Preview: Serbia and Costa Rica begin their World Cup campaigns on Sunday with the teams likely to adopt contrasting approaches to making the most of their limited resources at the tournament.
Attack has proved something of a dirty word for some smaller nations in recent editions of the global showpiece with a packed defence often proving the greatest weapon for teams not blessed with the biggest talents.
Costa Rica showed four years ago in reaching the quarter-finals that the ability to frustrate opponents with a far greater pedigree can take you a long way, as long as you can back up defensive organisation with Stakhanovite industry and a decent counter-punch.
In Brazil, they conceded a meagre two goals in five games, beating Italy and Uruguay to top a group that also included England, before eventually falling to the Netherlands on penalties in the last eight.
They have shown little in qualification for Russia or in their warmup matches to suggest they will now cast off the shackles and, given the sport’s recent history of rewarding teams who play it safe, they may feel there is little incentive to change.
Tiny Iceland’s run to the quarters at Euro 2016 was the latest example of how caution has become the most reliable means of over-achieving and Costa Rica are seemingly designed according to that blueprint.
They play with five at the back and pack the rest of the team with players who understand their defensive responsibilities.
Yet while history has numerous examples of underdogs defying their status by defending en masse, there are far fewer occasions when minnows have excelled by casting caution to the wind.
Serbia, however, are not built to defend and will hope their attacking talents can compensate for shortcomings at the back.
Their coach Mladen Krstajic is likely to stick with the adventurous 4-2-3-1 formation, which thrashed Bolivia 5-1 in their final warm-up on Saturday when in-form striker Aleksandar Mitrovic netted a hat-trick.
The good news for Serbia is that Mitrovic and influential attacking midfielder Adem Ljajic have both recovered from minor knocks and trained with the rest of the team on Wednesday.
Krstajic undoubtedly has plenty of midfield and attacking talent at his disposal, but it is a different story at the back.
Creaking veterans like Branislav Ivanovic, who can become Serbia’s most capped player on Sunday with 104 international appearances, and Aleksandar Kolarov, will need to rediscover their heyday if Serbia are to keep opponents at bay in Russia.
They are likely to be joined at the back by the inexperienced yet highly-rated 20-year-old centre half Nikola Milenkovic, who has been dubbed the ‘new Nemanja Vidic’ after impressive performances in the build-up.
Brazil are overwhelming favourites to top Group E, which also includes Switzerland, so a dogfight is likely to ensue to follow them into the knockouts — and defeat would leave the losers in a precarious position.
With inputs from Reuters
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Updated Date: Jun 17, 2018 20:15:51 IST