World Cup group games
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
After Russia and Saudi Arabia trip over confetti from the opening ceremony, Day Two opens with a clash that features not just stars – Mo Salah, 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.
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.
Portugal vs Spain
Friday June 15, 7pm
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). Whoever emerges victorious here will fancy their chances of topping Group B and, theoretically at least, earning a more straightforward tie in the last 16.
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 June 16, 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. Iceland’s stellar performance at Euro 2016 and impressive qualification for this tournament means no media outlets should treat this match-up as a ‘Leo Messi taking on some Sunday League fishermen’ novelty.
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. In short: anything could happen.
Belgium vs Panama
Monday June 18, 4pm
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. 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. Alternatively, they could become the first team to lose a World Cup game by 10 goals or more.
Germany vs Sweden
Saturday June 23, 7pm
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, so the Germans must avoid complacency here.
Denmark vs France
Tuesday June 26, 3pm
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 pick two 23-man squads and they’d still have to leave out some serious talent.
Senegal vs Colombia
Thursday June 28, 3pm
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. The winner could play England (or Belgium).
England vs Belgium
Thursday June 28, 7pm
In theory, a Premier League-powered battle to finish off Group G and decide who tops it between the two favourites to qualify. This could feature such cross-club battles as Harry Kane against Jan Vertonghen, Eden Hazard vs Gary Cahill or Kevin De Bruyne vs Kyle Walker.
But a word of warning: by this stage in 2014, the brave and heroic Three Lions were already packing their bags, while Belgium may have been undone by their mystifying lack of decent full-backs or wingbacks. Well, there’s always Panama vs Tunisia on the other side.
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