Costa Rica v Serbia preview: World Cup Group E gets underway
By Onogwu Muhammed
Aleksandar Mitrovic will be looking to continue his excellent form when Serbia face Costa Rica in their World Cup Group E opener at the Samara Arena on Sunday (1pm BST).
The Newcastle striker scored 12 goals in 20 games during his loan spell with Fulham in the second half of the 2017/18 season to help secure promotion to the Premier League.
He has also netted 14 goals in his last 18 games for Serbia, including a hat-trick in a 5-1 win over Bolivia in their final warm-up match.
Serbia failed to make it out of the group stages at their last two World Cups, but hopes are high that this talented-looking group can at least make the last 16.
Lazio's Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, Manchester United's Nemanja Matic and Southampton's Dusan Tadic are among the star names in the squad along with Mitrovic.
"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 Marko Grujic, who was on loan with Cardiff last season.
"But now I can feel that the feeling is coming back among the fans and the people of Serbia."
While Serbia will be looking to break new ground by getting out of the group, Costa Rica have a challenge to match their showing at their last World Cup.
The Central American side made the quarter-finals in 2014, only conceding two goals in five games and beating Italy and Uruguay to top a group that also included England, before eventually falling to the Netherlands on penalties in the last eight.
Brazil, who are the favourites to win the group, face Switzerland later on Sunday.
Mitrovic and influential midfielder Adem Ljajic have both recovered from minor knocks and trained with the rest of the Serbia team on Wednesday.
However, Costa Rica will be without defender Ronald Matarrita after he was ruled out of the tournament with a hamstring injury.
He has been replaced by Kenner Gutierrez.
This will be the first ever encounter between Costa Rica and Serbia.
Costa Rica have qualified for their fifth World Cup - they have reached the knockout stages in two of their four previous appearances (1990 and 2014).
Costa Rica have also won their opening game at the World Cup in three of their previous four appearances, the only exception coming against hosts Germany in 2006 (2-4). Meanwhile, Serbia have lost their opening game by a 1-0 scoreline each time in their last two appearances.
Having inherited Yugoslavia and Serbia & Montenegro's records, this is Serbia's 12th World Cup participation, although it will be only their second tournament as an independent nation following 2010.
Only Germany's Joshua Kimmich (9) provided more assists than Serbia's Dusan Tadic (7) in the UEFA qualifiers for the 2018 World Cup.