Serbia-Costa Rica Preview
SAMARA, Russia (AP) Hundreds of curious onlookers watched Costa Rica run through drills as the Central American team opened up a practice this week at its World Cup base in St. Petersburg.
But all eyes seemed to be on Keylor Navas, the Ticos' goalkeeper. He even gave one lucky boy his practice jersey afterward.
Navas became the team's star four years ago when Costa Rica surprised the field at the World Cup in Brazil, advancing out of its group and through to the quarterfinals before getting ousted by the Netherlands on penalty kicks. He was one of the finalists for the 2014 tournament's Golden Glove honor for best goalkeeper, although Germany's Manuel Neuer ultimately won it.
The 31-year-old has seen his celebrity rise in the ensuring years, and he now plays for Real Madrid. He started in goal for the team's 3-1 victory over Liverpool in the 2018 Champions League final, its third straight title in the tournament.
The Ticos will need Navas to prove that 2014 wasn't a fluke.
Costa Rica opens the tournament on Sunday against Serbia in Samara. The teams are in a group that includes Switzerland and Brazil.
Currently ranked No. 23 in the world, the Ticos are making their fifth World Cup appearance. Their best finish was in Brazil.
They'll face a Serbian team that is ranked No. 34. One of the seven national teams created after the breakup of Yugoslavia, the Eagles last year replaced coach Slavoljub Muslin with Mladen Krstajic.
Krstajic has put together a dynamic squad that includes defender Branislav Ivanovic, who is making his second World Cup appearance, and midfielder Nemanja Matic, who plays for Manchester United. Also included is Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, the tall and talented midfielder who had an apparent falling-out with Muslin but was included on the World Cup roster by Krstajic.
Milinkovic-Savic was crucial to Serbia's victory over Brazil in the 2015 under-20 World Cup. Serbia's senior team failed to qualify for Brazil, and finished at the bottom of its group in South Africa.
Costa Rica coach Oscar Ramirez raised eyebrows when, following a 4-1 exhibition loss on Monday to Belgium, he did not know the name of his opponent's No. 10.
That would be Eden Hazard, who plays for Chelsea.
"The 10 did us a lot of damage. ... I don't know his name," Ramirez was quoted as saying about the midfielder.
Hazard was injured near the end of the second half of the match against Costa Rica and subbed out, but appeared fine at Belgium's team hotel in Moscow, where he was seen tooling around on a tricycle .
Serbian's 23-year-old striker Aleksandar Mitrovic had a hat trick in a 5-1 exhibition win over Bolivia on Saturday. The last time a national team player had a three-goal game was Mateja Kezman against the Faroe Islands in 2001.
Mitrovic plays for Newcastle but spent the second half of this past season on loan to Fulham.
Costa Rica defender Ronald Matarrita will not play in the World Cup because of a right hamstring injury . The Costa Rican federation said Matarrita will be replaced on the roster by Kenner Gutierrez.
Following training at the team's St. Petersburg camp, the left back had an MRI that confirmed the injury. Matarrita, who plays for the Major League Soccer club NYCFC, will miss at least two weeks.
Matarrita was one of six players from MLS on Costa Rica's roster. Gutierrez plays for Alajuelense in Costa Rica's top division.
The CONCACAF record for a World Cup unbeaten streak is six games, set by Mexico over the course of the 1994 and 1998 World Cups.
Because Costa Rica didn't lose in Brazil - the Netherlands advanced on penalty kicks after a scoreless draw - the Ticos can tie the record with a win or draw against Serbia, and possibly surpass it next week against Brazil.
More AP World Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/WorldCup
Updated June 15, 2018