World Cup 2018: Costa Rica vs Serbia

World Cup 2018: Costa Rica vs. Serbia preview, players to watch, key stats

After years of pain and underachieving, Marko Grujic says belief is back for Serbia as it prepares to open the World Cup against Costa Rica.

Back on the world stage for the first time since 2010, Serbia will meet its Group E opponent in Samara on Sunday.

Talent has never been a problem for Serbia, with mentality and execution proving the Balkan nation’s downfall having failed to progress beyond the group stage of the World Cup — though it did reach the round of 16 at the 1998 tournament as the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

But with Serbia boasting the likes of Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, Nemanja Matic, Dusan Tadic and Grujic, Mladen Krstajic’s side could be on the cusp of something great.

“We haven’t played well during the past four to eight years and have skipped the major tournaments like the Euros and the World Cup, which is why people stopped believing in the country’s national team,” said Liverpool midfielder Grujic, who spent a spell on loan at Cardiff City as it secured promotion to the Premier League.

“But now I can feel that the feeling is coming back among the fans and the people of Serbia.”

Slavoljub Muslin — the manager behind Serbia’s qualification — will not be in Russia having been replaced by former defender Krstajic amid criticism over his style of play and team selection.

Krstajic has overseen a mixed bag of results since replacing Muslin in October, with victories over China, Nigeria and Bolivia coupled with losses to Morocco and Chile.

Costa Rica, meanwhile, is back at the World Cup having reached the quarterfinals four years ago in Brazil.

Spearheaded by captain Bryan Ruiz, Costa Rica — which stunned Uruguay 3-1 in its 2014 opener — could make it six consecutive games without defeat at the World Cup with a positive result at Samara Stadium.

Ruiz played a key role in Costa Rica’s run to the quarterfinals in 2014 and the 32-year-old said: “To be here in Russia and feel the World Cup is a great motivation that we have to take in a positive way.”

Costa Rica will be without Ronald Matarrita for the entire tournament after the defender sustained a hamstring injury during training.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Serbia – Sergej Milinkovic-Savic

He has only played four international matches, but Lazio’s in-demand midfielder Sergej Milinkovic-Savic is the man to watch in Russia. A solid World Cup campaign could see the Serbian star seal a move to either Manchester United, Real Madrid or Juventus.

Costa Rica – Keylor Navas

The Real Madrid goalkeeper and golden boy of Costa Rican soccer, Keylor Navas will be kept busy. Coming off a third successive Champions League triumph, expect Costa Rica to rely heavily on his exploits between the posts.

KEY OPTA FACTS

– Excluding penalty shootouts, Costa Rica was one of the only three teams unbeaten at the 2014 World Cup alongside Germany and Netherlands.

– Over its last two appearances, Serbia has lost five of six group games with the country’s only win coming against Germany in 2010.

– Only Joshua Kimmich (9) provided more assists than Serbia’s Dusan Tadic (7) in the UEFA qualifiers for the World Cup in Russia