MOSCOW (AP) Brazil’s quest for World Cup redemption begins Sunday. So does Germany’s title defense.
The nations are forever linked by Germany’s 7-1 humiliation of host Brazil in the 2014 World Cup semifinals. This year’s Brazil squad is stacked with talented strikers as usual, while top-ranked Germany is a threat to become the first repeat winner since Brazil went back-to-back in 1958 and 1962.
Brazil coach Tite has rebuilt his team since 2014 to ease the burden on star forward Neymar. Gabriel Jesus, the 21-year-old Manchester City striker, will make his World Cup debut after leading the team with seven goals in qualifying.
”Of course Neymar is a great player. Everyone knows that,” forward Willian said before departing for Russia. ”But I think if we play like a team, as a team, we can beat, I think, every team in the world. So I think we go with that mentality.”
Tite appears to have settled on a starting lineup that includes Neymar, Coutinho, Casemiro, Paulino and Willian forming a semicircle around Gabriel Jesus as the center forward. The defenders in front of goalkeeper Alisson are Danilo, Thiago Silva, Miranda and Marcelo. Brazil sported a tight defense as it became the first team to qualify for this year’s tournament.
Brazil faces a tricky initial opponent in Switzerland, which is playing in its fourth consecutive World Cup and has ambitions of reaching the quarterfinals for the first time in 64 years. Switzerland took finalist Argentina to extra time in the round of 16 four years ago.
The Swiss are sixth in the FIFA world rankings, four places behind Brazil, and they won nine of their 10 qualifying matches. Coach Vladimir Petkovic favors a midfield-heavy lineup, with Haris Severovic as the lone striker.
Midfielder Valon Behrami, a 33-year-old who’s playing in his fourth World Cup, said his team can’t get too fixated on stopping Neymar.
”Sure, we hope that he has a bad day and we have a good day,” Behrami said. ”One player alone cannot stop him, because he is so fast and technically strong. We have to face him as a team.”
Brazil and Switzerland meet in their Group E match at 9 p.m. (2 p.m. EDT; 1800 GMT) in Rostov-on-Don in southern Russia.
The day begins in Samara, about 650 miles (1,050 kilometers) east of Moscow, with the other teams in the deep Group E. Serbia is the lowest-ranked team in the group at No. 34, and Costa Rica is 23rd.
This year’s Ticos won’t sneak up on anybody. After all, they are unbeaten in their last five World Cup matches.
Costa Rica made a surprising run to the quarterfinals in 2014, and then played to a scoreless draw against the Netherlands before the Dutch advanced on penalties. Because the Ticos didn’t lose in Brazil, they can tie the CONCACAF record for a World Cup unbeaten streak with a win or draw against Serbia.
The star of that run was goalkeeper Keylor Navas, who now plays for Real Madrid. The 31-year-old started in goal for the team’s 3-1 victory over Liverpool in this year’s Champions League final. Costa Rica also has six players from Major League Soccer in its squad, including defender and Minnesota United captain Francisco Calvo.
Serbia has a striker to watch in 23-year-old Aleksandar Mitrovic, who had a hat trick to lead his team to a 5-1 friendly win over Bolivia.
Other standouts on coach Mladen Krstajic’s team are defender Branislav Ivanovic, who is making his second World Cup appearance; midfielder Nemanja Matic, who plays for Manchester United; and tall and talented midfielder Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, who was crucial to Serbia’s victory over Brazil in the 2015 under-20 World Cup.
Germany launches its title defense in Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium against Mexico and its boisterous, sombrero-wearing fans, who’ve been highly visible in the Russian capital.
The Germans breezed through qualifying but endured a recent slump in friendly matches, with draws against England, France and Spain and a loss to Brazil that ended a 22-game unbeaten run.
”We’re not as good as we’re made out to be, or as some think we are,” midfielder Toni Kroos said. ”There’s huge room for improvement.”
Kroos, who plays for Real Madrid, anchors an experienced midfield that also includes Juventus’ Sami Khedira, Mesut Ozil, Thomas Mueller and Marco Reus. The team has 10 players who hoisted the trophy in 2014.
The teams played last year in Russia in the semifinals of the Confederations Cup, with Germany winning 4-1.
Mexico has lost in the round of 16 in six straight World Cups, and in a bid to end that streak it added a mental coach to its staff: Imanol Ibarrondo, a former player with Spanish club Rayo Vallecano. His 2016 hiring hasn’t seemed to affect the team’s results and has been heavily scrutinized by Mexican media.
El Tri features Giovani dos Santos, who’s making his third World Cup appearance and has 18 international goals. For the first time, he’ll be joined by his younger brother and LA Galaxy teammate, Jonathan dos Santos.
”I think it’s a dream for the both of us to play in a World Cup together, represent our country,” Jonathan dos Santos said.
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