There’s going to be 64 games of international football between now and the World Cup Final on Sunday June 15th. That’s nearly 6,000 minutes of sporting goodness to wallow around in. And while the quality of football should only improve as the tournament goes on, we’re currently focusing our excitement around the first round of group games.
They’ll be 16 games between Thursday June 14th and Tuesday the 19th. Some real crackers and some slightly less worth skiving work for – but hey… You never know. Sweden vs. South Korea might be a filthy 5-5. So maybe it’s worth signing yourself off sick for the next week, at least. If you don’t, you’ll find yourself missing a few of these:
Handed a rather kind group, the hosts Russia can’t blame anyone but themselves if they can’t wriggle out of it. Finishing top is unlikely, but second place is surely in their sights. Though we can see them tripping up. Just not quite yet.
Russia vs. Saudi Arabia: Thursday 14th @ 4pm
We kick the thing with probably the most underwhelming game of the entire tournament. Both sides here are pretty poor. Saudi Arabia’s defensive style doesn’t make for fun viewing and the while bookies have made the Golovin and Dzagoev-inspired Russia – with home advantage – heavy favorites, don’t be fooled. This is the worst Russia side for some years. The hosts should squeak through this opener, but don’t expect much in the way of fun as they do so.
Our prediction: 1-0 Russia
Egypt vs. Uruguay: Friday 15th @ 1pm
This was supposed to be Salah vs. Suarez. But Big Mo’s Champions League final injury will see him missing their opening fixture. Luckily it’s against the group’s strongest nation and a defeat still leaves two winnable games for the Pharaohs to try and win should the Liverpool man return to fitness.
Our prediction: 2-0 Uruguay
Group B has perhaps the stand-out tie of the groups and what’s more… We only have to wait a day for it.
Morocco vs. Iran: Friday 15th @ 4pm
Not exactly a headline game, this showdown won’t excite or thrill many, we shouldn’t imagine. Carlos Queiroz’s Iran are no mugs, but organisation isn’t always enough at this level and Morocco could surprise a few people. Ajax’s Hakim Ziyech especially.
Our prediction: 1-0 Morocco
Portugal vs. Spain: Friday 15th @ 7pm
The pick of the opening fixtures, it’s battles like this that make the World Cup the sporting showpiece it is. That said, we don’t expect many teams to go full throttle in their opening games, so this could be a close and nervy affair.
Our prediction: 1-0 Spain
France will fancy easing past the other nations in their group. But don’t underestimate the ability of Christian Eriksen to drag Denmark through games or the Peru front line to bully their way onto the scoresheet. And definitely don’t overestimate the slightly iffy back line of the French.
France vs. Australia: Saturday 16th @ 11am
Les Bleus are no doubt looking forward to getting off to a flying start. While Didier Deschamps tends to play a little more defensively than some French fans would like, you’ve got to imagine this opening fixture should be easy enough. Australia offer little in attack and aren’t exactly resolute at the back against teams of real quality, either.
Our prediction: 3-0 France
Peru vs. Denmark: Saturday 16th @ 5pm
Few people outside of South America know quite how free flowing and dangerous Peru have become lately. So it’s possible that the Danes could come unstuck here. Especially given their almost total reliance on Spurs playmaker Eriksen to tick.
Our prediction: 2-1 Peru
Argentina go in as quite heavy favorites to dominate this group, but falteringly form, an always well-drilled Croatia and two wildcard ‘lesser’ teams that are both more than capable of springing a surprise could upset Messi & Co.
Argentina vs. Iceland: Saturday 16th @ 2pm
We all know that the hipsters’ choice, with their rhythmic clapping and big ol’ beards are capable of results. Just ask Roy Hodgson. So they’ll not be pushovers and will fancy staking an early claim and nicking a point here. They’re capable of it too. Especially given Argentina’s unconvincing form of late. Still, with the embarrassment of riches that the South Americans have (including a certain Lionel Messi to call upon), it’s tricky to look beyond them here.
Our prediction: 2-1 Argentina
Croatia vs. Nigeria: Saturday 16th @ 8pm
Nigeria looked okay against England the other weekend, but we didn’t see much to make us think they could get out of their tricky group. And Croatia, we fancy, could go quite deep into the tournament. So we’re going for a pretty comfortable win here.
Our prediction: 3-0 Croatia
Serbia, Switzerland and Costa Rica will all rate their chances of progressing from Group E. And, realistically, they all could. Not all of them, of course. One of them could. Alongside Brazil. Only if the Seleção can’t ease past these three, well… Football is broken.
Costa Rica vs. Serbia: Sunday 17th @ 1pm
Both sides here will need to win to realistically progress to the knockout stages. Neither are likely to beat Brazil and while points are a possibility against the Swiss, this game is a must win. Both have talent in the starting XI and both are capable of conceding goals (especially now Serbia are missing their rock at the back, Matija Nastasić). We smell goals.
Our prediction: 2-2
Brazil vs. Switzerland: Sunday 17th @ 7pm
Switzerland’s rear guard is pretty stingy, but they’ll have their work cut out here against Tite’s men. Their striking options are limited too, so we’d be surprised to see them breach the Brazilian rearguard. This is all about how well the Swiss can defend. And we’re going to say, ‘fairly well, but not quite well enough…’
Our prediction: 2-0 Brazil
Germany and Mexico will back themselves to play their way out of this group fairly comfortably and we’re imagining the other two nations involved here will be fighting it out for pride. Unless we’re wrong. Which, to be fair, is entirely possible.
Germany vs. Mexico: Sunday 17th @ 4pm
It’s never wise to talk Germany down on the eve of a World Cup, they thrive on it. Well, actually, they just thrive on World Cups. But as decent as they are, we’re not buying into all this, ‘they have three starting elevens’ nonsense. The first team has its weaknesses (left back in particular). So while we see them easing through the groups, we can’t see them winning it overall. We fancy that Mexico might catch them on the hop here.
Our prediction: 1-1
Sweden vs. South Korea: Monday 18th @ 1pm
Game of the tournament, no question.
Our prediction: 5-5
If there’s a group where we can’t see a surprise being sprung, it’s this one. Which is handy, given it’s got England in it. Perhaps we’re being a little over confident, but we can see the Three Lions sailing through and finishing top. But then we would. Still, we’d take second, eh?
Belgium vs. Panama: Monday 18th @ 4pm
Belgium quite often flatter to deceive and we’re not convinced that Roberto Martinez’s stewardship will do anything to change that, but they’d do well to conspire to drop points against a pretty ropy Panama side.
Our prediction: 2-0
England vs. Tunisia: Monday 18th @ 7pm
Tunisia are no pushovers but they shouldn’t present Gareth Southgate’s men with anything other than slight frustration if we’ve not scored before the hour mark. But the squad, while young, are very professional. They’ll keep at it and notch a couple of late strikes to seal the three points.
Our prediction: 2-0
Finally, Group H offers up the most unpredictable three rounds of games. Who could confidently tell you how this one’s going to go? Four countries from four different continents, with four different playing styles. We’re backing Senegal and Poland to pip Colombia into third and Japan to finish bottom, but whatever happens – we’re sure this will be an entertaining group to watch.
Colombia vs. Japan: Tuesday 19th @ 1pm
Japan look like being perhaps the weakest team in the tournament. They’ve never disgraced themseves totally before and we doubt they will again, but we can’t see them getting much out of the fabulously-shirted Colombians.
Our prediction: 2-0
Poland vs. Senegal: Tuesday 19th @ 4pm
For us, these two will qualify and one of them will have the pleasure of losing to England in the Round of 16 game. Which? Well, we’ll see. But for their opener, we think a feisty and tight affair will end in a stalemate.
Our prediction: 1-1
For the best atmosphere, great drinks and snack deals and somewhere to play a little pool after the game, head down to your local Rileys for the first round of group games. You can even book the best seats in the house…