The 2018 World Cup got underway on June 14th when tournament-hosts Russia thrashed Saudi Arabia to the tune of 5-0 soon after the opening ceremony and as ever there have been some intriguing fixtures in the group stages of the competition with Portugal v Spain, England v Belgium and Argentina v Iceland providing plenty in the form of entertainment thus far.
The group stages involve all 32 teams which made it through the qualifying rounds and these have been divided into eight groups of four. The draw for the groups took place in December 2017 and this stage of the competition will last for two weeks with the final match taking place on Thursday June 28th.
Teams: Russia, Uruguay, Egypt, Saudi Arabia
This group may not attract the most attention, however it has thrown up some pretty intriguing fixtures nevertheless. Hosts Russia opened the tournament with a 5-0 win over Saudi Arabia and the action continued the following day when Egypt lost 1-0 Uruguay. Mohamed Salah will be attracting plenty of attention as the Liverpool player looks to send his nation past the group stages, however Uruguay are favourites to finish top of the pile. The big question is, can hosts Russia remain in pole position when the group stage comes to an end? Saudi Arabia have little expectation placed upon them and it would be a huge shock were they to make it into the knockout stage, especially so following their hammering on Day One.
Teams: Spain, Portugal, Iran, Morocco
When the World Cup draw was made in December, Group B instantly stood out from the crowd with the pairing of neighbours Portugal and Spain alongside Iran and Morocco. Both of the Iberian nations are expected to fill the top-two spaces when the group phase comes to an end and they provided us with a thriller when they shared six goals in their meeting on Day Two of the tournament. Few are giving Morocco and Iran much of a chance of progressing in the tournament although Iran gave a decent account of themselves in their meeting with Morocco.
Spain v Morocco – Monday June 25th
Iran v Portugal – Monday 25th June
Teams: France, Denmark, Peru, Australia
France head into this World Cup as firm favourites to win their group and are fancied to go all the way in the tournament. Coach Didier Deschamps will have been delighted when the draw was made back in December and the sheer quality of the French squad makes it very easy to see why they are looked upon as realistic potential winners of the competition. Australia appear in their fourth consecutive World Cup although they have arguably their weakest squad for many a year. Peru finished fifth in their South American qualifying group to reach the finals for the first time since 1982 and they are also joined in Group C by a Denmark side which many are predicting will be dark horses at the competition having avoided defeat in their last nine competitive outings.
Denmark v France – Tuesday June 26th
Australia v Peru – Tuesday June 26th
Teams: Argentina, Nigeria, Croatia, Iceland
This is possibly the most intriguing group in the competition given that realistically all four sides stand some chance of making it through to the knockout stages. Argentina are firm favourites to progress and this is hardly a surprise given the quality in their ranks, especially up front where they can call upon Lionel Messi to produce the goods, however they were unable to grab themselves three points in their opening match against Iceland. The Scandinavians were very much the surprise package in the 2016 European Championships and they were equally impressive in their World Cup qualifying campaign although they will be in for a tough battle for a top-two position by a Croatia side which is arguably the second strongest side in Group D. Nigeria make up the group and they are appearing in their third successive World Cup, the Africans also in with a chance of making it into the last sixteen.
Nigeria v Argentina – Tuesday June 26th
Iceland v Croatia – Tuesday June 26th
Teams: Brazil, Serbia, Costa Rica, Switzerland
All eyes will be on World Cup favourites Brazil as they look to atone for their 7-1 thrashing to Germany in the 2014 tournament and the South Americans will be desperately hoping that Neymar can return to full fitness in time for their opening match. Switzerland managed to overcome Northern Ireland in the qualifying play-offs and they will be a tough nut for any team to crack given that they won all-but-one of their ten qualifying matches. Costa Rica aren’t expected to feature in the running for a top-two berth although this was also the case in 2014 and they finished atop a group which contained the likes of Italy, England and Uruguay. Serbia battled through their qualifying campaign to finish top of their group and this is their first major international tournament appearance since 2010, however we don’t fancy the chances of their ageing squad progressing in the competition.
Serbia v Brazil – Wednesday June 27th
Switzerland v Costa Rica – Wednesday June 27th
Teams: Germany, Sweden, Mexico, South Korea
In many respects the race for top spot in Group F appears to be cut and dry and there is little doubt that reigning world champions Germany will make it through to the last sixteen as they look to successfully defend their world title. The Germans have a wealth of experience on the international stage with appearances in or after the semi-final stages of the last six major international competitions that they have appeared in, this culminating in their triumph in Brazil four years ago. Nevertheless they suffered a surprise defeat to Mexico in their opening match and they really do need to pull their socks up over the next couple of weeks. From there, it really is anyone’s guess as to who will join Joachim Low’s men in the last sixteen, Mexico having a decent chance to progress in the competition having suffered just a single defeat in their qualifying campaign. Sweden are still a decent side despite the retirement of Ibrahimovic two years ago while South Korea can beat anyone on their day and they will feel that they have what it takes to stake a claim to one of the top two berths in the group.
South Korea v Germany – Saturday June 23rd
Mexico v Sweden – Wednesday June 27th
Teams: England, Belgium, Panama, Tunisia
Supporters of both England and Belgium must feel that they really have hit the jackpot having been drawn in a group also containing Tunisia and Panama. Belgium were involved in the last two major international competitions and their ‘Golden Generation’ of players will be looking forward to impressing in Russia over the coming weeks. Romelu Lukaku, Eden Hazard and Kevin de Bruyne are players which can really make their mark in the World Cup and this will be of concern to England who will also be looking to finish top of the pile in Group G. Gareth Southgate has certainly brought a somewhat refreshing feel to the Three Lions although whether or not they have the ability to go all the way remains to be seen. Indeed much hope will be placed on Harry Kane and should he and his fellow forwards find form at the right time, then they might progress to the later stages of the tournament. Tunisia and Panama are hardly fancied to cause too many problems for the Three Lions or the Red Devils and many feel that they are really there just to make up the numbers. If only it were that simple!
England v Belgium – Thursday June 28th
Panama v Tunisia – Thursday June 28th
Teams: Poland, Japan, Colombia, Senegal
This is another group in which there is no obvious contender for a top-two finish. Each side has an outstanding player with Robert Lewandowski (Poland), Shinji Kagawa (Japan), James Rodriguez (Colombia) and Sadio Mane (Senegal) hoping to do the business for their respective nations. Poland have to be fancied really given that they enjoyed an excellent qualifying campaign with eight wins in their ten outings. Nevertheless they will be in for a tough battle by a Colombia side which were arguably the most entertaining side at the 2014 World Cup and the South Americans will be confident of emulating their attractive style when they take to the big stage once again over the coming weeks. Senegal are appearing in their first World Cup since 2002 and they are joined in Group H by a Japan side which failed to make it past the group stage of the competition in 2014.
Japan v Poland – Thursday June 28th
Senegal v Colombia – Thursday June 28th