 at two of the past three World Cups and replicating that seems a realistic target. They have reached the quarter-finals three times.
Serbia have recorded fourth place twice – in 1930 and 1962 – but recent showings at the World Cup have been below par with group stage exits in 2006 and 2010.
Tite took charge of Brazil in 2016 and the 57-year-old has done a marvellous job to mould them into World Cup favourites He has held numerous jobs since the early 90s, including three stints at Corinthians.
Óscar Ramírez took charge of the Costa Rican national side in 2015 in what is the biggest job of his career. Guiding them to the Russian finals was an impressive achievement, though pre-World Cup form has been patchy.
Mladen Krstajić played at the 2006 World Cup for Serbia in defence, so at 44 it is not a surprise to see that this is his first major tournament as coach; this summer he will be learning on the job, but all the signs so far have been positive.
Bosnian Vladimir Petković is vastly experienced and his Switzerland team’s performances during qualification suggests that they can compete with the best; he replaced Ottmar Hitzfeld after the 2014 World Cup and got to the knockout stage of Euro 2016.
Serbia have the potential to be dark horses in Russia given the quality that they possess. Their midfield is among the most physically imposing of the 32 teams and boasts Manchester United’s Nemanja Matic as well as Lazio’s Sergej Milinković-Savić, who is wanted by many of Europe’s top clubs. Dusan Tadic and Aleksander Kolarov are other well-established internationals named in the 23-man squad.
Vladimir Petković has opted for experience is his squad and new Arsenal signing Stephan Lichtsteiner could claim his 100th cap in Russia. Xherdan Shaqiri, Haris Seferović and Breel Embolo will offer the Swiss team’s goal threat.
Costa Rica lack real quality with goalkeeper and Champions League winner Keylor Navas their star. Joel Campbell and Bryan Ruiz will need to be in-form if the South Americans are to cause an upset.
Brazil have an impressive array of talent to pick from, with Neymar – who has recently recovered from injury – their standout performer. Tite chose a squad of few surprises, with David Luiz’s lack of Chelsea playing time counting against him, though they are weakened by the loss of Dani Alves to injury.
Brazil should have too much quality for each of their opponents and finishing in the top two is likely to be no problem. Picking a runner-up is not straightforward, however, but Costa Rica are the weakest side in Group E by a distance. The second and third-place finishers are likely to be on a similar points total.