It all begins at the 81,000 capacity Luzhniki Stadium on the 14th of June. The biggest showing of global football talent will be subjected to their first hurdles. 32 go in but only 16 will survive. The draws that were made in December are finally moving from paper to reality as teams drawn together finally come face to face with the prospect of playing each other. Here, we look athe each group and the prospects of qualification of each team
Russia kicks off proceedings against Saudi Arabia in Group A, as the hosts seek to gain early momentum against the perceived weakest team in the group. Expect Saudi Arabia to prove they are no pushovers, however, trained by Copa America Centenario winner Juan Antonio Pizzi, they could prove a tough nut to crack and if forward Mohammad Al Sahlawi who has 29 goals in 38 international caps is on form, he could cause major problems for Russia. The other match in the first round of group matches is between Egypt who might be without the injured Mohamed Salah but have a potential World Cup record breaker in goalkeeper Essam El Hadary who could become the oldest player ever at a World Cup if he takes to the pitch exactly 5 months after his 45th birthday and Uruguay who finished second in the CONMEBOL qualifiers. The group favourites square up in the Central Stadium, Yekaterinburg the day after Russia’s opener against Saudi Arabia.
The Republic of Mo Salah will then lock horns with Russia as Fyodor Smolov, Alan Dzagoev and co aim to become the first independent Russian team to play in the World Cup knockout stages. Saudi Arabia’s second game is against Uruguay and they could also make World Cup history if they win a game at the Mundial becoming the first Saudi team to win at the World Cup since 1998 when they debuted.
The Pharaohs will be hoping qualification is already secure by the time they face Saudi Arabia in the final group game on the 25th if June. Uruguay whose forwards have amassed a whopping 109 club goals in the 2017/2018 season amongst the 4 of them will round off the group fixtures against Russia on the same day.
Iberian brothers Spain and Portugal are at loggerheads in Group B. With both expected to qualify easily. But first, they’ll have to face each other in the group’s opener. Spain who has become notorious for opening day losses (98, 2010 and 2014) will need to buck the trend if they aim to win the group or even qualify. On the same day, Morocco takes on Iran in what on paper looks like an intense battle for 3rd place but in reality could be the springboard for a shock qualifier from Group B.
A favourable result for the Atlas Lions against Iran would set them up well to face Portugal in their second group game and Herve Renard’s men will need all the defensive resolve that saw them concede a mind-boggling 0 goals in the group stage of the CAF World Cup qualifiers when they face Cristiano Ronaldo and co in their second group game while Spain take on Iran who will be hoping Alireza Jahanbakhsh retains the form that saw him crowned Eredivisie top scorer in the 2017/2018 season becoming the first ever Asian player to do so.
Spain has a plethora of talent so huge that a team formed from the players that didn’t make the 23 man squad for Russia could still compete well at this level of football, so it would be seen as a disappointment back home if they haven’t already qualified by the time they play Morocco in their final group game. If they haven’t done it by then, you can put your money on Mehdi Benatia and the rest of the Atlas Lions to give them a very difficult game. 2016 Euros winners, Portugal will also have such expectations on their shoulders when they face Iran in their final group game as they look to pick up from where they left off two years ago in France, even though it should be noted that they have failed to go beyond the group stage in two of their last 4 World Cup outings.
With a possible knotty tie against the best team from Group D, France will have finishing top of their group at the back of their mind when they play their first game against the Socceroos from Australia. Griezmann, Pogba, and co looked the real deal in 2014 before being knocked out by eventual Champions Germany through a Mats Hummels header which has since been avenged by Les Bleus. Denmark and Peru who are on the opposite sides of the missing star striker coin will do battle in the second group game. Denmark lost striker Nicklas Bendtner to injury just days to the announcement of the World Cup squads while Peru regained the services of their Captain, leader, and legend for World Cup after his appeal against a doping charge was approved in the CAS.
Australia were eliminated in 2014 after losing all three matches conceding 3 goals in each match but will be hoping to take home more than just a Tim Cahill highlight this year even though the 38-year-old is set to take part in his 4th World Cup with the Socceroos in Russia. Their second game pits them against Denmark who qualified after roundly beating Ireland in the European Qualifier playoffs thanks to a sublime hat-trick by Tottenham superstar Christian Eriksen. France, of course, will be up against Los Incas of Peru aiming to get one over a South American team for the first time since 2006 when they beat Brazil en route to the final.
Australia and their final group opponents Peru have in common the fact they both narrowly reached the World Cup in Russia. Australia went through two playoffs against Syria and Honduras while Peru survived final day drama in the CONMEBOL region finishing in the last qualification spot before beating New Zealand in the international playoffs. They’ll both be happy to squeeze into the next round too, with only one successful group stage navigation between the two this century. The last time France and Denmark met at the World Cup, a 0-0 draw in the last group game sent France home early and Denmark into the second round. Dejavu?
The proverbial group of death features Argentina vs Nigeria for an incredible 5th time in the World Cup group stages. They don’t meet until the third group game though. First, Argentina have to navigate the warriors of Iceland. The Vikings caused an upset when they announced themselves to the World knocking out England in their debut at the Euros in 2016. Nigeria, however, opens their campaign against Croatia who have the likes of Champions league 3-peat Champions, Luka Modric, and Mateo Kovacic in their ranks. If the Super Eagles are to reach the second round again, it’s important that they get off to a good start.
If they don’t, they’ll have to contend with the Vikings of Iceland in their second game and it’s going to be a hard ask if Nigeria are in a ‘must win’ situation. Argentina’s second game is against Croatia reuniting Barcelona teammates Lionel Messi and Ivan Rakitic. The Albiceleste desperately want to win the World Cup and they will need to beat Croatia if they are serious about their ambitions.
Along with the Nigeria-Argentina showdown in the final round of matches is the all European tie of Croatia vs Iceland. Iceland, of course, will be relying on team spirit and Gylfi Sigurdsson if they are to replicate their Euros achievement in the World Stage.
Neymar’s quest to write his name among the Brazilian legends kicks off again in Russia when Brazil play their first group match against Switzerland. Tite’s boys are in fine form after topping the CONMEBOL sequence and are among the favourites for the title. They open their campaign against the Swiss who have often flattered to deceive at tournaments. The other group opener sees Serbia take on Costa Rica who were the surprise package of the 2014 World Cup with most of the players who experienced it still in the squad including Real Madrid’s Keylor Navas who was one of the standout goalkeepers as they reached the quarterfinals.
Xherdan Shaqiri and co will then face Serbia as the latest generation of Serbs aim to make it out of the group phase for the first time since they split from Yugoslavia. Manchester United midfielder, Nemanja Matic and transfer target, Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, join former Manchester City defender, Alexander Kolarov as the big wigs on the Serbian team who finished top of their qualification group.
Switzerland take on Costa Rica who qualified for Russia comfortably finishing second in the CONCACAF region qualifiers in their final group game and at the same time Brazil play against Serbia. They should ideally have qualified by then or they will have problems against a very compact Serbian side with a midfield capable of stifling some of the best midfielders around.
Germany kicks off their title defense in a relatively easy group but it just makes the prospect of an upset for the 4-time Champions even sweeter. Their opening game is against Mexico whom they thrashed in on their way to Confederations cup victory just last year. Mexico will be looking for more than just revenge on their minds, they will be hoping they can continue the proud tradition of qualifying for consecutive knockout rounds, 2014 being their 6th. Sweden also take on South Korea in Group F. The Swedes’ whose dramatic qualification for the World Cup was the talk of the town and they will need to prove that halting Italy’s progress to the World Cup was no fluke and they need the perfect start against AFC cup finalist South Korea.
After South Korea, Sweden face Germany in what could be seen as a potential decider for who tops the group as Joachim Low aims to become only the second manager to win consecutive World Cups. Tottenham’s Son Heung-Min leads the Korean charge as the 2002 semi-finalists take on Mexico in their second game. México have an experienced squad with 16 of their 23 players over the age of 28 including 39-year-old Rafa Márquez who will be playing in his 5th World Cup equaling a record held by German great Lothar Matthäus.
Germany’s last match of the round is against Korea in a repeat of the 2002 World Cup semi-final where Germany won by a lone goal to halt the co-hosts charge to The trophy. It will be hard to see the Koreans take revenge on open of the strongest German teams in recent history though but we do love upsets don’t we? Sweden vs Mexico hasn’t happened at the World Cup since 1958 but it will still be interesting to see how the flair of the Mexicans fares against the ice cold composure of their European opponents.
Group G seems like an easy group to call, Belgium and England through, with the only problem who might finish in first or second. But football is rarely so straightforward. England start their campaign against Tunisia who happen to be the last African side they beat at a World Cup. They beat the Carthage Eagles in 1998 and have been unable to crack a team from the continent since. Drawing against both Nigeria and Algeria in subsequent World Cups. Belgium’s first game is against debutants Panama who waited until the last minute of the last day of qualifiers to break American hearts and book their place in Russia. The Belgians have no such trouble as they qualified with games to spare in what was a dominant performance by Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku, and co.
Their second game is against England in what should have a very familiar feel for both sides with 12 of Belgium’s 23 man squad plying their trade in the English Premier League. Will Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen share trade secrets with their international teammates about how to stop Harry Kane and Dele Alli? We can only wait and see.
Tunisia and Panama do not have as many international superstars as Belgium and England, but if one of them is to cause a major stir in Russia, this is a match that they must win. No questions.
Most people expect that Panama’s World Cup adventure would have ended by the time they face England in the last group game, but if England’s last meeting with a team from The Americas is anything to go by, it could be a long night for them. Their draw against Costa Rica in 2014 all but ensured they finished with their worst World Cup result for 20 years and granted the Americans safe passage to the next phase. Boy would Panama love a repeat of that in their first World Cup. Belgium also close out their group phase fixtures against Tunisia. The group favourites should be aiming for 9 points and it is hard to see Tunisia standing in their way.
The last group but by no means the least. This group features a strong side each from Africa, Europe, Asia and South America. The opening group fixture between Colombia and Japan is a repeat of their final group fixture from 2014 when James Rodriguez and his band of literally merry men danced to a 4-1 win over the Blue Samurais. This year should be tighter though, or at least the Japanese will hope it will be. Poland’s Lewandowski finished with 16 goals during the European qualifiers and was outscored by nobody as Poland easily qualified from their group. They will be hoping he can replicate this form when they start their World Cup campaign against Senegal in Group H.
Senegal’s Sadio Mane fresh from 10 goals in the Champions League in the 2017/2018 season may be without the other members of Liverpool’s famous front 3 but will still be a handful for Japan’s defense in their second group game. The Japanese team featuring the likes of Borussia Dortmund’s Shinji Kagawa and former Milan midfielder, Keisuke Honda, are due a Round of 16 berth based on their pattern of Group stage exits followed by Round of 16 qualifications since 1998. Poland for all their enterprise haven’t been beyond the World Cup group stages since their hay days in the 80’s but there’s palpable optimism that this could finally be their year to make a statement the Mundial but Colombia who they face in their second group game will present a real test for that optimism as Falcao and co aim to replicate or do better than their 2014 quarterfinal finish.
Colombia’s final group match will be against the Teranga Lions of Senegal who are making their first appearance at the World Cup since they astounded the world in 2002 beating reigning World and European Champions, France on their way to become the first African team to reach the quarterfinals of the World Cup. With the captain of that team, Aliou Cisse now Head Coach of Senegal, it’s not too far-fetched that he could inspire them to something great in Russia. Poland and Japan round off the matches in what is not a much-discussed group but has a dynamic that could make it one of the most interesting at the Mundial.
Article By: Ayoola Kelechi