Here’s Rob Reid with the 3rd of his world cup fantasy analysis articles. This time it’s Groups E and F where he looks at each team individually within both Groups and their fantasy player prospects
World Cup fantasy analysis – Rob Reid looks at Groups E and F
Group odds – Brazil 2/7 Switzerland 6/1 Serbia 8/1 Costa Rica 18/1
Group E is one of only a couple I would say where I can see a clear an obvious winner. It would be a huge surprise if Brazil didn’t top this group, and many will be expecting them to take maximum points in the process. They need to beware of banana skins though! Switzerland have a habit of proving stuffy to beat and good on the counter attack, Serbia have an experienced and battle-hardened squad who will fear no-one and it seems amazing that Costa Rica, a team who reached the quarter-finals in 2014 should be given group odds of 18-1. Can the favourites bury the demons of their 7-1 thrashing in the 2014 semi-final and come out all guns blazing on the way to World Cup glory?
Where else to start then but with Brazil. The only nation to play in every World Cup, a country where football is a way of life and every true football fan’s second favourite national team. Much soul-searching happened in the aftermath of 2014 and after 6 games of qualifying, things were looking bad. They’d taken just 9 points and were languishing in 6th place. Could the unthinkable happen? Change was needed and Dunga was fired as Head Coach and replaced by the popular Tite. This proved to be a great decision and a couple of tweaks to personnel and system saw Brazil comfortably win the section in the end, finishing 10 points ahead of 2nd placed Uruguay, scoring 30 and conceding just 3 in their other 12 games. They posted another sign of intent by winning away to Germany in March, a step towards putting those 2014 demons to bed. Brazil look fresh, rejuvenated, revitalised – can they match their 1958 masterclass where a European World Cup was won by a non-European nation for the only time?
The key to Tite’s revelation is that Brazil are no longer 100% reliant on their current national treasure Neymar. They will need him on top form though if they’re serious about winning the tournament. He’s not everyone’s cup of tea with his habit of dropping like he’s been shot by a sniper every time there’s a hint of physical contact, but there’s no denying his ability, 54 goals in 83 appearances is a record that fantasy managers just can’t ignore. The only worry is that he might arrive in Russia slightly undercooked after a period out with injury, though a goal in a recent friendly win against Croatia may put that theory to bed.
Around him though there’s a number of other good options. Gabriel Jesus is the favourite to lead the line, he’s got 9 goals in 16 caps though he’ll have competition from Premier League rival Roberto Firmino (6 goals in 20 caps.) There’s points potential in midfield too. Paulino has 12 goals in 48 caps, though could line up more defensively in Tite’s system, while Willian and Phillipe Coutinho both offer goal and assist threat.
Brazil aren’t traditionally renowned for being particularly water-tight at the back but you can’t ignore their defensive record in qualifying. Marcelo is the standout pick for me, he can be a bit reckless but can be a source of attacking points as well as defensive. Dani Alves has missed out through injury, leaving competition in the right-back area so the other safer defensive picks are Thiago Silva, Miranda or Roma keeper Alisson. All in all, you’re spoilt for choice with Brazil and I suspect the main limiting fantasy factor will be budget more than anything else.
I’ll look at Switzerland next, who have built an impressive qualification portfolio of qualification over the last few years. Their group record would have been good enough to win most sections with 9 wins and a solitary defeat to Portugal, but they had to face the play-offs thanks to an inferior goal difference. They defeated Northern Ireland 1-0 on aggregate to clinch their place thanks to a dubious penalty, but you can’t really deny that they deserve their place in Russia based on their qualification record and their impressive world ranking of 6. They’ve built a reputation for punching above the relative weight of their national league and they’ll be tough to beat in Russia, as they proved against Spain in a recent 1-1 friendly draw.
The obvious options for the Swiss are their attacking full-backs. Stephan Lichtsteiner may be approaching the twilight of his career but still offers good threat going forward down the right. Ricardo Rodriguez scored in the recent friendly with Spain and appears to have penalty duties as well as presenting plenty of assist threat.
Options are more limited further up the pitch, but Xherdan Shaqiri’s talent is well known to FPL managers. He can score wonder goals from anywhere and has a good international record of 20 goals in 68 caps. Benfica forward Haris Seferovic appears to be first choice to lead the line but 11 goals in 49 isn’t desperately inspiring.
Serbia topped their qualifying group, pipping Ireland and also denying Euro 2016 semi-finalists Wales who could only finish 3rd. It was a tight group, but Serbia only lost once (away to Austria) and produced steady results when they needed it. Friendly results have been mixed since then, a win against Nigeria but defeats to Chile and Morocco and a draw against South Korea, not the greatest form as they head for Russia.
Once again there’s plenty of names FPL managers will be familiar with, even if they aren’t really regular fixtures in our teams! Dusan Tadic has a decent international record of 13 goals in 51 caps and also offers assist threat, though he’ll need to play better than he did for Southampton this season. Aleksandar Mitrovic was their top scorer in qualifying with 6 goals but was loaned out to Championship Fulham, though he was key in them winning promotion.
At the back, there’s also good attack threat – once again through familiar fantasy league players. Aleksandar Kolarov and Branislav Ivanovic were both FPL favourites in seasons gone by and both players have double figure international goal tallies. Serbia are prone to defensive errors though. They did keep 4 clean sheets in qualifying, but 3 were against Moldova and Georgia so aside from their opener against Costa Rica, I’m not overly sold on their clean sheet prospects. One player I will be watching though is Sergej Milinkovic-Savic. The attacking midfielder from Lazio may only have 3 caps, but is highly talented and might be a nice budget differential.
The group outsiders are Costa Rica, surprise quarter-finalists in 2014. Los Ticos finished 2nd in the CONCACAF hexagonal to secure their finals spot, wins home and away against USA proving key to a successful campaign. Friendly results have been mixed since. They were smashed 5-0 by Spain last November and wins against Scotland and Northern Ireland were tempered by a disappointing defeat to Tunisia. They also face a tough section in Russia, the good news is that their easiest fixture is first. The bad news is that if they lose this, they’re likely on a slippery slope back to Central America.
Keylor Navas was their star player in Brazil and the Real Madrid keeper will be key again in Russia. Costa Rica only conceded 8 goals in the final qualifying round and kept 5 clean sheets so there is potential with Navas or with a defensive option – with attacking full-backs Oviedo and Gamboa likely the best bets here. The problem of course is the opposition, if they concede early in any if their fixtures they could be on the wrong side of a heavy reverse.
Going forward, the prospects of their star players from previous years are tempered by the limited game time they’ve received at their clubs of late. Joel Campbell is a solid rather than spectacular striker and has been riddled with injuries while Brian Ruiz hasn’t been in great form at Sporting Lisbon. Marco Urena might be the player to go for if you’re after Costa Rica coverage – he’s been in good international form of late, including scoring the winner at Hampden Park in March.
Brazil playing Switzerland on Matchday 1 opens both up for a good Matchday 2/3 pod. To be fair Brazil versus anyone is a good fixture! Costa Rica v Serbia could be a potential fixture to try to sub a cheap defender in for a clean sheet for 1 round.
Group Odds – Germany 4/9 Mexico 13/2 Sweden 42/5 South Korea 40/1
The 2014 Champions start their defence in a nicely varied group with each side exhibiting a very different style of play. Germany are arguably a more complete side than 4 years ago, having ironed out some positional problems and qualifying with ease. Mexico nearly always get to the knockout phases before stumbling early and their high tempo game saw then easily win the CONCACAF hexagon. Sweden are more of a unit now than teams of previous years that have centred around Zlatan Ibrahimovic and South Korea have a flowing, incisive counter-attacking style that could cause problems for some. Inevitably though, it’s hard to see passed the Germans who (quite rightly) will be heavily fancied to retain their crown.
Let’s start with Germany then. A perfect qualifying record, 43 scored and 4 conceded; the only European team to win 10/10. They boast tremendous strength in depth and talent in every area. Have a couple of frailties crept in recently though? Brazil defeated them in a friendly in March and even more surprisingly Austria also beat them in a warm-up game the other week. Should fantasy managers be worried about this stuttering form? Probably not is the answer I’d say and they should comfortably win this group.
Defensively they look more complete than 4 years ago, Joshua Kimmich has had a fine season at Bayern and seems to have filled Phillip Lahm’s shoes offering major attacking threat. They shouldn’t need to play a centre-half at left-back this time either with Jonas Hector cemented in this position. They join the central core of Boateng, Hummels and Neuer with German defensive cover looking good for returns.
Looking forward, Timo Werner looks to have filled Miroslav Klose’s shoes up front. He’s not been as prolific for Leipzig this season (13 league goals in 32) but has hit the ground running at international level with 7 goals in 12 caps. In midfield, Mesut Ozil has tended to play his best football for his country and Julian Draxler can be a tricky customer on the left. The one uncertainty though might be Thomas Muller – a player who is usually a fantasy football favourite. His record of 38 goals in 90 caps is superb and he’s usually at his best in big tournament but he’s been a bit out of form of late, a worry as Germany head to Russia.
Mexico usually reach the knockout stages – they’ve lost in the last 16 in the previous 5 tournaments. They breezed through qualifying, a solitary defeat to Honduras in the last round when they’d already secured their place the only major blip on proceedings. They’ve been somewhat wasteful in recent friendlies though – they were held 0-0 by a young Wales side in Pasadena and missed a hatful of chances in a 1-0 win over a highly experimental Scotland side last week. The good news is that they have plenty of creativity, something they’ll need when they face Sweden in Matchday 3 which could be the shootout for 2nd place.
They have several intriguing fantasy options. The first is Hector Herrera who plays his club football at Porto. He’s likely to be listed as a defender in most formats but actually plays as a defensive midfielder. He’s a good creative player, has some set piece responsibility and has good assist potential. He shares set pieces with Miguel Layun. The latter will probably be listed a midfielder, but takes most of the corners where Mexico offer good aerial threat – he had 3 assists in qualifying.
Up front, Javier Hernandez had a troublesome season at West Ham but has a fine international goal record of 49 goals in 102 caps. Mexico are likely to play him in the centre of a front 3 flanked by Hirving Lozano and Carlos Vela. These wider players don’t carry the same goal threat but are good for assists. 34 year old Oribe Peralta is another option for the central position, he has 26 goals in 67 caps.
On to Sweden now, who have did very well to battle through a tough qualification process. Drawn in a tough group with France, Netherlands and Bulgaria the Swedes fought their way to a second place finish. They then upset the odds to defeat 3 time champions Italy 1-0 on aggregate ensuring that their opponents missed their first World Cup since 1958. The foundation for this was a defence that kept 5 clean sheets in the group and then blanked Italy across both legs. They’ll need to be at their best at the back if they want to escape this tricky group.
Their best fantasy option to me looks to be their captain Andreas Granqvist. He is not only a key part of their defensive structure, he is also their penalty taker. He looks a sound option for their opener against South Korea. Mikael Lustig is another who also offers attacking threat from defence.
Going forward, options are a bit leaner in the post-Ibrahimovic era. The line is likely to be led by Marcus Berg and Ola Toivonen. Neither can boast the goal record of their predecessor, but Berg was their top scorer in qualifying with 8 goals. Emil Forsberg is another option in midfield. He’s had a quieter season with RB Liepzig than the 16-17 campaign when he scored 8 goals and registered 22 assists. His international record is 6 goals in 35, he scored 4 and assisted 3 in qualifying.
Last up is group underdogs South Korea who many predict will struggle in Russia. Their problems seem to lie in an inability to play away from home. In qualifying they picked up all but 2 of their points at home struggling at the back, particularly against set pieces.
It doesn’t look a good group for them defensively and there’s a major worry that if they lose their opener to Sweden then they could take a couple of hidings against the attacking threats of Germany and Mexico. Key to their chances is their star player Son Heung-Min, who FPL managers will of course all be familiar with after a fantastic campaign with Spurs. There’s a good reason why he’s been Asian Overseas Player of the Year for the last 3 years and his pace and finishing will be vital to any slim hopes the South Koreans will harbour. Sadly though, I expect them to be getting sweets thrown at them in a couple of weeks time!
Having Germany v Mexico up first is handy. That leaves pods of 2 for these nations where clean sheets and attacking returns may be good. Germany vs South Korea may see significant rotation if Germany have already qualified. Sweden’s opener against South Korea looks good on paper for the Swedes.
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