A new seeding system means that in comparison to recent World Cups, this year’s group stage promises fewer bouts between bona fide heavyweights. That doesn’t mean, though, that Russia 2018 will be without its fair share of cracking first-round matches. Including...
Egypt vs Uruguay
Friday June 15, 1pm (UK time)
With all due respect to Russia and Saudi Arabia (the amount due being ‘not very much’) this is the game to properly kickstart the World Cup. After a pair of the tournament’s worst teams trip over confetti from the opening ceremony, Day Two opens with a clash that features not just stars – Mo Salah (we hope), Luis Suarez, Edinson Cavani – but stories.
Oscar Tabarez is one of the most important figures in Uruguayan football history, despite never playing for the national team. He coached La Celeste on previous occasions and has now been their manager continuously for over 12 years, encompassing more games than any other manager has ever overseen with one national team. In that time he’s taken them to a World Cup semi-final, won the Copa America and shaped a generation of footballing talent. Now El Maestro is finally preparing to step down, having somehow carried on his good work while battling Guillain-Barré Syndrome for two years; a muscular disorder which has forced the 71-year-old to use crutches or a wheelchair.
Egypt, meanwhile, have been one of African football’s dominant forces over the past 25 years and yet haven’t played at a World Cup since 1990. Inspired by Salah’s rise, the entire country has been whipped into a frenzy of excitement, and their opening match should see a serious outpouring of emotion among fans and players alike.
Plus, if captain Essam El-Hadary gets on the pitch (and he did play in most of Egypt’s qualifying games), then the 45-year-old goalkeeper will set a new record as the oldest player in World Cup history.
Portugal vs Spain
As well as Egypt vs Uruguay, the World Cup’s first full day of action offers one of the group stage’s few genuinely star-studded contests.
It’s Friday night football and it’s the reigning European champions taking on the 2010 world champions in Sochi’s Fisht Stadium, only the second venue in history to host a World Cup match and the Winter Olympics (the other being Turin’s Stadio Olimpico).
Keep that inevitable hangover within reasonable limits, however, because the following day has four fixtures and an early start. Yep, June 15 is a good day for a sickie. We feel bad for not mentioning Morocco vs Iran at 4pm now. Power nap?
Argentina vs Iceland
Saturday 16 June,2pm
This tantalising tie follows France vs Australia at 11am on a special day of four games being played back-to-back-to-back-to-back. It precedes the ‘iconic kit derby’ of Peru vs Denmark and then Croatia vs Nigeria, when you’re good and drunk. If you’re not at an all-day barbecue on this Saturday, you’re doing the World Cup wrong.
Iceland’s stellar performance in the European Championship and impressive qualification for this tournament (they topped a group of six that featured four teams who’d qualified for Euro 2016) means that no media outlets should treat this match-up as a ‘Leo Messi taking on some Sunday League fishermen’ novelty. Plenty of them still will, of course.
This should be a corker. Argentina are overwhelming favourites and yet so vulnerable, having required a Messi hat-trick on the final day of qualifying to get here. Iceland are very capable and yet have a defence made up of players from the Championship, Scotland, Denmark and Iceland itself. But then, Argentina have Messi, Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain and Paulo Dybala, and yet somehow scored the second-fewest goals in South American qualifying (three more than Bolivia).
In short: anything could happen.
Belgium vs Panama
This is a chance for England fans to see what future opponents Panama are all about, a couple of hours before the Three Lions kick off their own campaign against Tunisia, but it’s also – on paper – one of the World Cup’s biggest mismatches. Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku & Co. will do battle with a nation attending its first ever World Cup, and who just lost 6-0 to Switzerland.
Panama are here on merit, though, and this is their first opportunity to prove that… or become the first team to lose a World Cup finals match by 10 or more goals.
Germany vs Sweden
This should make for a lovely little Saturday night. Germany are the holders and joint-favourites with Brazil, but it would be a mistake to write off the Swedes, even after a pair of poor results in recent friendlies.
Janne Andersson’s men qualified impressively, knocking out Italy and the Dutch, beating France and racking up 26 goals in their 10 games. If anything they look freed by the international retirement of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and Leipzig’s Emil Forsberg is well set for a summer that could raise his transfer fee even higher.
Sweden could spring a surprise or two in Russia, or at least prevent group rivals Mexico from making it seven last 16 exits in a row. A point against Germany would help matters.
Denmark vs France
It’s not unlikely that this Group C showdown will see two teams on six points going head-to-head for first place, following victories over Peru and Australia. That would put the pressure squarely on France’s shoulders, with Argentina the likely opposition for whoever finishes second.
Denmark’s resurgence has seen them named in some circles as the World Cup’s dark horses, and they should at least be in a position to go into this encounter brimming with confidence. France, meanwhile, need to find the mental fortitude to get over losing a European Championship final on home soil, although on the plus side, they could have picked two 23-man squads and still left out some serious talent.
Hey, do you want to hear something terrifying? Paul Pogba, Kylian Mbappe, Raphael Varane, Thomas Lemar, Nabil Fekir, Ousmane Dembele, Samuel Umtiti, Kingsley Coman, Adrien Rabiot, Benjamin Mendy, Djibril Sidibe, Corentin Tolisso, Alphonse Areola and Anthony Martial are all aged 25 or under. They’re not going anywhere.
Senegal vs Colombia
Group H looks like being the closest, featuring no truly big sides but four teams capable of reaching the knockouts: Poland, Colombia, Senegal and Japan.
That means it could all come down to the final round of fixtures. With an unsettled Japan side looking likeliest to finish fourth, Senegal vs Colombia – starring Sadio Mané, Keita Baldé and the revitalised duo of James Rodriguez and Radamel Falcao – could be a straight mano-a-mano fight for progression. Winner plays England! Or possibly Belgium!
England vs Belgium
In theory, a Premier League-powered battle to finish off Group G and decide who tops it between the two favourites to qualify. It could feature such cross-club battles as Harry Kane against Jan Vertonghen, and Toby Alderweireld or Kevin De Bruyne marauding forward to face Kyle Walker and John Stones. But a word of warning: by this stage in 2014, the brave and heroic Three Lions were already unable to qualify for the knockout stage having failed to win either of their first two matches.
Well, there’s always Panama vs Tunisia on the other side.
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